There is not much good news for President Donald Trump of the United States these days. If electoral polls have any credibility, he is staring at the face of almost certain defeat in the elections come November. So, when the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was sealed in a telephone call between him and the leaders of Israel and the UAE, signalling a sliver of silver lining in the otherwise hovering dark clouds over him, Trump was ecstatic. A Trump twitter called it a “HUGE breakthrough among “three GREAT friends!”.
How realistic was that claim? Not much. The deal was merely formalizing what has really been happening for years between Israel and the UAE under the table, away from public gaze, but not from public knowledge. Then why this fanfare of high-profile hullaballoo? The timing was important. Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner were brokering a strategy of “outside- in” to resolve this “core” Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. It entailed the strategy of getting Arabs further away from the “centre”, that is, Palestine to create greater pressure on the already besieged Palestinians. The pillar of the deal was that the West Bank would not be annexed. But the pillar began to crumble immediately when the Israelis let the cat out of the bag. Israel said the decision to annex was still on the agenda, but only temporarily suspended at US request so that the agreement may be signed. It seemed a pretty raw deal for the Palestinians, the people most concerned with the agreement, but without any wherewithal to influence it.
The first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country was the one signed in March 1979 between Cairo and Tel Aviv in 1979, for which the Egyptian President, Anwar Saadat, paid with his life. The second was between Israel and Jordan in 1994. But those were between Israel and two of its border states with whom there was a history of wars. The UAE shared no borders and had no military conflicts with Israel. This accord breached an Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) principle that Israel’s bordering (or front-line Arab States) could advance their interests vis-à-vis Israel in the manner they chose as for them the issue was existential. The distant OIC members would continue their non-recognition of Israel in support of the Palestinian cause. The UAE, was the third Arab country to reach such understanding with Israel, and the first from the Gulf. This indicated a success of pro-Israeli powers to salami-slice support away from the Palestinians from other Arab countries.
Broadly, the Abraham accord agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, including the exchange of Ambassadors. Also, it would be followed by agreements on investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues. Then there was that dicey provision on the annexation of West Bank by Israel which was already unravelling. A massively significant concession was made to Israel by an Arab OIC state without any palpable benefit to the Palestinians. But then, why? Some analysts believe the idea was to give Trump a feather in his cap, where there was none, by his Israeli and Emirati friends. If that was the reason the Accord was a sacrifice of crucial Palestinian interest for a very marginal benefit even for Trump, because the US elections will be fought mainly on domestic issues. Foreign affairs will matter little, and the Middle East, not at all.
There are those who believe the UAE would not have taken this step without a nudge and a wink from Saudi Arabia. Both countries do nothing significant these days without consulting each other. Their Crown Princes, who call the shots in both capitals, are the best of chums. While an overt Saudi Peace treaty with Israel is unlikely to be imminent because the cost to its reputation as the custodian of two of Islam’s holiest shrines would take a big hit , their other Arab friends such as Bahrain and Oman might well be in the queue.
What has been the global reaction to this event? The United Nations and its Secretary General , Antonio Guterres, hardly in a position to, first ,give umbrage to the White House, its provider of financial sustenance, and second, to oppose any peace treaty anywhere, cleverly linked the ‘normalization’ to the hope for a two-State resolution of the Palestinian issue. But Abu Dhabi surely realized that the US was too divided to satisfy all sides, when Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, unable to offend Israel and at the same time unwilling to give Trump any credit, focused mainly on the key issue of annexation. He said: “Annexation would be a blow to the cause of peace, which is why I oppose it now, and will oppose it as President”.
Much of the rest of OIC, led by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was opposed. Abbas denounced the deal outright. The famed Palestinian negotiator, Hanan Ashrafi, called it a “sell out by friends”. Rejecting the Accord, Hamas saw it as serving the “Zionist narrative”. Iran, a vowed enemy of the Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms (except Qatar- such are the intricacies of the complex intramural Middle east policies), termed the UAE’s action as “a strategic stupidity”, and equated it with “stabbing the Palestinians in the back”. An equally livid Turkey stated that “history will not forget and never forgive the hypocritical behaviour of the UAE”. In South East Asia , close to my perch in Singapore, in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur officials have so far been tight-lipped, though former Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia called the accord “a step backward for peace “, and warned that it would “divide the Muslim world into warring factions” with Israelis adding “fuel to the fire”.
In South Asia, Pakistan, poor yet powerful, had to be, and was, more discreet. Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose voice carried weight in the OIC, but whose purse could be light without Saudi and Emirati support, has not spoken himself as at writing, but the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad has issued a carefully crafted and calibrated statement. It said that the deal “has far reaching implications” and that “Pakistan has an abiding commitment to the full realization of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of self-determination “, obviously bearing Kashmiris in mind. It added “Pakistan’s approach will be guided by our evaluation of how Palestinian rights and aspirations are upheld, and how regional peace, security and stability are preserved”. Like motherhood, no one could quarrel with that line of sentiment.
In the meantime the average Palestinian must be wondering if, for him or her, the Abraham Accord, close at the heels of the festival Eid -ul-Adha, would transform into an Abrahamic sacrifice!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg