Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 54-55
Following the announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to normalize relations, several think tanks held events to discuss the deal.
On Aug. 27, Americans for Peace Now hosted Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who dismissed the idea that Israel’s agreement to forgo annexation of Palestinian land in exchange for official relations with the UAE is beneficial to Palestinians. “People [in Palestine] don’t feel that the move by the UAE has brought any serious results to the Palestinians,” he said. Rather, they believe “it was an internal business deal” meant to help the UAE, “which is suffering economically because of the [drop in the price of] oil, because the pandemic has affected [its global] transportation [hubs], and because they’re losing wars in Yemen and Libya.” Abu Dhabi, he deduced, simply “needed something new to be back on the map.”
Kuttab was also reluctant to believe Israel will stand by its promise not to proceed with annexation. He noted that shortly after the deal was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told reporters that he merely agreed to “delay” annexation and assured Israelis he would “never give up our rights to our land.”
Speaking on an Aug. 17 J Street webinar, University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami agreed that the UAE’s attempt to frame the agreement as beneficial for Palestinians was largely self-serving. “This deal was obviously not about the Palestinians…and the Palestinians obviously pay a price because they will continue under occupation with no end in sight,” he said.
Telhami believes Israel and the UAE saw an opportunity to appease both the Trump administration and a potential Biden administration through the agreement. On the obvious front, he noted the deal made President Trump, who has a close relationship with both countries, look like an historic peacemaker in advance of an election.
On the more tactical level, Telhami noted that even traditionally pro-Israel Democrats came out strongly against annexation, so by exchanging annexation for diplomatic relations, Israel was able to win back their support. The UAE, meanwhile, appeased these legislators by playing nice with Israel. Normalization “sets [both countries] up better with a potential Democratic administration, and I think that’s really what drove this more than anything else,” Telhami said.
Long-term, Telhami fears the deal will help normalize the occupation and remove urgency to push for a solution. “The worry is that we fall into complacency and think that all is good now and we can go back to business as usual,” he said. “We can’t because it is still a genuinely depressing environment that we all must pay attention to.”
Kuttab noted normalization puts a major dent in Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempts to use international diplomacy to put pressure on Israel. A backbone of this strategy, he said, was the Arab Peace Initiative, which promised Israel diplomatic relations with all Arab and Muslim-majority countries if they agreed to withdraw to the 1967 borders. “Once a country violates that consensus, it weakens the rule,” Kuttab said. “This decision does not negate the Abbas strategy, but it certainly weakens it.”
The Amman-based journalist was also skeptical closer UAE-Israel ties will facilitate dialogue benefical for Palestinians. “The UAE says, ‘now we’re on the inside and we can help you negotiate better,’” he noted. “I doubt it…Palestinians, I think in a way like Jews, have really suffered a lot from depending on their brethren and there is a very strong nationalist feeling that we have to solve our problems by ourselves,” he said. “Yes, we do need and we appreciate support from Arab countries and we’re very upset when they stab us in the back, but any solution needs to be done with Palestinians and their approval, and not by going around them.”