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[Prefatory Note: The following post is based on two interviews with a Brazilian journalist, Rodrigo Craveiro, who publishes in Correio Brazilensie. The questions posed seek commentary on the normalization agreements reached between Israel and two Arab countries, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. My responses have been modified and enlarged since the interviews on 17-18 September 2020. These normalization agreements are being perceived from a variety of angles depending on the agendas of the various political actors. In the present context it seems a win for Israel and Trump, and a loss for the Palestinians and Iran, but will these assessments hold up when again Israel moves to foreclose Palestine’s future by proceeding to fulfill Netanyahu’s most solemn and oft-repeated pledge?]
1– Trump signed with Israel, UAE and Bahrein a deal today and told this represents a change in the course of history. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark a dawn of a new Middle East. We take a major stride towards a future in which people of all faiths and backgrounds live together in peace and prosperity”, said Trump. How do you see the meaning of two Arab nations accepted to sign a deal with Israel?
These normalizing moves on the part of UAE and Bahrain, under pressure from the U.S., are a form of symbolic politics‘ that have weight because they are reinforced geopolitically by being so ardently promoted by the Trump presidency. By way of contrast, the 130 or so diplomatic recognitions of Palestine as a state by governments around the world have had little significance because they lack political traction to make anything concrete and substantive change.
Trump’s bravado is at best an exaggeration, and at worst a shortsighted and misguided prediction about the future. This agreement expresses the interests of these two Gulf regimes that want to concentrate their power to confront the Iranian challenge, and need Israel, with U.S. backing to do this, but the Arab people remain committed to the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. There are other motivations, including the acquisition of weapons, economic relations with Israel, and being seen as willing to please the U.S. Government, at least so long as Trump is in charge. It is largely symbolic as these governments were increasingly cooperating with Israel in any event, making the claim that this has brough the region closer to peace, indeed ‘a dawn’ seems fanciful. It is not a breakthrough but a symbolic victory for Israel, and a symbolic defeat for Palestine. Nothing substantial has changed, but the atmospherics of regional politics could make a difference either mobilizing a popular movement of opposition to suck a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle or leading to a cascade of normalizing initiatives by other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Whether this kind of development would lead to longer range adjustments in the region and beyond is highly conjectural at this stage, and depends on many unknowable factors.
2– Do you believe Trump is using this deal mostly for pushing votes in elections? Why?
Trump is motivated by his immediate interests in. the November election, but also by his dual strategy of being an autocrat at home and a self-promoting peacemaker internationally. I doubt that this signing ceremony attracted much attention, and is unlikely to swing many votes in Trump’s direction. The main election issues involve Trump’s controversial personal style as leader, the outlook for the economy, and the tensions between unrest in the cities, police racism, and middle class fears of disorder.
3– What would be the consequences of such deal for Middle East?
Much will depend on events that will unfold in coming months, including the degree to which there will be renewed Palestinian resistance, even something on the order of a Third Intifada. Also, important will be whether this normalization with Israel is a prelude to an escalated confrontation with Iran. If this occurs, it would change the intergovernmental alignments in the region, but also might induce renewed domestic turmoil culminating in a second Arab Spring. The behavior of Turkey, China, and Russia are highly relevant in shaping either a new regional balance in the Middle East or sparking a new conflict configuration. Also, continuing U.S, military disengagement would alter the overall situation rather fundamentally, although in unpredictable ways. It should be remembered that severe problems of prolonged internal strife currently exist is Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as potentially explosive conflicts pertaining to energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The overall regional situation is extremely complicated, and it seems likely that these largely symbolic developments in relations between Israel and Arab countries will not have important lasting consequences, partly because de facto normalization and strategic Arab/Israeli cooperation had preceded this process of formalization by several years.
1-Bahrein joined Arab United Emirates in signing deal with Israel. In what ways these deals will harm Palestinian cause?
These normalization arrangements are symbolically and possibly substantively harmful to the Palestinian struggle and correspondingly helpful to Israel’s long-term efforts to overcome its isolation and questionable legitimacy as a Middle Eastern state. Israel demonstrated the importance attached to normalization by its willingness to put off formal annexation moves on the West Bank in exchange for these formalized moves toward normalization. In doing so, Israel gained feelings of greater security enlarging the scope of peaceful relations with neighbors. Israel also received certain substantive benefits: air navigation overflight rights, touristic and diplomatic interaction, export gains, and enhanced reputation of diplomatic flexibility, especially appreciated by the Trump presidency. Bahrain and the UAE also added to regime security by taking these normalizing steps with Israel through obtaining greater assurances of support from Washington should internal challenges arise.
This diplomatic sequence was harmful to the Palestinians from a psycho-political standpoint as the Arab countries had pledged in 2002 to refrain from any normalization moves until a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine was negotiated, a Palestinian state established, and East Jerusalem was declared as the its capital, enabling Islamic access to al-Aqsa, the third holiest Muslim sacred site. The Arab shift can be understood from three perspectives: to please Trump, to solidify security cooperation with Israel against Iran, and to obtain access to American advanced drones and fighter jet aircraft, and whatever weaponry and training it sought to control internal opposition. Of course, the Arab denial of such motivations, rests on the Israeli suspension of annexation moves toward extending its sovereignty to the West Bank, but this is a temporary concession and draws attention away from the widespread perception, not least by the Palestinians, that de facto annexation had been continually encroaching on Palestinian territorial expectations ever since the occupation began after the 1967 War. An open question is whether a renewed push by Israel for de jure annexation of 30+% of the West Bank will lead to any de-normalizing moves by Arab countries, or strong expressions of opposition in the West, including the United States. The failure of adverse consequences after the U.S. defied the UN consensus by announcing the movement of its embassy to Jerusalem at the end of 2017 suggests that there will be some strong rhetoric but little behavioral pushback, especially if a ‘decent interval’ has transpired and Arab priorities remain as at present.
2–Do you see an effort of Arab nations trying to punish Iran even they have to act as treason (betrayal) Palestinian fight? Why?
I do not see this diplomatic maneuver in that way, but rather as a way to clear the path to more robust regional cooperation with Israel in confronting Iran, and gaining more leverage in Washington for the pursuit of an anti-Iranian policy. I think it may be more reasonably interpreted as a further indication that Arab priorities and threat perceptions have shifted. This means that Israel no longer needs to be treated as adversary and enemy as a show of Arab solidarity in the face of a European incursion in the form of a Jewish state. Instead Iran is feared as a regional rival, and has become the primary threat to Arab political arrangements, especially dynastic governance. In this regard, Palestinians are feared, as well, potentially inducing democratizing challenges to these oppressive monarchies that are sustained by sustained by weaponry and support from the West, especially the U.S.. It is important to appreciate that despite decades of rhetorical solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, Arab elites were ambivalent, believing that a Palestinian victory would have negative repercussions for their own stability.
3–What would be consequences of such deals between Bahrein and UAE with Israel for Middle East geopolitics and for perspective of peace process in future?
At present, the US/Israeli governments do not favor a diplomatic solution to the Israel/Palestine confrontation. Israel is not interested in seeking a genuine political compromise involving territory and refugees, and is under no U.S. pressure to pretend otherwise. Israel’s territorial objectives continue to be expansionist, encompassing ‘the promised land,’ which presupposes an eventual de jure annexation of large parts of the West Bank, retention of an undivided Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and the denial to Palestinian refugees and exiles of any right of return to pre-1967 Israel. If this is an accurate depiction of the underlying situation, there is nothing for the Palestinians to achieve, beyond some easing of material conditions (‘an economic peace’) by accepting the sort of one-sided ‘deals’ put on the table months ago by the Kushner/Trump. Although the Palestinians have been deliberately squeezed economically, especially in Gaza, the gains in Palestinian living standards that might follow from accepting what is being offered come with an the unacceptably price tag–the surrender of basic rights. It seems highly unlikely after a century of struggle, bloodshed, and displacement that the Palestinian would renounce their quest for basic rights, including the right of self-determination.
4–Trump is stimulating such deals to isolate Iran but also to gain votes among Israel lobby in US. How do you see such strategy?
I do not see any major gains for this latest Trump effort in the Middle East. Objectively, considered, the main American diplomatic gain from these normalization moves seem clearly intended to distract attention from the failure of the much heralded ‘deal of the century,’ which was released under with the more sober title of ‘From Peace to Prosperity.’ It received scant support in the Arab world or among allies in Western Europe. It was widely regarded as so one-sided in Israel’s favor as to be more in the nature of a diktat than a genuine attempt to find common ground between the parties on which to work toward a diplomatic settlement. I see little evidence that Trump will any significant additional support from the Israeli lobby or Jewish voters. It gives Trump cheerleaders something to boast about, including managing to achieve the explicit acceptance of a Jewish state as a permanent and legitimate presence in the Middle East without having to obtain the agreement of properly constituted representatives of the Palestinian people. Iran was already isolated in the region, although with respect to Palestine it retains an approach that is supported by Turkey, and increases the plausibility of its claim to be leading the struggle against the remnants of European colonialism in the region. Such a claim resonates with public opinion throughout the entire Arab world, and is not so evident because harshly suppressed by the ruling elites.
More concretely, Trump’s foreign policy always welcomes arrangements that include new opportunities to increase the exports of arms merchants, and these agreements, especially with the UAE, include a commitment to provide expensive weapons, while ensuring Israel that its qualitative edge in military capabilities will be retained, thereby creating the possible basis for a regional arms race in the years ahead.
Finally, just as Trump seems to gain votes by helping Israel, the Arab monarchies would gain by Trump’s reelection. One ulterior motive for normalization at this time, that is just prior to the November election, is to bolster Trump’s tenuous claim to be a peacemaker in the Middle East.