With days left to the potential start of Israel's annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, potentially extending Israeli sovereignty over about 30 percent of its total area, the Arab states that have moved closer to normalization with Israel are making noisy threats about the sustainability of that process if Benjamin Netanyahu goes ahead. But informed by years of disillusionment, Palestinians are rightly skeptical about their protestations.
The most prominent public intervention by an Arab state warm to Israel was an op-ed written by UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, published earlier this month in the high-circulation Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
The surprising piece, and the accompanying direct-to-camera videos shared on Twitter, was addressed to officials but was most clearly aimed at the Israeli public. His message: annexation could be the trigger for "igniting violence, rouse extremists and destabilising the entire Middle East and North African region" and would spell the end of normalization.
Otaiba's article was an unprecedented act of public diplomacy directed at Israelis, but for Palestinians, it lacked teeth. They generally viewed the message as a friendly advice rather than a genuine threat to cut established ties. Some went as far as to accuse Otaiba of choosing the anti-Palestinian camp, alongside Israel.
That is because the core thrust of Otaiba’s warning to Israel concerned potential annexation, but not the half-century of Israel's military occupation and its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians going back to 1948. After all, nothing that the most extreme right pro-settlement government in Israel’s history has done up to now has triggered this kind of response.
Otaiba was one of three Arab Ambassadors who attended the "historical ceremony" at the White House last January when President Trump unveiled his Middle East peace proposal, engineered by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Omani and Bahraini ambassadors to Washington were present alongside Israeli officials and were praised by Trump for their presence and support for U.S. efforts.
The "Peace to Prosperity" workshop, aimed at gathering and allocating $50bn investment to revive the Palestinian economy, and held in Bahrain in June 2019, attracted even more Gulf officials.
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Both ceremonies were boycotted by the Palestinian Authority, who warned that these proposals were intended to whitewash normalization without any real changes for the benefits of Palestinians' national rights on the ground. That was also why the PA reacted with cold silence to Otaiba's article
While those Gulf states have for years leveraged their strong ties with the U.S. to push for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 – full Arab normalization with Israel in return for the end of the occupation – the absence of progress never put the brakes on more and more public normalization, official visits, coordination in the opposition to Iran, and business ties. Palestinians have consistently asked for normalization not to come at their expense.
Palestinian scepticism was reinforced when, just days after Otaiba’s message, the UAE announced that two Emirati companies would co-develop research technology to fight COVID-19 with two Israeli firms. The ground was laid by UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash who noted, in a call to U.S. Jewish leaders, that the UAE could cooperate with Israel in some areas while disagreeing on annexation: "[W]e can say we disagree with you on this, we don’t think it’s a good idea, but on other hand, there are areas like COVID and technology, where we can actually work together."
There is plenty of cynicism about other grand gestures being made now too. The Arab League officially called on Israel to halt the annexation. But that is likely to fall on deaf ears, since the warning did not include any reference to the Trump administration, whose plan greenlighted Israel's steps towards annexation.
The Palestinian leadership won't be depending on the Gulf to stop annexation, declaring that all options are on the table to counter Israel's illegal move. The PA is comprehensively and rapidly utilizing all the (limited) leverage and diplomatic relationships in its disposal to garner regional and international support.
The PA and Fatah party held a rally attended by thousands in the Palestinian city of Jericho, the major closest city to the Jordan Valley, first target of the annexation plan. In attendance were a number of heads of diplomatic missions to the "State of Palestine," as well as UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov.
Meanwhile, a popular non-violent struggle across the Palestinian territories is gaining momentum, with the encouragement of PA president Mahmoud Abbas himself. As Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki recently noted, for Palestinians "resisting the occupation is a legitimate right…we have chosen nonviolent, peaceful resistance because it is appropriate in these circumstances," and that the resistance will be directed by the PLO leadership.
The reaction from Hamas-ruled Gaza has been far more militant: it and other armed Palestinian factions have warned that they will not sit idly by. Hamas announced that Israeli steps toward annexing parts of the West Bank would be considered a "declaration of war."
Hamas head Ismail Haniya declared that it was "the duty of each free Palestinian citizen to rise up" against the annexation plans; Salah al-Bardawil, a senior Hamas official, called for the launch of "a popular revolution everywhere." "Our people are facing a historical juncture," announced another senior Hamas official, Mushair Al-Masri, who added Palestinians must send a "message to the enemy…even if it costs us our blood and our children."
The only Arab state which has not diluted its words is Jordan, which shares a long border with Israel and which would bear the brunt of political instability and a potential refugee influx. Amman expressed its total rejection of the plan and King Abdullah has conducted last-minute in-person lobbying in the White House. Jordan, as one of only two Arab states with signed peace deals with Israel, has the tangible option of withdrawing its ambassador, an act which could send that 1994 treaty into a state of limbo.
No one denies the generous financial support of the key Gulf states of UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Palestinians and UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which caters for millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
But numerous Arab regimes have given into cultivating ties with Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause. Palestinians long ago lost faith in empty pan-Arab slogans, and in the authenticity of Arab, particularly Gulf, solidarity with them. It's now clear that Palestinians and their cause have become a burden for various Arab regimes, and an obstacle to full public normalization between Israel, Arab states and the wider non-Arab Muslim world.
And if Netanyahu ends up halting full-scale annexation, and settling for a more amorphous act that can be spun as 'not-annexation,' then Palestinians will be hardly surprised if normalization resumes, even if it is accompanied by fewer bells, whistles and press conferences. That will indicate more clearly than ever how parts of the Arab world have normalized the occupation.
Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist, political analyst and commentator based in London. He holds an MA in International Relations, is a former journalist fellow at the University of Oxford and a current PhD candidate. He covered the 2008/2009 and 2012 Hamas-Israel conflicts when reporting from Gaza. Twitter: @YousefAlhelou