PALESTINIAN leaders are keeping up diplomatic efforts to dissuade Arab countries from following the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in establishing relations with Israel. They believe that, in the long term, it could prove to be an uphill struggle.
The UAE becomes the third Arab country to recognise Israel, alongside Egypt and Jordan. When the deal was announced, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, called it a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal of the Palestinian cause”.
Hanan Ashrawi, a Christian member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, addressed the de facto leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, on Twitter. “May you never experience the agony of having your country stolen,” she wrote. “May you never feel the pain of living in captivity under occupation.”
President Abbas’s diplomatic offensive has been successful thus far. He publicly thanked Bahrain and Sudan for resisting efforts by the United States to persuade them to follow in the UAE’s footsteps. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while not criticising the UAE, said that they remained committed to the 2002 Arab peace plan. Under this, recognition of Israel would follow its withdrawal from occupied territory and resolution of the refugee issue, leading to a two-state solution.
“It’s clear that public criticism and opposition have deterred those Arab states that might have been considering following in the UAE’s footsteps,” a Christian Palestinian political commentator, Daoud Kuttab, said on Tuesday. “For now, at least, we’ve avoided the domino effect.”
The UAE’s move has had the effect of uniting rival Palestinian factions in an attempt to limit the damage to their cause. But the Palestinian editor of the online daily Rai al-Youm, Abdel Bari Atwan, is sceptical about how long the harmony will last. “We reserve judgement,” he wrote. “We have been seduced in the past by seemingly good intentions that proved illusory.”
Where the latest moves leave the peace process is also unclear. While the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said that West Bank annexation is no longer imminent — a key element in the deal with the UAE — he has emphasised that it is merely on hold, not cancelled. Annexation of one third of the land would kill prospects for a two-state solution.
The co-opting of the UAE erodes Arab support for the kind of peace deal that Palestinians are seeking. In the view of Elham Fakhro, a Gulf States analyst at the Crisis Group think tank, “striking a deal over the heads of the Palestinians does little to contribute to a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Mr Kuttab said that the Palestinians faced a dilemma. “I personally think the UAE action and the general apathy in the Arab world have weakened Abbas and made ineffective his methodology of depending only on the international community and the Arabs. The Palestinian public must validate or reject this methodology and, if necessary, decide how to reach their goal, and who should lead them in future.”
In the short term, the Palestinians inevitably feel increasingly isolated and anxious that the UAE may have started a trend, even if other states are holding back for now. There are already signs: on Monday, the first Israeli flight to the UAE passed through Saudi airspace.
Dr Christopher Davidson, a Middle East expert at Durham University, said on Tuesday: “I think it’s fair to say that the Palestinians feel their cause is slipping off the agenda of most Arab governments.” Ian Black, a historian of the Arab-Israeli conflict, agreed. The UAE-Israel accord, he said, “comes at a very bad time for the Palestinians”, and it would add to “the sinking feeling that their cause has been marginalised and that they have started to be formally abandoned”.