Opinion

UAE’s Dangerous, Occupation-blind Deal With Israel Is More PR Than Peace

Aside from signaling despair and isolation to Palestinians – and consequently endangering Israel’s security – the UAE-Israel agreement is far worse than previous Arab-Israeli peace treaties

Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada
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Palestinians take part in a protest against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Nablus, West Bank, August 14, 2020.
Palestinians take part in a protest against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Nablus, West Bank, August 14, 2020. Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

The agreement struck last week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates could not have come at a worse time – and with worse inferences – for Palestinians.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hell-bent on killing off any lingering prospects of Palestinian statehood. In the United States, the Trump Administration is even more right-wing than Israel’s rightist government. Meanwhile, creeping annexation is rampant, the blockade has rendered Gaza unlivable, and Palestinian financial resources have been drained almost to exhaustion. UNRWA, the Palestinian Authority and civil society have all been struggling and can barely survive.

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Amidst increasing despair and devastation, beleaguered Palestinians have been turning to the courts of public opinion, to the international community and above all to their fellow Arab nations for solidarity to help them ride out this perpetual storm. Palestinians had been counting on a unified Arab position, which would reject Trump’s disastrous peace plan, fend off pressure, and persuade the rest of the world to follow lead.

Then Trump announced his latest deal, between Israel and the UAE. That was the last straw for many Palestinians. Israel was being offered full normalization, including unlimited and unfettered trade and security, in return for merely suspending its annexation of parts of the West Bank.

The message to the Palestinians could not have been clearer: You’re on your own and we’re moving on from the suffering we helped to create in the first place. The shock is still evident, even amongst the Palestinian leadership, who were unaware of the deal until it was announced. All Palestinian factions hastened immediately to denounce the agreement as a “stab in the back”. The PA recalled its ambassador from Abu Dhabi and is weighing its rather limited options

Once the agreement is formally signed and the dust settles, the feelings of abandonment and isolation amongst the Palestinian populace and leadership alike will grow to unprecedented levels. Soon, this will backfire against Israel.

Experience teaches us that increased Palestinian despair does not bring them to their knees; they would never accept permanent occupation with good grace – as stipulated by Trump’s “deal of the century.” Instead, it has been proven that such sentiments only exacerbate tension and would lead to unstoppable chaos. It would also dramatically extinguish any enthusiasm that might remain among some Palestinians for the two-state solution, rather than one state with equal rights for all citizens.

Aside from signaling despair and isolation to Palestinians – and consequently endangering Israel’s security – the UAE-Israel agreement is far worse than previous Arab-Israeli peace treaties for numerous reasons.

First, the agreement is entirely redundant. The two nations were never at war and no Emirati army was ever standing on Israel’s borders. On the contrary, Israel and the UAE enjoyed solid and close relations since 1990. Admittedly, these clandestine ties were critically tested in 2010, when Israel assassinated Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh in Dubai, but they quickly recovered after the Arab Spring, as the UAE increased import of Israeli-made spyware technology to crack down on dissents and boost its regional dominance.

So, unlike the Egyptian-Israeli peace, which liberated the Sinai Peninsula and ended a war, or the Jordanian-Israeli peace deal, which secured Israel’s longest borders, the UAE-Israel deal is more of a marketing stunt and less the grand breakthrough that Abu Dhabi wants us to believe.

Second, even the agreement’s purported value of halting Israel’s annexation is ridiculous at best. Annexation was going nowhere long before the UAE-Israel deal. While this deal offered Netanyahu a golden way out of this predicament, he was adamant to prove Mohammed Bin Zayed wrong, insisting that annexation is still on the agenda.

Exploiting annexation as a pretext to repackage a sellout as a life-saving service to Palestinians creates a dangerous fig leaf that spares American and European decision-makers any pressure to act against Netanyahu’s assault on the peace process. The United Kingdom, U.S. officials, the United Nations Middle East peace envoy, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Oman, and Bahrain, all rushed to pop open the celebratory champagne to toast a short delay to annexation – as if the conflict were over.

The UAE-Israel pact, therefore, simply gives Israel more leverage over the Palestinians for free; it enables and emboldens the occupation and normalizes the unlivable status quo as acceptable.

Third, while Egypt’s and Jordan’s peace treaties with Israel helped them broker Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Taba (2001), Al-Aqba (2003) and other summits, and enables Egypt to act as a crucial cease-fire mediator between Israel and Hamas, the UAE is entirely uninterested in the Palestinians.

Aside from paying lip-service to the Palestinians, what the UAE wants from its indecent rush toward normalization is clear and simple: more security and military cooperation with Israel in broad daylight and more leverage in Washington to provide it with impunity in its race for regional dominance in Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. The moment the deal was announced, Jared Kushner proudly declared that the UAE has become one of the US’s closest allies in the region.

PA leaders recently revealed that the UAE severed relations with Ramallah in 2011. They also pointed out that Saudi Arabia similarly stopped funding the PA months ago, indicating that it wants to emulate the Emiratis race toward normalization. Since Thursday, the Saudi state-sanctioned troll army has been extraordinarily frantic in defending the agreement, demonizing Palestinians, bashing critics and calling for more normalization. This increasingly pushes Palestinians to the arms of the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s rivals: Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

Fourthly, the UAE-Israel deal differs from the Egyptian and Jordanian agreements in of the nature of normalization. In the latter cases, normalization was and remains pragmatically confined to political, diplomatic and elite circles; there has been no major economic or cultural normalization at the expense of Palestinians. In both Egypt and Jordan, there's still plenty of room to criticize Israel’s actions and express solidarity with Palestinians.

The UAE, in contrast, is fully invested in normalization on every level. It has shown eagerness to send and host tourists, invest in Israel and welcome Israeli businesses. This potential economic boom would surely trickle down to the occupation apparatus – the companies that facilitate the occupation and the policy that perpetuates it. This will further increase Israel’s capacity to oppress the Palestinians.

The UAE is also persistent on forcefully advancing popular normalization. Emirati trolls and sponsored pundits are relentlessly spewing hate against Palestinians and adulation of Israel to manipulate the public. The UAE has even defined criticism of Israel or the deal as “disrespectful” toward the Emirati leadership – a crime that carries stiff penalties – and is encouraging citizens to report on violators directly to the attorney general through a phone app.

Finally, the UAE is using its leverage over other Arab nations - the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, Mauritania and Bahrain – to push them towards following its lead. This is critically dangerous. While the UAE rhetorically claims to have delayed annexation in return for normalization, other Arab countries, with less regional weight, will fail to extract a comparable price from Netanyahu.

The UAE's normalization is already giving away the Arabs’ most powerful weapon: the promise of a generous reward, in the form of normalization, in exchange for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This promise also ensured that the Israeli occupation remained relatively restrained and did not endanger progress towards normalization.

Now that the deal is done, the UAE will no longer have the will, courage or interest to reproach Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Abu Dhabi already stood silent this week on Israel’s airstrikes and escalation of collective punishment on Gaza’s two million inhabitants.

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