By Adam DuBard
On September 15th, President Trump and the White House hosted dignitaries from Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain for a historic event, as Bahrain and UAE became the third and fourth Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel. Both nations joined Egypt and Jordan, who had previously signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively. The deal was hailed as a massive breakthrough in the perpetual quest for an elusive Middle East peace. However, most countries in the region maintain their stance that they will not follow suit until Israel commits to the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, although there is an expectation from the White House that more countries have softened their stance in light of these agreements..
Lost among the pomp and circumstance was the very reason that Israel and other Arab countries have maintained hostile relations – the issue of Palestinian statehood. Palestinians had previously been relying upon their Arab allies to withhold normalizing their relations with Israel as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. Instead, the UAE and Bahrain offered Israel this massive concession only in return for Israel withdrawing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proposal to annex large areas of the West Bank, a move that the UN denounced as illegal under international law.
This setback is just the latest in a long string of moves by the Trump administration that has further marginalized the Palestinian fight for statehood. In 2018, the United States officially acknowledged Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move that had previously been regarded as a massive bargaining chip in future peace negotiations. The fact that Jerusalem has been seen as a potential joint-capital in a future two-state solution meant that this move was seen as a significant blow to any future independent Palestinian state.
Further compounding matters, later that year the United States withdrew its $200 million of annual support for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the agency that maintains Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. This abrupt move left UNRWA without a third of its funding, leaving the agency scrambling to close this massive budget shortfall. After last month’s announcement of the new peace deals, the Palestinian movement is demoralized as the fight for Palestinian statehood appears to be at a new low.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas described the deal as a “violation” of a “just and lasting solution under international law.” However these recent developments have demonstrated the irrelevance of the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas If Arab solidarity against Israel continues to crumble, the situation will continue to weaken their cause.
Sara Sharif, a second-year SAIS student who is Italian-Jordanian with Palestinian roots, described the new normalization agreements as highlighting Palestine’s isolation in the international community. These new agreements “exacerbate the sense of isolation and abandonment not only by the international community in general but especially by the Arab countries,” Sara said. “For Palestine and Palestinians it means that they are again left on their own,” she added. These issues are also compounded by the disorganization and impotence of the Palestinian leadership, she elaborated further. “The Palestinian movement is extremely weak and with the collapse of Arab solidarity it’s even worse … the Gulf countries are rich and they are the only ones in the region who could potentially do something about the Palestinian cause but now it’s evident that they could not care less.”
However, the agreements with Bahrain and the UAE have enjoyed fairly strong support among Israelis. According to a study done by The International MA Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel-Aviv University this month, the normalization agreement with the UAE was supported among the Jewish public by 57% of moderate rightwing respondents, 85% of center respondents, and 93% of left respondents, although 65% of rightwing supporters were opposed to the deal.
Yaniv Cohen, another second-year SAIS student who is Israeli-American, felt that most Israelis supported the deal, albeit with some caveats. “Most Israelis are probably happy about the normalization even if they dislike Netanyahu, and even though the Emirates will acquire F35s,” he said. As for the Palestinian issue, Yaniv pointed out that many Israelis see the new agreements as “proof that Israel can normalize relations with the Arab world despite the Palestinian issue.” Yaniv also mentioned that some Israelis on the left believe that “normalization opens up the door for progress on the stalled conflict because Israel would not want to lose what it has just gained,” although he remained skeptical of that prospect.
Further, Yaniv echoed Sara in the general feeling of hopelessness and malaise surrounding the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine. “Arab nations held normalization as a trading chip in exchange for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since … 2002. But that chip hasn’t played any role for years, since there was virtually no chance of resolution on the horizon.”
Ultimately, the emergence of Israeli’s ability to break through the decades-long block of Arab resistance highlights a major turning point in Middle Eastern relations, and especially the pursuit of peace between the Palestinian and Israeli people. However, for the Palestinian people who have been striving for statehood for over seven decades, this moment only served as another depressing loss in a string of continuous defeats. And while the leaders of the US, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain congratulated themselves and smiled for photo opportunities in the White House Rose Garden, the Palestinian people were once again merely an afterthought.