The moment the pens went to paper to sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between two Sunni-led Gulf Arab nations and the Jewish State while the Palestinians seethed off stage, Joe Biden must have pumped his fist in triumph.
If he wins in November, there would be a future Nobel Prize, oven-ready for President Biden.
One can but dream. The alternative may prove to be a nightmare.
If Donald Trump wins the November US presidential election then the future of the Palestinians will be, at best, frozen in the recent past. Israeli plans to annex around 30% of the West Bank, declare sovereignty over its existing Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories, will likely stay on hold.
The status quo of today will prevail tomorrow. There is no international support for the Peace to Prosperity and so-called “deal of the century” scheme Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner offered back in January. It would most likely deliver to the Palestinians a state resembling an apartheid-era Bantustan. These were pseudo-homelands with no international recognition allotted to indigenous South Africans on a racial basis, they resembled blots on a map. And the Palestinians have flatly rejected Kushner’s January plan.
Meanwhile the Emiratis, whose top officials often show outright contempt for the Palestinian leadership whom they see as corrupt, feckless and geriatric are looking to create a cyber route from Israel’s Silicon Wadi to the Gulf. They’re fine with letting the Palestinian file gather dust.
They want a diplomatic version of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, and a real one, to protect them against Iran. They’re also mad keen to get hold of Israel’s David Sling anti-missile missiles as a deterrent to the Goliath they fear across the Persian Gulf. And some of America’s F-35 stealth fighter jets.
The Abraham Accords are an investment opportunity, an arms deal, a diplomatic breakthrough and without question a paradigm shift in Middle Eastern international affairs. The accords are NOT, whatever the signatories dutifully said as a boost to Trump’s election campaign, a “peace agreement.”
Bahrain and the Emirates have never been in a cold, much less a hot, war with Israel. Neither has Oman, which may also soon open full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. Nor, even, Saudi Arabia, which has been playing covert footsie for some years with the “Zionist Entity,” as Israel is referred to by many of its long-time foes, and may also normalize sometime soon.
“The Palestinian cause is a minor issue, a distraction, in the normalization agreements signed between Israel and the Gulf states,” says Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “The UAE and Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia) prioritize the geostrategic aspect of their relationship with the United States and Israel.
“They are mainly concerned about the Iranian… threat to their security. The text of the UAE-Israel Normalization Agreement released by the White House makes no mention that Israel is obligated to halt its annexation of the West Bank. The text also mentions the Palestinian issue only twice and in general terms.
“The Palestinians are the major losers. Given the extent of official Arab normalization with Israel, neither (Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu nor his rivals will feel obliged to agree to a peace settlement with the Palestinians that recognizes their legitimate rights. Netanyahu has been rewarded for his intransigence and feels emboldened that the Arab tide has turned against the Palestinians,” he added.
But it need not be like that.
Not, especially, if as president, Biden were to see THE opportunity. He could choose to capitalize on Trump’s Abraham Accords.
After all, the paradigm shift Trump has delivered, is real — no matter how despairing his critics may be over his frequent vulgarities and his contempt for international laws and norms.
Gaza’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad remain (publicly at least) committed to Israel’s destruction. So is Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria, which shares a border with Israel, is in turmoil. Iran is a dominating force in Syria, continues to use it as a resupply base for Hezbollah.
The inner-city neighbourhoods around Israel remain rough. But there IS peace with Jordan and Egypt. And now some of the ‘burbs in the Gulf are benign.
“Does Israel feel isolated?” Netanyahu said in a news conference just ahead of the signing ceremony. “Heck no.”
Paranoia. The feeling that comes with being surrounded by enemies bent on the destruction of the Jewish State, of being hated by populations inflamed by anti-Israeli teachings in schools, of being the Middle East bogeyman among Arabs, has defined Israel’s survival instincts since its birth.
That now has changed.
“And I can tell you that we have a strong relationship throughout the Middle East. The President intimated how many countries are waiting to join the circle of peace. You know, Israel doesn’t feel isolated at all. It’s enjoying the greatest diplomatic triumph of its history,” Netanyahu added.
Herein lies Biden’s opportunity.
Netanyahu’s warm fuzzy moment is special to Israel. Israelis, whatever their political affiliations, want that to spread into a “circle of friendship.”
This gives Israel something to lose. It gives a voice to powerful pro-American Arab “allies” against Iran’s destabilizing theocracy (which remains committed to ending Israel). This is a voice they can exercise in promoting to Israel the advantages of a viable two-state deal with the Palestinians.
At the White House that’s pretty much what the Gulf signatories committed themselves to doing.
“This Accord will enable us to continue to stand by the Palestinian people, and realize their hopes for an independent state within a stable and prosperous region,” said the UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.
A future US administration, if it were so inclined, could use Gulf Arab support in persuading Israel, and the Palestinians, to work towards a deal which might actually work.
After all Bahrain, Israel’s newest friend in the Gulf, said through foreign minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al Zayani: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s agreement is an important first step, and it is now incumbent on us to work urgently and actively to bring about the lasting peace and security our peoples deserve. A just, comprehensive and enduring two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be the foundation — the bedrock — of such peace.”
Perhaps an offer similar to that made by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 could work? It suggested Israel return 94.2% of the West Bank to the Palestinians with additional land swaps to account for permanent Jewish settlements that would join Israel.
East Jerusalem would go to the Palestinians as their capital. There would be international administration of Jerusalem’s Old City, sites of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
And a symbolic recognition, allowing 5,000 from the Palestinian refugee diaspora to exercise a right of return to the homes they fled or were expelled from in 1947/8. Those who could not return would receive compensation and help to settle elsewhere.
This latter issue is a red line for the Israelis; they won’t countenance anything but a symbolic right of return. United Nations resolution 194 established a right of return for all Palestinians who lost their homes in the early days of the creation of modern Israel. And it’s also an article of faith for many Palestinians. Publicly anyway. In private some Palestinian officials have acknowledged that they might have to concede at least parts of this principle — but not as part of a wholesale capitulation.
The Gulf nations, reassuring Israel of its security, could use their leverage to get them to junk the already-moribund Kushner plan, stop the march of Jewish settlements into Palestinian territories, and turn the clock back to a more optimistic time.
The point is that there are formulae out there that have, in the past, been rejected mostly by the Palestinians. They’re not ideal. But they may represent a last chance to avoid a de facto, if not de jure, Bantustan amid dwindling commitment to the Palestinian cause in the modern Arab world.
This would, though, depend on real Gulf engagement on the issue.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, is not at all convinced.
“That’s assuming they’re motivated by advancing the cause of the Palestinians. We all know the truth. I mean really. I think they’re serving the cause of Trump’s re-election, Netanyahu’s domestic crisis and repositioning themselves with Israel and the region for their own security. That’s it,” she told CNN.
Toby Dodge, professor of international relations at the LSE and an expert on the region largely agreed with Ashrawi. As did Alan Philps, editor of “The World Today” at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Indeed it has proved nigh impossible to find analytical support for the idea that the Abraham Accords have done anything other than throw the Palestinian cause under a bus. Optimism that the Biden administration might get deeply involved in the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process perhaps shows hope trumping experience.
None of the Middle East-based experts canvassed for this article saw Biden getting stuck in.
But there was unanimity on which countries would inevitably capitalize on continued pessimism among the Palestinians.
Iran is known to have sent money and weapons to Hamas in Gaza, and is the power behind Hezbollah. Turkey’s critics, especially in the Gulf and Egypt see it as providing succor to extremist groups within political Islam.
“Iran and Turkey, those countries who have said they will not support the occupation and will not sell out, of course it gives them additional leverage. And I think there will be many people who will say ‘well we’ve been sold out so we have to look to others.’ But to me it’s very important that the Palestinians are not part of any polarization,” Ashrawi said.
The feelings of abandonment and betrayal felt by the Palestinians risks being intensified both in the West Bank and Gaza but also among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Here, perhaps is where Biden might want to pursue that Nobel. Because, arguably, he must. As Gerges warns: “Iran and Turkey will most likely weaponize the Palestinian cause against the very Arab regimes that have joined the US-Israel alliance. Far from bringing stability and security to the Middle East as Trump claims, the normalization agreements will pour gasoline on a raging geostrategic fire in the region.”