Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (September 21, 2020) - Perspective on the recent Israel-Arab normalization agreements


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Nearly a week has passed since Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords at the White House. Israelis under lockdown may be totally preoccupied with their battle with corona, but in many places in the region the accords have produced interesting insights and assessments.

Perhaps you could begin by summing up exactly what, in your view, has transpired.

A. Israel, the region’s leading hi-tech and military power, has entered into formal and overt relations with the UAE, the most advanced and dynamic Arab state and a financial power. These relations are being cemented with US promises of advanced arms to the UAE. Indeed, the Trump administration is a key strategic player in arranging these agreements. A second, more preliminary agreement, with Bahrain, appears to constitute a kind of down payment on future relations by Bahrain’s protector, Saudi Arabia.

Neither of Israel’s new formal partners is democratic. Both have highly problematic human rights records. But sadly that is par for the course in the Middle East and does not appear to be a factor for either Jerusalem or Washington.

Without explicitly saying so, the agreements reflect shared concern regarding the Iranian threat and a shared desire to ensure ongoing US strategic involvement in the region. They have been blessed by other countries in the Arab world. The Arab League has refused to condemn them even though they violate the League’s March 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which conditioned normalization with Israel on solutions to all of Israel’s territorial disputes and the emergence of a Palestinian state. Accordingly, the Abraham Accords reflect a radical downgrading of the Palestinian issue in Arab considerations.

For Israel, the Abraham Accords represent another step toward regional acceptance and legitimization, something the Israeli psyche deeply craves. Here there are gratifying echoes of Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 declaration in the Knesset, “We were wrong to reject you”.

Q. But Israel is paying a price.

A. Prime Minister Netanyahu has, without consulting his security community, acquiesced in advanced US arms supplies to the UAE, including the F-35 stealth aircraft currently deployed only by Israel. Note that Netanyahu says he “opposes” the arms transfers but not that he will “prevent” them (which he could try to do in the US Congress). This quid pro quo involves risks for Israel.

Netanyahu has also agreed to halt the process of annexing parts of the West Bank. Here again we encounter cagy word-play on his part. He says he is only “postponing” annexation, yet the Trump administration says annexation is “off the table” and has even hinted that Netanyahu has recommitted to the two-state solution and will henceforth freeze settlement expansion. Israeli abandonment of annexation is cited unconvincingly by Arab defenders of the normalization accords as a kind of quid pro quo that, because it is territorial, somehow qualifies as ‘territories for peace’ and legitimizes the Abraham Accords under the Arab Peace Initiative.

The agreements do not in any way point a finger directly at Iran. Indeed, the UAE has been consistently sending commercial normalization signals and good will gestures toward Tehran throughout its normalization process with Israel.

Q. Are all these conditions and understandings written into the agreements signed last week?

A. No. The agreement between Israel and the UAE does not even explicitly mention the two-state solution. Rather, it suffices with commitments to “a just, comprehensive, realistic and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and to “a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both people”. Note the term “legitimate needs”, not “legitimate rights”. The Palestinian refugees are not mentioned. The Oslo accords and a Palestinian state are not mentioned either, while the Trump “Vision for Peace” is.

Israel, by the way, is not recognized by the UAE and Bahrain as a Jewish state, but that is a concession neither Egypt, Jordan nor the PLO have offered in their agreements with Israel.

So what is actually talked about by these agreements? Haaretz’s Noa Landau summed it up succinctly: “The end result was a bunch of statements in support of global peace of the type normally made by winners of the Miss Universe pageant--which was once presided over by the same man who presided over these peace initiatives, US President Donald Trump.”

The Abraham Accords Declaration that precedes the Israeli accords with the two Gulf states (all three were signed last week in Washington) goes overboard in this direction with statements like “We believe that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among States advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world. We seek tolerance and respect for every person in order to make this world a place where all can enjoy a life of dignity and hope, no matter their race, faith or ethnicity. We support science, art, medicine, and commerce to inspire humankind, maximize human potential and bring nations closer together.” Etc., etc.

Was this written by Jared Kushner? Why? Because it’s good for business? Security, after all, only enters the picture in the UAE treaty after a detailed listing of areas of civil cooperation like tourism, energy and environment, and only in the form of a call to develop a ‘Strategic Agenda for the Middle East’ with the United States.

Q. That’s it? Nothing against Iran and nothing for the Palestinians? Just motherhood and apple pie, embassies and tourism?

A. This begs the question whether Israel, the UAE and Bahrain might also have signed secret side agreements regarding Israel’s obligations to the Palestinians and strategic cooperation against Iran. Or are there perhaps additional oral understandings?

Or perhaps that is all there is. Certainly, taken at face value, these accords appear to represent smart tactical moves that in no way alter the prevailing strategic currents in the Middle East: Iran’s and Turkey’s drives for regional hegemony; Arab state disfunction; and the gradual withdrawal of US forces and entry into the region of Russia and China. President Trump’s pompous rhetoric notwithstanding, this is not “the dawn of a new Middle East”.

Most significantly for Israel, the agreements merely reenforce the emerging Palestinian reality. The Arabs have stopped caring. This is Israel’s problem. And while Israel may or may not have dropped its annexation threats, no one is going to bail it out as around 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million Palestinians slide down a slippery slope to a disastrous apartheid-like reality. Israelis can now vacation in Dubai, but an ugly one-state reality awaits them when they come home.

Q. This brings us to the Palestinian response to the Abraham Accords . . .

A. It can be summed up as obstinate anger, fear of abandonment by additional Arab states like Kuwait, Sudan and ultimately Saudi Arabia, and ritual efforts at a display of unity by the West Bank-based PLO and Gaza’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An early September virtual conference of all Palestinian factions, itself a rare occurrence, declared a campaign of “popular resistance” and reiterated Palestinian refusal to cooperate with either the Netanyahu government or the Trump administration.

A reliable Palestinian poll taken just before the White House signing ceremony indicates that Palestinians believe the Arab regimes are abandoning them but that the Arab masses still support the Palestinian cause. Netanyahu’s alleged renunciation of annexation is dismissed as a temporary measure and a bluff. The Trump plan is overwhelmingly rejected. Support for a two-state solution continues to decline. A majority of Palestinians reject security cooperation with Israel yet support joint measures against the corona virus.

Former PLO ambassador in Washington Husam Zomlot summed up the official Palestinian response to the ‘peace for peace’ description appended by Netanyahu to the normalization accords: “’Peace for peace’ simply means a continuation of the status quo, more military occupation, more violence and the continued denial of our individual and national rights”. The accords, he concluded in the International New York Times, are “a major setback to hope of peace”.

Particularly perplexing to Palestinians is the attitude displayed by Arab opinion writers. Ghaith Al-Omari, once an adviser to the PLO negotiating team, advises that Palestinian needs are best served by Arab countries that make peace with Israel. Egyptian Emad al-Din Adib blames not the Abraham Accords (which Cairo supports) but Iran, Turkey and Qatar for deepening Palestinian divisions. Another Egyptian, Osama Saraya, adds that “The Palestinian Authority [he means the PLO; y.a.] has become a collection of offices in Beirut and Damascus. It has forgotten the crimes of Hamas and the murder of Palestinians committed by the organization.”

Women commentators from the Gulf have joined the fray. Saudi Wafa al-Rashid blames Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for leading his people astray and not showing gratitude for hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi assistance.

Apropos Palestinian anger and obstinacy, I asked Ghassan Khatib, a prominent and moderate Palestinian political scientist based in Ramallah, whether in view of the Palestinian dilemma he could point to any sort of political or academic reassessment of basic Palestinian two-state demands like, say, the right of return. Were Palestinians at all moved to reconsider their options? “Not to my knowledge,” Khatib responded. “And I doubt any change in this regard.”

Q. Bottom line?

A. We confront a number of key questions regarding the near term. First, will additional Arab countries now enter normalization treaties with Israel? If this happens, how will this affect Palestinian attitudes? How will it affect the Israeli public’s support for PM Netanyahu as he weighs a preemptive new election bid designed to sabotage his coming corruption trial? And will it have any effect on American voters’ support for President Trump as he seeks reelection?

Regarding Israel, will it now indeed freeze settlement construction? Will it offer the Palestinians any conciliatory gestures at all?

Regarding the Palestinians, what form will “popular resistance” now take, and can we expect acts of violence, particularly by Hamas cells in the West Bank? Lest we forget, it was exactly 20 years ago this month that the second Intifada erupted. Its suicide bombings were a major factor in moving the Israeli mainstream away from the spirit of Oslo and toward deep-felt suspicion of the Palestinians as a peace partner.

Finally, assuming Israel confines its armed opposition to Iran to Syrian territory and the UAE tries to signal to Iran ‘business as usual’, how will Tehran now respond to Israel’s hook-up with Sunni monarchies just across the Persian Gulf?

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