The Palestinian issue still remains relevant to the Arab street even if the leaders may wish to move on and take a more pragmatic approach.
By Amb Anil Trigunayat
Peace is any day preferable to conflict. This is what happened yesterday when deal-maker President Trump announced at a Virtual Summit of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Zayed of UAE and PM Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that the two countries have agreed to establish full diplomatic relations and a Peace Treaty will be signed. A historic event with far-reaching consequences indeed. UAE becomes the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan and the first Gulf country to have a Peace Treaty with Israel. It is a win-win for all the three.
President Trump and Jared Kushner can claim a partial success of their Deal of The century that has been in the dock for a while which was endorsed by most Arab countries at least as a starting point for a dialogue to resolve the festering Palestinian issue. But President Trump’s announcement on making Jerusalem a de facto capital of Israel by shifting their embassy and Netanyahu’s consequent plan to annex the parts of West Bank rocked the boat entirely for the Palestinians and became an anathema for the Muslim world at least on the face of it. But Trump also needed an overt foreign policy success before November as on other frontiers it has led to uncertainty and confrontation. West Asia with its hot spots and direct conflict with Iran presents unique challenges for the US foreign policy of which securing the Israeli interest along with their own has been a priority for successive US administrations in the region. Pompeo called it an enormous step forward on the right path.
The Palestinian issue still remains relevant to the Arab street even if the leaders may wish to move on and take a more pragmatic approach. Therefore, any development including the present Peace Agreement has to be predicated on something Palestinian.Minister Gargash of UAE while speaking at the American Jewish Committee Advocacy Group on June 16 said that Israel cannot expect to normalise relations with the Arab world if it annexes West Bank. Hence, UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed tweeted “During a call with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperate and setting a road map towards establishing a bilateral relationship”. This will imply the suspension of further Israeli annexation of West Bank as was threatened by Netanyahu and held back due to Pompeo’s intervention and global concerns against the move. The present deal seems to have sealed it at least for now and has given domestically harassed PM Netanyahu some relief and face-saving even if his settler constituency will be unhappy with the reversal or suspension of the move. UAE has already clarified that it will not be opening its embassy in disputed Jerusalem until the Palestine -Israel agreement is reached. The Trilateral Joint Statement stated that the delegations from Israel and the UAE will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy healthcare, culture, environment and establishment of reciprocal embassies.
Israel has been striving to develop closer ties with the Arab countries mainly from the GCC. Umpteen meetings and low-key interactions have happened over the years bilaterally and otherwise. In a first last year, Netanyahu even visited Oman. Bahrain hosted the first meeting for economic opportunities under Trump’s Deal of Century even though neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis could attend it. Bahrain did not discount the normalisation of relations with Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Salman acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Israeli Haj pilgrims and businessmen could travel to the Kingdom. In a first Saudi Arabia permitted Air India to fly over its airspace to Tel Aviv. Qatar indulged in its sports diplomacy with Israel especially as it will host the FIFA. Even in 2007 Shimon Peres had visited Doha. As for UAE while ministerial exchanges and interactions at an unofficially official level have improved in a very first an UAE aircraft with COVID relief supplies for Palestine landed at the Ben Gurion airport. Hence, it was only a matter of time. On June 25, PM Netanyahu had said that UAE and Israel will collaborate in the fight against COVID 19 and an agreement was imminent.
UAE, in the region, is a country that is aspiring to a middle power status and with its smart and proactive diplomacy and modernistic outlook and approaches and strategic global positioning amidst key challenges has emerged as a good interlocutor and often a prime mover. Of course, sometimes it exceeds the brief especially in region hotspots but is able to correct the course equally quickly . Yemen and Libya and Syria are the recent examples. As it does not have the religious authority of a Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, or Turkey it compensated by taking a more enlightened path through its more balanced invocation of religious tolerance. World Tolerance Summit is one such example. Providing the land for a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi attests to that. It has not only emerged as a global financial centre but has also embarked on greater achievements in renewables, nuclear power generation and launching a satellite in space. It is also at a leading edge in taking advantage of the AI-driven technologies for the Industrial revolution 4.0 through a better governance structure knowing too well the limited utility of the hydrocarbons in the medium and long term. Hence it is trying to position itself once again as a strategic partner. In this quest Israel may be of great help especially in high technology, intelligence collaboration especially pertaining to Iran and food security through third country and technology participation. As for Iran, it maintains reasonable and balanced relations. Only last week the two foreign ministers discussed not sure if the UAE’s outreach to Israel was indicated since it indeed will have an impact on the regional dynamic. Since UAE and Saudi Arabia have a strategic security alliance any Peace Treaty ipso facto will have a mutually supportive endorsement till the Saudis have taken the plunge to follow the Emirati lead. Netanyahu welcomed this “full and formal peace” and hoped that other countries will follow the lead.
Although for the time being, the Hamas is calling it a “stabbing in the back” and the Palestinian leader Abbas rejected the UAE rapprochement with Israel as “aggression against the Palestinian people and a betrayal of their cause”. Even Iranian Deputy speaker called the deal a mistake. Ankara an adversary of Abu Dhabi said that history will not forgive “hypocritical behaviour ”UAE for this. In recent times Turkey and Iran have become more vocal champions of the Palestinian cause. But it is a matter of fact that most countries in the region have their own political, developmental, and socio-economic challenges to deal with and the donor fatigue has also set in. Besides the confrontational approach seems to have delivered even less. The Palestinians themselves in Gaza and Ramallah remain divided with differing political allegiances confronted by Israeli intransigence. Moreover, the changing geopolitical dynamic and US or rather Trump’s role in the region have yielded a fresh collaborative approach in the hope that it may also help in resolving the Palestinian issue. As such they have agreed that a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict will remain a priority. The Dubai ruler Sheikh Al Maktoum summed it up“ History written by man. Peace made by the brave”. But History indeed is being written. Amen.
(The author is former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya and Malta & Distinguished Fellow VIF. Views expressed are personal.)