The Financial Express

A new script for an evolving Middle East

| Updated: September 29, 2020 21:05:03

(From left) Flags of Bahrain, Israel, United Arab Emirates and  the United States in Tel Aviv      (From left) Flags of Bahrain, Israel, United Arab Emirates and  the United States in Tel Aviv    

Representatives of the governments of United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, and United States converged in Washington, DC on September 15 to sign the historic normalisation accords between the Gulf nations and Israel. The agreements, dubbed as the "Abraham Accords" by White House officials, made these two countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the first to agree to establish relations with Israel.

Donald Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner has hailed the US brokered peace treaties as the beginning of "a new Middle East" and controversially hinted that the Trump Administration was making progress in getting more countries in the region, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia, to recognise Israel. The Gulf nation of Oman has commended the agreement between Israel and Bahrain and also signalled that they may be next in line to normalise relations with Israel. Signing up by Saudi Arabia, however, seems unlikely in the short term.

Trump also indicated that this signing ceremony would "change the course of history and after decades of division and conflict mark the dawn of a new Middle East." Trump suggested that this step was "a major stride toward a future in which people of all faiths and backgrounds could live together in peace and prosperity."

Washington has been the key broker of peace in the Middle East and the crucial moderator in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the last few decades. The last time such a ceremony took place in Washington was in 1994, when President Bill Clinton looked on as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein signed a declaration that paved the way for a peace deal months later. Earlier, in 1979, President Carter had overseen the signing of a peace treaty between Egyptian President Anwar Saadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

This time, in the presence of President Trump Israel's Netanyahu signed normalisation agreements with two countries in one day. This has been a feather in his cap. Crucially, the White House ceremony helped to distract public attention from Netanyahu's domestic issues: a tattered economy dealing with 18 per cent unemployment, a coronavirus crisis that has forced Israel into a second general lock-down, and his own trial on corruption charges that he has been denying consistently.

Israel has had covert relations with many of the Sunni Gulf states, driven in recent years by a mutual de facto alliance against Iran. Even so, their relations pre-date the Iran nuclear deal by more than a decade in some cases, as Gulf States looked to take advantage of Israel's high-tech scene and Israel looked to secure its place in a turbulent Middle East. Chief among these behind-the-scenes relations was the United Arab Emirates. In late-2015, Israel opened a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. In 2018, then- Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev made a state visit to the Grand Mosque on the heels of an Israeli gold medal at a judo tournament in the Emirates.

Israel and the US share Emirati suspicions of the Iranians. So does Bahrain. Until 1969, Iran used to claim Bahrain was by rights part of its territory. Bahrain's Sunni rulers also regard sections of its restive Shia majority as a potential fifth column for Iran.

Like the UAE, Bahrain, with a small but sustained Jewish community has also had covert ties with Israel stretching back years. One member of this community also served as the country's Ambassador to the United States from 2008-2013. The small Gulf kingdom also hosted the unveiling of the economic portion of the White House's plan for Middle East peace, signalling willingness to engage with the US -- and subsequently Israel -- on the issue, even at a time when no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared possible.

Crucially, the UAE and Bahrain are also close allies of the US, with each country hosting a significant US military presence. The US Air Force has deployed F-35 fighter jets in an air base in Abu Dhabi, while the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and Central Command are based in Bahrain. That military presence has drawn the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain closer to the US, and because of the anti-Iran alliance, closer to Israel.

The Palestinians quite justifiably feel betrayed with what has happened. It may be recalled that the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before Arab states would normalise relations with Israel. The UAE and Bahrain have flipped the narrative, moving towards normalisation with no progress pertaining to conflict resolution. Palestinians have consequently accused the UAE and Bahrain of betraying Jerusalem, the al-Aqsa mosque, and the Palestinian cause.

However, the list of options available to the Palestinians appears to be shrinking. The Palestinians have the support of Iran, Turkey, and a few others, but its traditional Arab partners are moving closer to Israel. It would be worthwhile to note that as a sign of that movement, the Arab League failed to pass a resolution backed by the Palestinians that would have condemned the UAE-Israel agreement.

The Palestinians have unanimously rejected the deals signed on  September 15 and their leadership has pointed out that "it's a stab in our back and the back of all Arab nations." Palestinian leaders have also said that the deal was made to help the re-election of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also had contrary views regarding the comment made by Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed who said that the agreement "was reached to stop further Israeli annexation". Palestinians saw little credibility to this claim and  remarked that "the format of the agreement implicitly approves of Israel's annexation of Jerusalem. It only opposes 'further annexation' while approving what's been annexed already."

The Palestinians and leadership of some other Muslim countries have also expressed surprise as to why the term Al-Aqsa Mosque was used instead of Haram al-Sharif in the accords with the UAE and Bahrain. They have pointed out that this has controversial ramifications. They have drawn attention to the fact that under the status quo affirmed in 1967, only Muslims can pray within al-Haram al-Sharif, also known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Non-Muslims can visit but cannot pray at the site. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also affirmed this status quo in a formal declaration  in 2015. However, a clause included in the recent accords between Israel and Gulf Arab states indicates this may no longer be the case.

Jordan has stated that the UAE-Israel deal could push forward stalled peace negotiations if it succeeds in prodding Israel to accept a Palestinian state on land that Israel had occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE, has welcomed the agreement. The Iranian foreign ministry has denounced the deal as an act of "strategic stupidity from Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv". Turkey has also been very critical of the UAE and Bahrain. Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Spain have welcomed the deal. This was broadly reflected in the comment by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who said that the normalisation of ties between the countries "was an important contribution to peace in the region". Russia has, however, clearly pointed out that no Middle East peace can emerge without solving the "Palestinian problem".

A Qatar government spokesperson has said that normalising ties with Israel 'can't be the answer' to Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pointed out that the Palestinian people are living under occupation as "people without a country". It may be recalled in this regard that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar on June 5, 2017, and imposed a sea, land and air blockade, claiming Doha supported "terrorism" and was too close to Iran. Qatar has consistently rejected the claims and said there was "no legitimate justification" for severing relations.

Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General has remarked that he hoped the normalisation of ties between Israel and others can help realise a two-state solution with the Palestinians and also create "an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in meaningful negotiations that will realise a two state-solution in line with relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements".

In a statement, Democratic United States Presidential candidate Joe Biden said: "the offer to publicly recognise the State of Israel is a welcome, brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship ... A Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress, and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace." Biden has also addressed the concern related to any annexation by Israel- "annexation would be a body blow to the cause of peace, which is why I oppose it now and would oppose it as President". Most interesting to say the least!

It would be important to also note here that what we are presently watching is a classic example of transactional diplomacy. The National Bank of Dubai, the largest banking group in the UAE has already signed a MOU with Israel's Bank Hapoalim. The UAE has also indicated that one of the benefits it sees from the normalisation agreement with Israel is that it should be easier to acquire now F-35s from the United States. This view is also shared by Trump's senior adviser Kushner. That would give the Emiratis the latest fighter jet in the US inventory and a significant edge over any other military in the region, with the exception of Israel. However, it is less clear what specific goals Bahrain intends to achieve from the normalisation agreement. However, for both the UAE and Bahrain, the agreements also unfold the possibility of technical cooperation, the purchasing of Israeli military technology such as the Iron Dome missile defence system and cooperation in health and tourism sectors.    

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.



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