[On 13 August 2020, Israel and the United Arab Emirates jointly announced they had reached an agreement to pursue a “full normalization of [their] relations.” The announcement additionally stated that Israel would consequently “suspend” the annexation of West Bank territory. While the self-styled Abraham Accord has been widely welcomed as a “historic” step towards resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, reaction within the region has been decidedly mixed, including outright condemnation by the Palestinians and many in the Arab world. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Palestinian lawyer and analyst Diana Buttu to learn more about the context and consequences of this agreement.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): What are the main features of the agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, and does it constitute a peace treaty?
Diana Buttu (DB): There was not a war or armed conflict between Israel and the United Arab Emirates for this to be a peace treaty (it does not, for example, deal with borders). Rather, it is a full “normalization” agreement, encompassing full trade relations, security relations, open tourism, and even extended cooperation. It is important to note that while other Arab states also have relations with Israel, the extent of these relations are not as far-reaching as this agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
MR: How do you evaluate the United Arab Emirates' claims that it acted in order to prevent Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory?
DB: What a sick joke! The United Arab Emirates has been developing its relations with Israel since long before annexation became an issue. The Emirates has long invited Israelis to participate in cultural and religious events, including Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who has openly called for the assassination of Palestinian leaders. It has long had security relations with Israel, including the purchase of Israeli weapons and surveillance equipment. On at least two occasions the Emirates attempted to send “aid” to the Palestinians under the guise of assisting them with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the United Arab Emirates was acting in coordination with Israel without even notifying the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PA refused to accept the consignments.
Beyond these covert relations, the Emirati claim that it is preventing annexation is not only a poor propaganda talking point but damaging. Israel has not stopped and will not stop its creeping annexation–a process that includes the theft of Palestinian land, the construction of Israeli-only housing and infrastructure on that land, the theft of Palestinian natural resources, and movement restrictions imposed on Palestinians. I fully expect that we will hear another settlement announcement in the coming days. In addition, Israel has not removed formal annexation from the agenda: as the Emirates was attempting to “spin” this agreement, Netanyahu simultaneously made clear that annexation is NOT off the table and is merely being delayed.
And this is the part that is harmful: for the first time in fifteen years, since the formation of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the PA was finally pressing for economic sanctions against Israel and for Israel to be held accountable for its conduct. Instead of supporting these efforts, and itself pressing for Israel to be held to account, the United Arab Emirates turned around and rewarded Israel with full diplomatic and economic relations. What it has done is akin to an abuser turning to his victim and saying, “I did this for your own good.”
MR: Does this agreement vindicate Israel's position that its occupation and policies towards the Palestinian people are no longer an obstacle to formal relations with Arab states?
DB: For some Arab states, yes. For others, fortunately, they still see that justice is more important. The real test will be whether we see Emiratis visiting occupied Palestine, despite the boycott calls.
MR: What consequences will this agreement have for the Palestinians?
DB: There are numerous consequences. On a basic level, it highlights what we have known for a long time: that we cannot count on the Arab states to continue to support us or support the BDS call.
Now the PA is in an even more awkward position with the United Arab Emirates because it needs to balance its condemnation of the agreement with fears that its response could trigger another mass expulsion of Palestinians as happened in Kuwait thirty years ago. An estimated 150,000-350,000 Palestinians currently live in the Emirates. It is feared that by strongly condemning this agreement, these individuals may be at risk and their ability to support their families and others in Palestine may also be at risk.
More importantly, this highlights just how anemic the Palestinian leadership’s decision-making has been. For years, the PA/PLO was warned that this move was coming, that the Arab states would slowly normalize with Israel and that a more robust strategy that does not involve negotiations, cooperation, and recognition of Israel was required. Yet despite these warnings—including from people who watched these alliances form in real-time—the PA/PLO persisted with its same tired strategy.
MR: Is the timing of this agreement significant?
DB: For Trump and Netanyahu this is significant. Trump’s attempts at international diplomacy have been a failure, whether with North Korea, Iran, China, and including the Trump Plan on the Middle East. With this agreement, he will now try to claim that he has had diplomatic success and that he is a “great negotiator” when in reality he is a terrible negotiator and diplomat.
For Netanyahu, who is facing a corruption trial, daily protests against his rule, and potentially a fourth election, this agreement is a huge boost. He can now claim that he is only the third Israeli leader to obtain formal recognition from an Arab state, and that unlike his predecessors he achieved this without having to relinquish or even commit to relinquish an inch of Arab land.
MR: Do you expect other Arab states to follow suit?
DB: Yes. I suspect Bahrain is next, highlighting just how ineffective the Arab League has been for decades.