The Palestinians and Arab normalization of Greater Israel

This paper explores the dynamics of the Palestinian response to the recent wave of normalization deals between Israel and certain Arab states. It analyzes the motivations that contributed to this wave of normalization, examines the state of Palestinian institutions, and concludes with options for a path forward.

Palestinians wave Palestine flags during a protest against the peace agreement to establish diplomatic ties between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in the West Bank city Tubas 27 September 2020. ©EPA-EFE/ALAA BADARNEH

The 13 August 2020 joint statement by the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that Abu Dhabi would establish full relations with the Jewish state confronted the Palestinians and their disparate leaderships with a strategic surprise that carried echoes of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s embrace of Israel in 1977.

One key difference is that the formalization of a longstanding relationship between two states that never engaged in hostilities hardly compares with the formal disengagement from the Arab-Israeli conflict of the Arab world’s central state and most powerful military. Another is that while Cairo normalized relations with the Israeli state in order to recover Egyptian territory, the UAE’s diplomacy has, despite its protestations to the contrary, extended Arab legitimacy to the realization of Greater Israel. Where Cairo sought a transformation of Israeli policy towards Egypt, Abu Dhabi pursued an intensification of its existing relationship with Israel.

Another important difference is that in contrast to the late 1970s the Palestinians are today deeply divided. Their national institutions are in decay, and their formal leadership is committed to a framework of relationships that severely constrains its ability to confront Israeli policies and has left it financially and politically dependent on Israel’s regional and international allies.

Arab Normalization Leapfrogs Palestine

If Egypt’s insistence upon Palestinian autonomy in its 1979 peace treaty with Israel and the latter’s 2020 "suspension” of West Bank annexation in the context of its deal with the UAE  suggest that a Palestinian fig leaf, withered as it may be, is an essential requirement for Arab normalization with Israel, the impression is only partially correct. To Egypt, which fought five wars with Israel in the space of three decades and shares a border with both Israel and the Gaza Strip, Palestine was and remains a first-order national security issue. Whatever one may think of Cairo’s performance in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, it has invested considerable resources in remaining a central player.

By contrast for the UAE, Palestine appears as an afterthought in its normalization deal with Israel. While its officials assert that they managed to forestall the imminent annexation of West Bank territory, in practice Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE ruler Muhammad bin Zayid (MBZ) essentially extended Israel’s leadership a ladder to descend from a tree whose fruits it had already concluded were insufficiently ripened. That the subsequent pace of normalization and economic relations with Israel has been entirely divorced from Israeli policy towards the Palestinians confirms the latter’s irrelevance to Abu Dhabi’s calculations vis-a-vis Israel. Those who subsequently adopted the UAE’s template for normalization with Israel, particularly Bahrain, treated the Question of Palestine as non-existent rather than an obstacle to be overcome. Collectively the grandiosely entitled Abraham Accords constituted Arab transactions with the United States more than with Israel; normalization with Israel was the price of admission for Washington’s recognition of territorial claims (in the case of Morocco), removal from blacklists (in the case of Sudan), or sale of advanced weaponry (UAE).

For the Palestinians, the significance of these agreements extends well beyond being blindsided and betrayed. Not only do these deals undermine a vital foundation of the current Palestinian strategy which rests on the notion that Palestinian statehood is a pre-requisite for regional recognition of Israel; they also carry the threat of additional and potentially more substantive Arab pacts with Israel that will more directly be implemented at Palestinian expense.

If the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) could until 1982 claim to have a military option to achieve its objectives, it was that year severely diminished on account of its expulsion from Lebanon, and formally renounced in 1993 as part of the Oslo agreement. As of the latter date Palestinian diplomacy could no longer seek leverage from the threat or use of armed force without being in explicit contradiction with the terms Yasser Arafat had negotiated with Israel; his attempt to do so during the 2000-2004 Al-Aqsa Intifada is widely believed to have cost him his life.

When the PLO initially signed the Oslo agreements, many of its leaders believed that Israel had reached the conclusion that the status quo had become unsustainable, and hoped it had finally recognized the wisdom of relinquishing the occupied territories and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. If it did not, they assumed the United

States and Europe would not pass up this unprecedented opportunity to resolve a conflict that had been threatening international peace and security since the late 1940s and use their influence with Israel to compel it to act rationally. Such hopes, it should be added, reflected their reading of the regional and international political environment in the wake of the Kuwait Crisis and end of the Cold War, rather than the letter or spirit of the Oslo agreements.

Central to Palestinian calculations was their perceived veto over Arab normalization with Israel. While neighboring states with direct interests in negotiating agreements with Israel might do so, the broader Arab world was expected to withhold recognition until given a green light to do so in the form of a Palestinian state. In this respect the Palestinian leadership was not naive; it readily understood that for Israel its primary interest in peace with the Palestinians was not peace with the Palestinians but rather that peace would enable normalization with the Arab world and Israeli access to the region’s markets, transportation routes, and resources. As if to demonstrate its role as the region’s bouncer, the Palestinian Authority (PA) tacitly approved the 1996 opening of an Israeli “trade office” in Qatar in 1996.

Palestinian miscalculations

What the Palestinian leadership did not foresee, but arguably should have anticipated in a region that has seen its share of strategic shifts, were regional and global developments that would provide a further impetus for strengthened Arab-Israeli relations. Most notably in this respect, the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States led to a frenzy among Arab governments to demonstrate an accommodation of Israel to placate the United States, which took the form of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Thereafter, Iran’s expanded regional role in the wake of the Anglo-American dismantling of the Iraqi state created the basis for a shared regional agenda between Israel and conservative Arab states that intensified further as upheaval erupted across the Arab world in 2010-2011.

It is of course true that by the time Israel opened its mission in Qatar it already maintained informal relations of one sort or another with virtually every Arab state. Yet by not maintaining a consistent and public objection to Arab relations with Israel, the Palestinians ultimately contributed to their further expansion and arguably helped set the stage for the 2020 normalization agreements in which this vital strategic card was forfeited on their behalf.

While the initial UAE-Israel agreement and its Bahraini, Sudanese, and Moroccan corollaries elicited genuine Palestinian fury, their larger concern was that Saudi Arabia had tacitly approved these agreements as a prelude to concluding one itself, and that if Donald Trump and Jared Kushner were re-elected that November it would be game over for the Palestinians. For Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the implicit promotion of his political twin turned arch-enemy Muhammad Dahlan, now firmly ensconced in Abu Dhabi, formed an added threat.

We can only speculate how Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) would have responded during a second Trump administration. It seems reasonable to assume that Kushner, Netanyahu, and MBS would have devoted their best efforts to developing a formula to enable Saudi recognition of Israel, example by transferring custodianship of the Haram al-Sharif from Jordan to Saudi Arabia. Less uncertain is that Israel would have proceeded with its “suspended” West Bank annexation and done so with unqualified US support. The election of Joe Biden provided only partial relief, because of Palestinian concerns that MBS would seek to win over the skeptical new US administration with his own embrace of Israel.

The Palestinian Response

Given the existential stakes, the weakness of the Palestinian response was striking, and this applies equally to the PA in Ramallah, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the various other Palestinian organizations. Apart from verbal condemnations, which within a few months gave way to polite disagreement, the Palestinians, and Abbas in particular, acted as powerless as Kushner, Netanyahu, and MBZ made them out to be. It all seemed to confirm the formula promoted by Kushner and Netanyahu that the Palestine Question no longer resonates within the region and can thus be safely ignored, and if neglected for long enough and encircled with a series of Arab-Israeli treaties would eventually wither into oblivion.

Sharing his extraordinary wisdom with readers of the Wall Street Journal on 14 March, 2021, Kushner insisted that “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict”. Modestly assessing that the normalization agreements he helped broker constitute a “geopolitical earthquake”, he all but plagiarized Netanyahu to conclude that:

One of the reasons the Arab-Israeli conflict persisted for so long was the myth that it could be solved only after Israel and the Palestinians resolved their differences. That was never true. The Abraham Accords exposed the conflict as nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians that need not hold up Israel’s relations with the broader Arab world

If the Palestinians did one thing correctly during this period, they resisted the temptation to normalize normalization and seek to extract financial or other concessions in exchange for reconciling themselves with the 2020 agreements (If informal contacts with offending parties were in this respect indeed conducted, these remain unconfirmed). Within this vacuum, Palestinians in May 2021 mobilized against Israel and in doing so appear to have at least for the time being forestalled the prospect of additional normalization agreements.

It is worth recalling once again the assumptions made in 2020 about Arab disinterest in Palestine when considering the impact of this mobilization throughout the Arab world in May 2021. Suffice it so say that Washington’s top military officer, Gen. Mark Milley, on 17 May provided the ultimate retort to Kushner when he warned of the “risk [of] broader destabilization... and a whole series of negative consequences if the fighting [between Israel and the Palestinians] continues”. When the Biden administration reached out to regional parties to mediate an end to the conflagration, no call was placed to Abu Dhabi. With its embrace of Israel and spurning of the Palestinians, and of Hamas in particular, it had rendered itself diplomatically useless. Taking stock of the situation, Riyadh is said to have concluded that with its significantly larger and more politically engaged population, formal normalization should be, for at least the time being, set aside.

An explanation for the widespread Arab solidarity with the Palestinians in 2021, when compared to the longer and more bloody Israeli assaults of 2008 and 2014, is difficult to provide. The centrality of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and brazen Israeli attack upon Muslim worshippers during Ramadan clearly animated public opinion throughout the region. Arabs from Morocco to Yemen were also inspired by the images and reality of ordinary Palestinians everywhere purposefully uniting around their national cause, as opposed to obsolete leaders jockeying for factional advantage at the expense of the national interest. Other dynamics – such as outrage at their own ruler’s individual and collective inertia and brazen Western pro-Israel partisanship - will also have played a role, but all were ultimately unleashed by the mobilization of Palestinians.

Options for Palestinians: Unity as Survival

As many have pointed out, in May 2021 large numbers of ordinary Palestinians from every geographic community overtook their fractious leaderships to stand up and be counted in defense of their basic rights. In doing so they exposed not only their own, inert leaders, but also those in the region who have prioritized relations with Israel. It is an achievement that can be built upon, but only if Palestinians utilize the window of opportunity now available to them to unite and revitalize their national movement, and once again transform it into a cause that unites the region’s polarized camps and is no longer enmeshed in its rivalries. This may not undo the damage that has already been done in terms of Israeli-Arab normalization, but it can limit the scope of existing agreements and obstruct the consummation of additional and more consequential ones.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.