The assassination of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American dual citizen who worked for a Qatar-based multilingual international news medium, and then the subsequent police attack on her funeral in East Jerusalem, might be shrugged off by cynical politicians looking at some “big picture.” But especially in the Arab world, at such politicians’ peril. The Abraham Accords have been in the making for several years — what has ultimately brought them to fruition is the Arab states’ national security interests. By no means though have the Arab states abandoned the Palestinian cause, which will continue to haunt them and Israel until an independent Palestinian state is established.
The Abraham Accords’ implications
for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
by Alon Ben-Meir
There is a prevailing sense among Israelis that the Abraham Accords suggest that the Arab states have, for all intents and purposes, abandoned the Palestinian cause. To the Israelis, those Arab states have presumably concluded that they can benefit greatly on a number of spheres from normalization of relations with Israel, which override their concerns over the Palestinians’ fate. This is just another fallacy that Israelis like to embrace. It suits their baseless contention that the occupation no longer presents an obstacle to normalizing relations with the Arab states, and Israel’s long-standing resistance to the establishment of a Palestinian state is now accepted as a fait accompli.
That said, Israeli leaders still view the Abraham Accords as a historic breakthrough that will have major regional and national positive implications. They forget the fact that these Accords will remain hostage to the geopolitical winds that sweep the region as well as what the Palestinians might or might not do in the months and years to come.
A brief historical background
Since the introduction of the Arab Peace Initiative (API) in 2002, the Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, have de facto recognized Israel’s right to exist but conditioned normalization of relations with Israel upon “the acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign independent Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since June 4, 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Once these conditions are met by Israel, the API notes that the Arab states will “enter into a peace agreement with Israel, and provide security for all the states of the region….and establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.”
From the time the API was introduced 20 years ago, however, the geopolitical environment in the Middle East has dramatically changed.
On the Israeli side, the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2002 on the heels of the API destroyed what was left of Israel’s trust of the Palestinians, and the peace negotiations between the two sides in 2008-2009 and 2013-2014 ended in failure. In the interim, Israel has vastly expanded its settlements enterprise and annexed more Palestinian land, while the Israeli public was steadily moving to the right-of-center, making the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state ever more remote.
On the Palestinian side, extremism was on the rise, especially by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was plagued by internal rivalry, corruption, and stark polarization, especially between Hamas and the PA. Israel’s harsh occupation further intensified the Palestinians’ resistance, and violence between the two sides became more frequent. The PA’s negotiating stance further hardened, afraid of being seen as betraying the Palestinian cause. Thus, little room was left for meaningful concessions to reach any agreement with Israel, especially under former PM Netanyahu’s 13 consecutive years in power, who vowed not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state under his watch.
Recognizing Israel’s prowess
The growing Iranian threat against Israel and the Arab states, and Tehran’s ambition to become the region’s hegemon, provided a common national security cause between Israel and especially the Arab Gulf states to rally against Iran’s threats and to disabuse Tehran from its regional ambitions. To that end, going back nearly two decades, Israel began to share intelligence and provide military-related advanced technology with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia in particular, who felt directly threatened by Iran.
Hence, the Gulf states began to view Israel as a strategic partner due to four critical factors: a) Israel’s military prowess is second to none in the region and rivals even both Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey; b) Israel’s unmatched intelligence capability which the Gulf states have and continue to eagerly seek; c) Israel’s world-renowned advanced technology which they badly needed to enhance their military machine and fighting capabilities among many other civilian uses; and finally, d) Israel is a nuclear power on which the Gulf states can rely, even more so than the US because Israel itself is existentially threatened by and is in the forefront to deter Iran.
The above four factors provided Israel with huge political leverage, and even though Israel continues to occupy Palestinian land, the regional geopolitical conditions and the Gulf states’ desire to collaborate with Israel presented them with a challenge and a choice: to normalize relations with Israel now or stick to the API, which conditioned normalization with Israel upon settling the conflict with the Palestinians. The signatories to the Abraham Accords opted for the first option because what Israel has and continues to provide them is critically important and urgently needed to serve their national security. Moreover, the Abraham Accords put Iran on notice that the region was growing more united in its opposition to Tehran.
The Arab states’ evolving position
Making that choice however, does not translate, as many Israelis believe, to the Arab states abandoning the Palestinian cause. To the contrary, they view the Abraham Accords as a means by which to serve their national interest on one hand, while changing the dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the other, and in so doing break the impasse between them that prevailed especially under Netanyahu’s tenure.
It should be noted that the Abraham Accords clearly stipulates that the parties will “…[commit] to continuing their efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In an interview, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba reinforced that specific provision, stating that the normalization agreement was a result of the Emirates’ efforts to stop further Israeli annexation of the West Bank. In fact, since the Accords were signed, Israel has not annexed another inch of Palestinian territory, albeit it continues planning for the future expansion of existing settlements.
This is not merely lip-service. The Arab states, just like Israel, are stuck with the Palestinians. They may disagree with them on a host of issues, especially with Hamas’s extremism, but they cannot and will not indefinitely accept or tolerate the brutal Israeli occupation. The recent conflagration between Israeli soldiers and police and Palestinian youth at the Temple Mount should serve as a reminder to the Israelis as to where the Arab world really stands.
The occupation humiliates not only the Palestinians but the Arab states as well. They can swallow only so much of Israel’s gross human right abuses, settlers’ unprovoked violence against innocent Palestinians, and the killings of hundreds of Palestinians each year, often without any justification. And if there were to be a major violent eruption between Israel and the Palestinians, which is only a question of time, the Arab states with no exception, will side with the Palestinians regardless of who instigated the violence.
Israel’s lost perspective
Every Israeli who does not seek to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict should ask themselves where Israel will be 15-20 years down the line. Do they really believe that the Arab states will gradually forget about the Palestinians? Do they think that Israel’s founders envisioned a Jewish state that would permanently occupy Palestinian land in the West Bank, maintain an indefinite blockade on Gaza in the east, and systematically and openly discriminate against Israeli Arab citizens? How many more generations of warriors does Israel want to raise and train, only to rain havoc on the Palestinians? What damage has this already done and will do to the Jewish Israeli character? The one and only Jewish state will become a pariah state and hit a new moral bottom, constantly threatened and living by the gun.
The promise of the Abraham Accords
The recent free trade agreement between Israel and the UAE and the extent of their bilateral trade is extremely significant, as such an agreement would further cement their relations. Moreover, the UAE along with Bahrain and other Gulf states are discussing the prospect of a security alliance, which the Biden administration fully supports. To be sure, the ties in many spheres between Israel and the Gulf states will continue to grow as long as no major violent Israeli-Palestinian conflagration erupts.
However, regardless of how desperate the Gulf states may be for Israeli technology, intelligence, trade, and knowhow, for them the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem remains sine qua non to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. To be sure, as long as there is no Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a two-state solution, the current normalization process will remain fragile at best, subject to the changing geopolitical environment as well as to the intensity and the pitfalls of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now that new elections are scheduled to be held in October, every Israeli should remember that Israel’s ultimate national security rests on peace with Palestinians. To that end, they should elect leaders who commit to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Abraham Accords should be viewed then as the building block on which to erect a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that includes the Palestinians, and not as Accords that expunge the Palestinians’ rightful demand for an independent state of their own.
The Abraham Accords offers Israel the unique opportunity to move in that direction, and any Israeli leader who does not realize that is forfeiting the promise of Israel’s founders and the premise on which the state was created.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.
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