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In Israel, No Rejoicing over Agreements with UAE, Bahrain and Sudan

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Anti-government protesters clash with police during a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 24, 2020. Photo: Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

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The agreements recently signed by Israel with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and also Sudan mark an achievement long sought by Israel: acceptance of Israel and the normal relations offered by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), without having to abide by the conditions stated in the API, namely the creation of an independent state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and resolution of other issues in the conflict such as the refugee issues.

Indeed Prime Minister Netanyahu presented the agreements as what he termed proof that Israel could have peace without giving anything in return – “peace for peace” he called it, instead of “territory for peace” deemed the formula by past Israeli leaders and the world at large.

Thus, now, Israel could gain the long sought legitimacy among Arab countries in the region, despite the continued occupation of Palestinian territory and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. What the Arab League had hoped would provide incentive for Israel to adopt the path of peace was, has, in effect, been thrown away. Israel is getting what it wanted and continues to hold onto the occupied territories.

Of course, the writing had long been on the wall. For over a decade, Israel had been conducting unofficial relations with these and other Gulf states, despite the ostensible commitment of these countries to the Palestinian cause and the API. The underlying interest of these states has presumably been a mutual interest with Israel to curb Iran’s aggressive aspirations – an interest that probably led to shared intelligence and security measures.

In addition to economic benefits that might accrue to both Israel and these states, other interests lay with the Americans – the possibility for the UAE, for example, to purchase advanced American aircraft, or Sudan’s removal from the list of states supporting terrorism.

It is most likely that the ongoing, behind the scenes cooperation was made open and official at this time in order to serve the reelection campaign of President Trump, the midwife of the agreements, and also to shore up Netanyahu’s standing in Israel despite (or to distract from) the indictments he is facing for corruption, accompanied as they are by country-wide demonstrations against his continued leadership.

For the Arab public, it was claimed by UAE that Netanyahu gave up his bid to formally annex the West Bank – a bid that Netanyahu had already found increasingly problematic to imple-ment because of domestic and international opposition. Still, the Israeli leader immediately clarified that official annexation was only being postponed; it would still occur at some point.

However, unofficial annexation had been going on for years in the form of land expropriation and settlement building. Indeed just recently the government announced authorization for the building of an additional 5000 housing units in the occupied West Bank.

With a major incentive gone, the quid pro quo of the API abandoned, the Palestinians have once again been left to fend for themselves.

For Palestinians, and perhaps others who seek genuine and durable peace, one may adopt a more positive view of the accords. Namely, one might hope that the Gulf states will use their relations with Israel, especially the expected economic relations, to press Israel to move on the Palestinian front.

This is not beyond the realm of possibility, but given the interests of the Gulf states them-selves, in what they gain both from Israel and from the United States (at least under Trump), it is hard to believe that such pressure will be forthcoming. They may not be particularly willing to sacrifice lucrative benefits in order to help the Palestinians.

One would welcome the opening of relations between Israel and various Arab states if it did indeed spell a more peaceful future for the region. That, however, is not the case. Despite hostility and boycott, these states, UAE, Bahrain, the Sudan and perhaps Oman and others to follow, were not at war with Israel nor even close to the country territorially. There are other conflicts still raging in the Middle East, and the only conflict Israel was involved in, and which periodically threatened escalation in the area, is that of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Indeed, the Palestinian issue has always been the core issue for Israel, even when the Palestinians’ cause was exploited by Arab states or outside powers. These new agreements do not bring an end to that conflict closer.

Indeed, they remove an important incentive that might have worked in that, positive, direction. Perhaps this why – to Netanyahu’s apparent surprise — Israelis have not been rejoicing or even exhibiting particular interest in them. These agreements may propel rather than pre-vent the next intifada or war. They will not bring security or stability to Israelis, or Palestinians. So why rejoice?

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