By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
There is much to celebrate about the unexpected announcement of the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, at least in terms of the timing.
The rejection of Israel as an integral part of the Middle East is no longer a realistic proposition, and is a view now held by only a small minority in the region. After all, the two countries with which Israel shares the longest stretches of its border, Egypt and Jordan, have already signed peace agreements with it, in 1979 and 1994 respectively.
In addition, the level of unofficial engagement by Israel with Gulf countries on an array of issues, from security and counter-terrorism to trade and technology, has increased considerably in recent years. This has become one of the region’s worst-kept secrets, mainly because those agreements have developed organically. In the current climate in the region, closer relations are a recognition of the fact that Israel and Gulf states have a number of common objectives, including regional stability and prosperity for their people, and that they equally face strategic threats originating mainly from Iran and extremism.
Although some of the hype surrounding the normalization agreement has described it as a peace agreement, Israel and the UAE have never been in a state of war with one another. By the time the UAE became independent in 1971, Israel had existed as an independent state for more than 20 years and, as such, there has never been a history of hostilities between the two nations — who do not share a border and are more than 1,500 miles apart.
On the other hand, the UAE’s solidarity with Arab countries that have been at war with Israel, and its sympathy with the plight of the Palestinian people living under oppressive Israeli occupation or forced to become refugees, dictated the absence of any official recognition and traditional diplomatic relations.
In recent times, however, conditions in the region have changed. A new generation has emerged and, with not only Egypt and Jordan signing peace agreements with Israel but also the Palestinians entering into a protracted, albeit unsuccessful, peace process with the Israelis and closely cooperating with them on security matters, the rationale for the avoidance of closer relations between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Israel has gradually eroded.
Yet there is a real danger that this development might lead to the marginalization of the Palestinian issue or, worse, to it being neglected altogether. Alternatively, one might hope that this change in the relationship between Israel and the UAE, a lead that could well be followed by other Gulf states, will create new opportunities if the Palestinians and, especially, Israel are prepared to take them.
While it is understandable that the Palestinians would be angry at an Arab country normalizing relations with Israel before there is a fair and just solution to their predicament, the UAE–Israel agreement could, and should, serve as a wake-up call for Palestinians that it is time for them to review and adapt their own strategy.
While much sympathy and empathy remains throughout the Arab world for the plight of the Palestinians, it is no longer an overriding factor in relations between GCC countries and Israel. It is not only the cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities that has legitimized and served as a catalyst for the evolving relations between the GCC and Israel, but also a growing concern that the stalled peace agreement should not impede essential cooperation on, for example, containing the threat from Iran and its regional allies or other security challenges, and on developing trade, tourism and scientific opportunities.
The Palestinian leadership should also see the bold move by the UAE as a signal that they should get their act together and unite their various factions with a common purpose. The deteriorating relations between Gaza and the West Bank, evidenced by the venomous animosity between Fatah and Hamas, is a source of exasperation for the Arab world, especially in the Gulf, and has consequently pushed Israeli-Palestinian relations further down the list of priorities.
Yet the UAE’s normalization with Israel represents a departure from the 2002 peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, and adopted by the Arab League in the Beirut Declaration. It stated that “Israel’s acceptance of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital” in return would result in “the establishment of normal relations in the context of a comprehensive peace with Israel.”
The question that remains is whether we now have two different paradigms running in parallel, or a strategic rethinking of priorities whereby the UAE is leading the way for others to follow.
In other words, will other countries stick to the aims of the Beirut Declaration and not follow suit? Or will they choose to prioritize improved relations with Israel over the Palestinian cause, calculating that normalized relations will give them more leverage to persuade Israel to enter a genuine peace process?
Some might argue that instant evidence for the latter can be found in the fact that as part of its agreement with the UAE, Israel has abandoned its reckless plan to annex large swathes of land in the occupied West Bank.
This is a problematic argument, as it represents a further case in which a foreign country is preventing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from inflicting self-harm as well as harm to the Palestinians and the chances of peace with them. As much as one should welcome the removal of annexation from the agenda, it also leaves a bitter taste because it rewards Israel simply for agreeing not to violate international law, as it had been planning.
There is also a tangible risk that the current Israeli government might reach the opposite conclusion: that improved relations with other states in the Middle East are not dependent on ending the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza. As other countries establish normal bilateral relations, might Israeli authorities feel they can act with impunity in ways that further threaten the hopes for peace?
Should this happen, it might be left to the Israeli electorate to realize what their government so intransigently refuses to see in the changing landscape of Israel’s geostrategic position in the region, as epitomized by the UAE normalization agreement, and at the next opportunity vote in a government that seeks genuine peace and integration in the region.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg