The seemingly endless road to Palestinian sovereignty
If empty statements could produce peace, the new Israel-UAE deal, brokered by US President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, would be the beginning of the end of hostilities in the Middle East. The deal normalises relations between the two countries, making UAE the first Gulf State to establish official relations with Israel; in exchange, Israel have made a vague promise to stop the annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank. The joint statement released by Israel and UAE called it a "diplomatic breakthrough", with Kushner praising Trump's role in "making the Middle East safer".
Israel PM Netanyahu spoke of "expanding the circle of peace" in the region; British PM Johnson tweeted about his "profound hope" that the agreement would lead to "a more peaceful Middle East"; a EU spokesperson called it a "positive step towards regional stability"; and Germany welcomed the "historic" deal that would make an "important contribution to peace." A UAE spokesperson sentimentally referred to how Muslims would finally have a door to the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem via direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv.
Most US media outlets seemed equally gushing in their response—Wall Street Journal reported on how officials described Trump as "genuinely touched" by the breakthrough; The New York Times called it a "major diplomatic win"; and a Washington Post columnist, in all seriousness, called this Trump's Nobel moment—referring to the "role of modern trios linked in Middle East History by the title "peacemaker".
It is hugely ironic that he referred to the Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli PM Begin and US President Carter in 1978, and the Oslo Accords between Jordan's King Hussein, Israeli PM Rabin and US President Clinton in 1993 (he failed to mention Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation) to explain just how important this recent treaty is. The reason that the Palestinians are not mentioned in any of these examples is because all three times, their voices were ignored, even by the parties that were supposedly there to champion their rights.
The Camp David Accords were considered a betrayal by the Palestinians—in exchange for the return of the Sinai (which had been occupied by Israel in the Six Day War), Egypt ignored the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem, put the question of sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza on hold and looked the other way while Israel aggressively pursued the annexation of Jerusalem, the expansion of settlements on occupied territory and the invasion of Lebanon. The Accord completely took the teeth out of UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which were adopted after the Six Day War ceasefire and unanimously agreed on the withdrawal of Israeli troops from occupied territories.
Similarly, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, after being banned from the first round of peace talks in Madrid in 1991, bypassed the rest of the Palestinian leadership and opened backdoor negotiations with Israel that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords on August 20, 1993. At the time, the Oslo Accords were hailed as a milestone in Middle East peace negotiations; the fact that three million Palestinian refugees permanently lost the right of return (their homes now belonged to Israel) was quickly swept under the rug. The pre-1948 borders were lost forever as Palestine was divided up into different zones, and Israeli troops and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued to grow. Yet even those poorly constructed zones were not set in stone—by 2000, only seven years after the Accord was finalised, 383,000 settlers had moved into West Bank and Gaza, including those in annexed East Jerusalem.
In his book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, award-winning journalist Robert Fisk wrote, "The Oslo agreement, hatched in secret, heavy with unguaranteed dreams, holding out false promises of statehood and Jerusalem and an end to Israeli occupation and Jewish settlement building, was greeted by the world's statesmen—and by most of the world's journalists—as something close to the Second Coming." Twenty seven years later, the Israel-UAE peace deal—reached eight months after the US president unveiled the "Peace to Prosperity" plan for the region, negotiated by Jared Kushner without taking into account a single Palestinian opinion—is seemingly being greeted with the same optimism.
What do the Palestinians get out of this "historic" deal? At least during Oslo, phrases such as "self-determination", "sovereignty" and "right of return" were being tossed around, albeit without packing any real punch. This time, all such lofty ideals have been abandoned—the only thing the Palestinians have been promised is that Israel will "suspend" their plans to annex more Palestinian territory.
Notice the use of the term "suspend". According to the BBC, President Trump has confirmed that this in no way permanently halts the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory—all it means is that "right now it's off the table". Israeli PM Netanyahu, who had wooed his huge base of right-wing voters by promising the expansion of settlements, said in a public statement—"We received a request to wait temporarily from President Trump. It is a temporary postponement. It is not removed from the table, I am telling you that."
It is difficult to think of a more farcical and humiliating deal for Palestinians—a promise to, for the time being, stop an activity that is considered by all international laws to be illegal, and has been identified as such by multiple UN resolutions. The UAE are claiming this as a diplomatic win that saves Palestinians from losing their land but in reality, Netanyahu's policies, while popular at home, have been hugely contentious even with his allies, and this deal gives him a way to backtrack for the time being. The Camp David and Oslo Accords are also painful reminders to Palestinians that this promise will likely be as empty as the ones made before, and their Arab neighbours will look the other way as illegal Israeli settlements continue to expand. The new deal may not be "historic", but it is definitely history repeating itself for Palestine.
The fact that UAE officials have spoken of access to Al-Aqsa Mosque via Tel Aviv is adding insult to injury by its acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty over the highly contentious area—East Jerusalem has been sought by Palestinians as the capital of their future sovereign state, which now seems even more unlikely than ever.
While this deal is being touted as a breakthrough, the truth is that the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been improving their bilateral relations with Israel for years, cooperating in intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and diplomatic initiatives, united in their collective animosity towards Iran. This feeble attempt at placating the Palestinians while moving forward with the normalisation of relations shows that the Gulf monarchies have lost their patience with the Palestinian cause and are more interested in the political and economic payoffs of cooperating with the US and Israel.
That this deal has been finalised between a populist, right-wing leader like Netanyahu and an authoritarian ruler like UAE crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, brokered by the most neoliberal US president in recent history, also demonstrates a disheartening trend in global politics—trade and economy continue to trump democracy and human rights. For now, the only friend and ally Palestine might look to might just be Iran, whose President Rouhani has criticised UAE for "a huge mistake, a treacherous act" and warned of severe consequences if an Israeli presence is detected in the Persian Gulf.
Some Middle East experts have also focused on the need for a new Palestinian leadership that can represent the aspirations of its people in the wake of the Israel-UAE deal. According to social scientist Dr Carol Kasbari, "Palestinians have been aware of their leadership's flaws for years, and that is why they are constantly calling to elect a new one. For them, the answer is clear… it lies in electing a new Palestine National Council for all Palestinians and generating the momentum to democratically elect a new leadership of the PLO."
Until then, this fresh betrayal of Palestine might be understood best through the words of Palestinian legislator and scholar Dr Hanan Ashrawi, who addressed Prince Zayed on Twitter and wrote: "May you never experience the agony of having your country stolen; may you never feel the pain of living in captivity under occupation; may you never witness the demolition of your home or murder of your loved ones. May you never be sold out by your 'friends'."
Shuprova Tasneem is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @shuprovatasneem