Slowly but inexorably, Sunni Arab rulers in the Middle East are building an alliance with Israel against Iran and its Hezbollah proxies. This process received another stamp of official confirmation yesterday as Israel signed what was dubbed an “historic deal” to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates. Israeli deals with more Gulf States — and perhaps even Saudi Arabia — may soon follow.
This isn’t a radically altered power configuration so much as a formal acknowledgement of increasingly cordial relations between Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbours. In exchange for treating Israel as a normal country, Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to shelve plans to annex large chunks of the West Bank — giving the UAE’s Prince Mohammed Al Nahyan something to sell to citizens back home.
Until now Israel has had no diplomatic relations with the Gulf Arab states. The deal is therefore another dent — following previous deals with Egypt and Jordan — in the pointless pretence in parts of the Middle East that Israel has no right to exist — or indeed, that it does not exist. As the left-leaning Israeli writer Shany Mor rightly asks: “Has any benefit accrued to the Arab world from this unremitting hostility and denial of the fact of an Israel, if not (dare we say it?) the justice of an Israel?”
Normalisation of relations also brings with it a range of potentially fruitful cultural exchanges, together with more formal agreements such as the exchange of embassies and a resumption of direct flights.
So far, so good. And yet, it is worth asking: cui bono?
US President Donald Trump — whose administration officially brokered the deal — will undoubtedly tout the agreement on the campaign trail as an historical foreign policy success for the White House. Moreover, should Trump win a second term, one can feasibly imagine him giving a tentative green light to further Israeli annexation of the West Bank; though whether the Israelis choose to follow through on that is another matter.
The signs are not particularly auspicious on that front, even if one must factor in Netanyahu’s penchant for nationalistic bombast. In a television address broadcast yesterday in Israel, Mr Netanyahu said annexation plans for the West Bank had merely been “delayed” and remain “on the table”. This may or may not be true: many inside Israel view plans for annexation as dangerous and unfeasible.
Like Trump, Netanyahu will receive domestic plaudits for the deal, which the Israeli leader will point to in order to distract from domestic imbroglios (Netanyahu faces corruption charges and, in common with Trump, has botched his country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic).
And yet, deals of this sort — between rival authoritarian elites — are invariably carried out over the heads of some of their subjects. In the process, they grant a penumbra of legitimacy to the existing order — in this case the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land with the denial of basic human rights that goes along with it. Netanyahu offered nothing in terms of ending the existing occupation of the West Bank. What’s been offered is an (apparently flexible) pledge not to annex yet more territory — an important distinction. No wonder the leader in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, likened it to “treason”.
We will hear much in the coming days about the historic nature of this agreement — Trump’s National Security Advisor is already saying his boss should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s worth registering amid the diplomatic self-aggrandisement that, for the Palestinians, any settlement which appears to legitimise Israel’s existing frontiers — and therefore the occupation — is far from desirable.