Over the past few weeks, tensions in Israel-Palestine have escalated and the Israeli army has launched yet another deadly war on Gaza. This assault, as well as the threat of evictions of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and the Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, which triggered Palestinian protests, are all just another chapter in the 73-year-old Palestinian Nakba.
But these events also demonstrate the failure of the normalisation deals – the so-called Abraham Accords – between four Arab countries and Israel concluded in 2020. These agreements were heavily advertised as promoting peace in the Middle East and reining in Israeli expansionist policies in Palestine. But they have proven to have failed in both.
What has normalisation wrought?
The announcement of the normalisation of relations with Israel came laden with promises that it will help bring peace to the Middle East, put a stop to the Israeli plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, and open the door to economic development for the entire region. But what has transpired since has proven that these agreements were a mere business transaction shepherded by former US President Donald Trump, who did all he could to accommodate all of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s whims.
The main outcome of the normalisation deals is that the United Arab Emirates is set to become a major trading partner for Israel after it abandoned the decades-old Arab boycott of the Zionist state. Abu Dhabi has announced it intends to invest in Israeli hi-tech firms, manufacturing, healthcare, and agriculture, among other sectors. Importantly, the two countries will most likely cooperate on military production. The UAE, like some other Arab countries, has already acquired Israeli surveillance technology, drones, and airport security equipment. Despite the declared Emirati opposition to Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories, it has started allowing goods from illegal Jewish settlements – labelled “from the land of Israel” – to be sold in its markets.
Economic relations between Bahrain and Israel are also likely to intensify. The Israeli government foresees a non-military trade volume of $220m with Manama in 2021, but also expects to sell it military and security hardware.
No major trade flows are expected out of the normalisation deals with Sudan and Morocco, but the two countries are set to reap the benefits of their own political victories facilitated by the US. Khartoum was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, which will help the poor country secure loans and investments, while Rabat was granted Washington’s recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, which it had sought since the 1970s.
None of these deals changed the situation on the ground in the Middle East’s hotspots, particularly in Palestine, as the events of the past few weeks demonstrate.
Israel continues to be engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Aided by police and state laws that discriminate against non-Jews, the Israeli authorities persist in their campaign to expel Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem, with several families now threatened with forced eviction from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Israel also continues to trample over Palestinians’ religious rights. For nights on end, Israeli police attacked worshippers in Al-Aqsa Mosque during the month of Ramadan and actually lobbed stun grenades and smoke bombs into the al-Haram al-Sharif compound. Israeli forces also harassed Palestinian Christians and prevented some of them from reaching the Church of Holy Sepulchre for Easter services.
Israeli far-right groups, feeling emboldened by their electoral alliance with Netanyahu, have also stepped up harassment of Palestinians. Some of them marched in Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs” during Ramadan. Their virulence spread to mixed cities inside the Green Line where they attacked Palestinian homes, motorists, and pedestrians. In their aggression towards Palestinians, they were protected by Israeli police, which once again confirmed that the Palestinians in Israel are second-class citizens. This was made official with the enactment of the “Jewish Nation-State Law” in 2018 which practically codified Israel as an apartheid state.
Finally, Israeli aggression towards Gaza shows no sign of abating. Last week it launched its third major assault on the besieged strip in 10 years. As of the time of writing, more than 200 people have been killed in Gaza, including 59 children, and over 1,000 injured. Another 13 Palestinians were killed in clashes with occupation forces in the West Bank.
The costs of normalisation
It is hard to see how Arab countries that normalised relations with Israel can claim that their purpose was to bring peace to the Middle East. The events of the last few weeks point to their utter failure to effect any positive outcome on all fronts. To be sure, they are likely to face a public backlash and lose credibility following the Israeli raids on Al-Aqsa and the bloody assault on Gaza.
The Arab public has repeatedly shown itself to be committed to the Palestinian cause. In the last Arab Opinion Index of 2019-2020, conducted in 13 Arab countries representing some 300 million people, 88 percent of respondents rejected the idea of normalising relations with Israel. Seventy-nine percent said that Palestine remains the major concern for all Arabs. In Sudan, 79 percent of respondents said they oppose having relations with Israel before Palestinian rights are secured.
In the face of ongoing Israeli aggression, the Arab public remains committed to defending Palestinians and Jerusalem, including people in the four countries that normalised relations. But what continues to be an impediment to publicly showing solidarity is the authoritarian nature of Arab politics that prevents the true expression of popular sentiment. To be sure, it is hard to voice an anti-Israel opinion in the UAE when the Emirati embassy in Tel Aviv is tweeting congratulatory messages to Israel for its “independence” day, which marked the beginning of the Palestinian Nakba and dispossession in 1948.
Considering public opinion indicators and current Israeli actions, it is difficult to see how the normalisation deals with Israel will be any different in their impact on Palestine from the current cold peace between Israel and each of Egypt and Jordan. Aside from establishing formal relations and limited trade, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979 and the Jordanian-Israeli treaty of 1994 have not swayed public opinion nor intensified official exchanges. In fact, the frosty ties between Israel and Jordan are a reminder to all that the Zionist state will never compromise its own interest to maintain a good relationship with any Arab country.
Israel is also unlikely to go out of its way to defend any of the Arab states that have normalised relations with it. One of the rationales for normalisation touted by the Trump administration was a potential regional alliance against Iran. With Israel focused on expanding and solidifying its settler-colonial project in Palestine, it has no reason to come to the rescue of any Arab state. Israel is only concerned with its own security and would not fight Iran on behalf of the Arabs.
Normalisation is also not giving any more dividends in Washington, after Trump’s term ended. It is true that the Biden administration considers itself a defender of Israel, but it is clearly not willing to reward Israel’s “new friends” as its predecessor did. The US Congress may still cancel the UAE’s F-35 deal and political pressures on the administration may potentially force it to reverse the US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.
It also increasingly seems that Saudi Arabia – the ultimate normalisation victory sought by Trump and Netanyahu – is unlikely to follow in the UAE’s footsteps. The Zionist state’s assault on the Palestinians and its violation of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem make any such Saudi move utter folly. As Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman works to rehabilitate his image domestically, regionally, and internationally, any steps towards normalisation may deprive him of the essential element of legitimacy his rule needs.
As Jerusalem’s Palestinians fight for their continued presence in the city and Gaza resists the criminal Israeli onslaught, normalisation with Israel has proven to be an utter failure in bringing peace and security to the region. To be sure, given what has transpired since the signing of the Abraham Accords last September, normalisation has shown itself to be a mere business transaction for those who engaged in it – one that may cost them their credibility in the region and beyond.
Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here. This article was published by Al Jazeera on May 18, 2021