Dr. Muhammaed Megahed Elzayat, NESA Alumnus and Academic Advisor, Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies
The UAE, United States and Israel surprised us by announcing a tripartite agreement that included, in short, two main points: 1) postponing the annexation of settlements, a project that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had planned on implementing; and 2) normalizing direct bilateral relations between the UAE and Israel at all levels. This agreement triggered mixed reactions. In contrast to the broad Arab support for the agreement, there were those that strongly opposed it, understandably the Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood factions throughout the Arab World, while there were others that simply refrained from expressing their positions.
The nature of the Arab position on strategic developments
Throughout the years, Arab history’s regional reactions to strategic initiatives related to Israel and the Palestinian cause have run the gamut. The evidence lies in the reactions in the region to Egypt’s acceptance of Resolution No. 242, and the “Rogers” initiative embraced by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser where Nasser was accused by many of betraying the Palestinian and Arab cause. The ceasefire in 1973, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, and the “Mena House” talks, also saw President Sadat similarly accused of treason. The lack of a unified Arab position was also evident with the mixed reactions of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In the past, some Arab countries, especially those close to the Palestinian issue, set lofty goals on an acceptable resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, over time and with no progress or resolution in sight, many have acquiesced to what is in their own interests, thereby lowering expectations on a quick political solution. Perhaps the experience of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations that began in Washington between Ambassador Rabinovich and “Hikmat Al-Shehabi” followed by a meeting with President Hafez Al-Assad and President Clinton in Geneva, provide an important example of this endless stalemate. While President Al-Assad acknowledged at the time that his country was ready for full normalization with Israel in exchange for lasting peace, the two countries, though close to a peace agreement, ultimately faltered due to the international borders between the two countries. Syria had requested that their borders reach the “Tiberias” waters, while Israel insisted on moving it by 3 kilometres, given that that land is Palestinian and not Syrian. The agreement however was all but sealed by persuading Turkey to pump double quantities of water to compensate for what Syria had hoped for from Lake Tiberias, but was derailed by the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. This episode demonstrated that Syrian national interests ultimately took priority over Palestinian welfare.
The Arab division has increased over the past years as various regional powers seek to dominate the region with military capacity – not only Israel, but also Iran and Turkey. While Iran is seen by Arab countries as striking at the heart of Arab interests; likewise, Turkey’s Erdogan is seen with aspirations of building his new Ottoman project to dominate the region at their expense.
Recent history demonstrates that there is not an “Arab position” and that in fact there is no shared Arab vision, but rather a wide range of differences among the Arab countries.
As a result, the so-called “joint Arab position” is merely words without real meaning or commitment, and there are no unifying factors that could bring countries together in support of an agreed position or strategy to address what are seen as common threats to the national security of Arab states. Rather, a complex web of bilateral and regional alliances have become the framework and norm that governs the region.
Timing of the agreement
The tripartite agreement occurred in the midst of extraordinary challenges in the Arab region, including, but not limited to:
1. The difficulties to the Palestinian cause posed by President Trump’s decisions to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and proposing “the deal of the century” that seemed to disregard Palestinian aspirations, rights, and claims agreed upon in Madrid and Oslo. The Arabs and the whole world stood by silent, unable to effectively influence this policy or strongly advocate for the Palestinians.
2. The apparent Palestinian inability to put aside differences between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate a united Palestinian front. Instead, both allowed themselves to be overwhelmed and dejected by lack of progress on a peace solution unable to respond unitedly to calls for confrontation through dialogue. This was used as further justification for Israeli current unilateral policy. It seems that Hamas and some of its factions supporting provocative actions against Israel will ultimately undermine any hoped for gains for the Palestinians. They will only further mobilize the Israeli Right to justify its continuous steps to abandon the Palestinian cause.
3. The Arab Initiative proposed an agreed-upon framework for negotiation and normalization of relations with Israel. However, when Israel rejected it, the Arabs did not move to build a strong network of international support, and as a result, the negotiation process came to a standstill and failed. While some Arab countries avoided too openly committing to a collective position, the inability of the Arab League Summits to take decisions further undermined finding a political solution.
4. A number of provocative questions being raised: Could the lack of an Arab position even before “the deal of the century” (to include the possible loss of the Palestinian territories) raise questions about how far the Arab States are willing to sacrifice Palestinian interests for their own national goals after the tripartite agreement? Or could the possibility of stopping the annexation in return for bilateral relations be a fair trade-off and in the long term positively affect Israeli society? And could a Biden win in the US Presidential election create the positive atmosphere where serious negotiations could resume once again, absorb some of the negative effects of the annexation decision, and open the door to new initiatives?
Dimensions and Fallout
There is no doubt that the agreement represents a kind of geopolitical movement in the region, whether we agree or disagree with it, as it introduces a new equation of balance and opens the door for further positive compromise. Postponing annexation in return for normalization and open relations has shifted the increasingly static Palestinian agenda. This could possibly set a new political formula of compromise that provides space for countries to initiate a dialogue with Israel that might break the stalemate of Palestinian negotiations.
It is the right of the UAE and any country to normalize relations with Israel and to leverage those relations to pressure for other concession such as cessation of settlements. It could also offer a broader opportunity for greater dialogue and discussion between those countries, the Palestinian side, and other Arab countries. That new willingness to talk might give rise to a new strategy that is inspired by some of the tenants of the “Oslo” agreement, stop the suffering and reverse the losses for the Palestinian issue, and bring back the idea of a two-state solution.
This approach and willingness to dialogue could also have a reassuring effect on Israeli domestic society by calming tension and hostility, and reducing the appeal of the extremist right-wing parties. It is, however, necessary for Arab states to come together and craft an Arab strategy that benefits from positive political movement and dialogue with the Israelis and stops the impulse towards the extremist right-wing parties.
There is no doubt that the Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood opposition to the UAE’s move clearly reveals the political hypocrisy and transactional nature of Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey has historically stronger relations with Israel than those of any of the Arab countries, especially in the areas of military, intelligence, and deep economic cooperation. Therefore, it was surprising that the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood publicly objected to and rejected the UAE’s negotiations with Israel. Indeed, this political hypocrisy is reflected in other public expression of Erdogan’s concern for the Palestinians, such as his attack on Peres at the Davos conference which was celebrated by large sectors of Palestinians and Arabs. Meanwhile, in recently revealed accounts, one learns that the former Prime Minister Davutoglu personally wrote the letter of apology that Erdogan sent to Peres after the event.
It is natural to imagine the immediate and emotional rejection of the agreement by Palestinians who feel betrayed by their fellow Arabs and the Arab community of states. However, the Palestinians and their leadership must be pragmatic and look to the possible long-term gains and benefits that normalization brings. They must not fall into the trap of only seeing the short-term losses. It is in their best interest to focus their attention and take this opportunity to reset relationships with the Americans, the Israelis, and the other Arab countries in the region, leveraging the easing of tensions in the region, allowing the Palestinians an opening to achieve much-sought gains for the Palestinian cause.
In my opinion, Netanyahu, who agreed to postpone the annexation, will not easily give up his personal agenda in this regard, as he sees this as critical to build himself as the historic leader of Israel. However, Netanyahu’s personal goals should not prevent the Arab world in light of the current political situation and the existing international focus, from using this time to restructure an Arab strategy. This united Arab approach would provide stronger leverage dealing with Israel without necessarily making further concessions to Israel without an appropriate trade-off/benefit. This task is not easy; it requires reformulating the political and media strategies of the countries that decide to establish relations with Israel. While this is their sovereign right, it should be within the parameters of a broader agreed-upon Arab strategy in dealing with Israel.
In addition, the American position supporting the adoption of the UAE-Israel agreement was obviously aimed at directly benefiting President Trump’s re-election campaign. Although Trump was the owner of “the deal of the century”, he supported the Emirati request to postpone the annexation and put appropriate pressure on Israel to accept those terms.
What the UAE did shocked the region. However, in the aftermath many saw this as a positive first move for the region. It reaffirmed the right of any country to define its interests and the means it deems appropriate to achieve those interests. It also highlighted that the Palestinian issue is not the responsibility of the UAE alone or any other country. And lastly, it underscored that the agreement does not go beyond what the Palestinians and the Israelis previously agreed upon in the “Oslo” agreement (mutual recognition, normalization, cessation of resistance, and security coordination).
The region is witnessing a major geopolitical shift dominated by the interaction of different regional powers, especially Iran, Turkey and Israel. That said, it is necessary that this shift be dealt with objectively. The UAE, which is the fourth party to establish relations with Israel after Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians, will likely be followed by other Arab countries that establish broader relations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, if not openly, but in secret. It is therefore critical that the Palestinians use this opportunity to dialogue with the concerned parties, especially other Arab states to ensure the Palestinian cause is served without regressing to mere accusations and denunciations.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.