For the first time in more than a quarter-century, a US president is to host a signing ceremony between Israelis and Arabs at the White House, billing it as a “historic breakthrough” in a region long known for its stubborn conflicts.
Yet while the optics of today’s event are likely to evoke the groundbreaking agreements that ended decades of war between Israel and neighboring Egypt and Jordan, and which launched the peace process with the Palestinians, the reality is quite different.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a fellow US ally it has never gone to war with, formalizing ties that go back several years. The agreement cements an informal alliance against Iran and could pave the way for the UAE to acquire advanced US weapons, while leaving the far more contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict as intractable as ever.
That has not stopped US President Donald Trump from referring to the UAE deal, which was announced last month, as heralding a “previously unthinkable regional transformation.”
A similar agreement announced on Friday with Bahrain, which welcomed a visiting Israeli Cabinet minister as early as 1994, also formalizes longstanding ties.
The agreement with Bahrain has raised the possibility that Saudi Arabia — the ultimate prize in Israel’s normalization drive — could follow suit. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, which helped quash a popular uprising among the island nation’s Shiite majority in 2011.
Saudi Arabia has quietly acquiesced to the UAE deal, opening its airspace to commercial flights between Israel and the Emirates.
However, it is debatable whether agreements like these, among already friendly countries, do much to advance regional peace.
The region’s main conflict pits Israel and the Gulf Arab countries against Iran and its proxies. In the long term, many believe the biggest threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish-majority and democratic state is the conflict with the Palestinians, who could soon outnumber Jews in the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
The Trump administration hopes that as more Arab countries normalize ties with Israel, it will pressure the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.
Over the past three years, Trump has cut off aid to the Palestinians, recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, dropped the longstanding US opposition to Israeli settlements and released a Middle East plan that overwhelmingly favors Israel.
The breakdown of the longstanding Arab consensus that recognition only be granted in return for territorial concessions has meanwhile left the Palestinians arguably more weak, isolated and demoralized than at any point in their history.
However, rather than cowing Palestinian leaders into submission, the moves have only made them more defiant.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas officially cut all ties to Israel and the US in May and said that the Palestinians would no longer be bound by any past agreements.
The Palestinians have rejected the UAE and Bahrain deals as a betrayal of their cause, and insist no other country has the right to negotiate on their behalf.
“Normalization of states in the region with Israel will not change the essence of this conflict, which is the systemic denial of the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to freedom and sovereignty,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official and member of Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee.
Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who served during the administration of former US president Barack Obama, said that normalization is a positive step that could potentially improve the prospects for peace.
“If it’s used effectively it can be a basis for a renewed effort to generate momentum for two states, but it has to be led by a US administration that is committed to a two-state solution, and that’s very different from the Trump plan,” said Shapiro, who is a visiting fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Aaron David Miller, a veteran US peace negotiator, said that anyone hoping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “would not have behaved the way this administration has behaved for the last four years.”
“I don’t think this is going to make it any easier or in real time bring us any closer to serious negotiations, but I would have argued that before the UAE-Israel deal,” said Miller, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While Trump’s approach has pushed the Palestinians into a corner, it has also vindicated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s longstanding belief that his country can secure its future and avoid international isolation without making any concessions to the Palestinians.
For more than three decades, the Palestinians have sought an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, territories seized by Israel in the 1967 war with Arab states.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but imposed a blockade after the Hamas militant group seized power two years later.
The Trump plan would allow Israel to annex up to 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, including all of its far-flung Jewish settlements. The Palestinians would be left with scattered enclaves surrounded by Israel, which would have overall security control.
Netanyahu pointedly refers to it as an entity “that President Trump defines as a state.”
The UAE said its agreement with Israel took annexation off the table, but Netanyahu has said the pause is temporary and that Israel remains committed to the Trump plan.
The plan “does not describe a Palestinian state with even a modicum of sovereignty,” Shapiro said. “Fortunately the UAE deal resulted in annexation being taken off the table. Now it’s time to shelve other aspects of the Trump plan.”
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