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The Observer view on the ‘historic’ Middle East breakthrough

Aug 17 2020

Observer Editorial

Last week’s agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the UAE does nothing to solve the Palestine impasse

The principal authors of last week’s agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – have strong personal reasons for hailing it as a “historic” breakthrough. Yet any rapprochement built on the ruins of Palestinian hopes of an independent state is suspect and fragile. This flawed deal may yet come to be seen as a historic mistake.

The US president lost no time in claiming credit. Trump is heading towards a November election that he is widely expected to lose. A helping hand from any quarter is welcome to a drowning man. Despite much sound and fury since 2017, notably over North Korean and Afghan peace talks, Trump lacks a signature foreign policy success. His Israel-Palestine “deal of the century” fell flat. So now he trumpets this new pact as a great achievement.

Netanyahu seems to hope the UAE agreement will salvage his tarnished legacy as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. His reputation has been damaged by successive blows – his failure, in three consecutive elections, to win an outright parliamentary majority, his criminal indictment on corruption charges and his much-criticised handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Netanyahu has invested heavily in his relationship with Trump and it paid off when the US recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and cut support for the Palestinians. But even hawkish White House advisers balked this summer at his illegal scheme to annex large swaths of the West Bank in defiance of Arab and European opinion. With Trump apparently on the way out, Netanyahu badly needed a win.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s crown prince, required a boost, too. His support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and his meddling in Libya have hurt his own and his country’s international standing. This pact brings enhanced respectability, allowing increased technological, business and security cooperation with Israel, not least vis-a-vis their common enemy, Iran. It also opens the way for the UAE’s purchase of previously embargoed US weaponry.

Western countries have been too quick to accept assurances that the deal somehow helps the Palestinians

It is worth noting that the various motivations of these three individuals appear to have little or nothing to do with resolving the central issue at the heart of the decades-old conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours – the illegal occupation and seizure of Palestinian land. Their self-exculpatory defence – that the UAE agreed to normalise relations in exchange for a halt to the West Bank annexation plans – looks highly questionable.

Under fire from rightwingers and settler groups enraged that the promised “extension of Israeli sovereignty” was being snatched away, Netanyahu denied that annexation had been sacrificed to normalisation. His plan had merely been suspended following a request from Trump to pause implementation, he said. Yet in Washington, Trump insisted annexation was totally “off the table”.

Given this potentially fatal ambiguity, western countries, including Britain, have been too quick to accept assurances that the deal somehow helps the Palestinians. Boris Johnson called the pledge to suspend annexation “a welcome step on the road to a more peaceful Middle East”. Is this naive or just cynical? What happens if or when an Israeli government decides to end the suspension, as could happen at any time? Who then will speak for Palestine?

Palestinian leaders, ranging from the Palestinian Authority to Hamas in Gaza, spoke for themselves last week. They called the deal a selfish betrayal. Their view is shared by Turkey, Yemen and Iran, while Egypt and Jordan appear decidedly lukewarm.

By breaking ranks with the 2002 Arab peace initiative and setting a precedent for other Gulf states, the UAE, egged on by Trump, has measurably reduced Israel’s incentive to negotiate what has long been considered the only available, just and lasting Middle East peace settlement – a two-state solution honouring the aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Extremists on either side may ultimately be the historical beneficiaries.

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