The past three years have been some of the most adverse for the Palestinian struggle. The Israeli occupation and the apartheid system it represents, abetted by the intentionally weak protestations of the international community and outright support of the Trump administration and its regional allies, has expropriated Palestinian land, targeted Palestinian bodies with the full range of state violence, and obstructed all efforts for self-determination. Despite nostalgia for the Obama administration among liberal Zionists and like-minded cohorts, the Trump administration represents a change in style, not substance. Trump’s lieutenants, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman, have made clear their contempt for Palestinians and have relished their role in denigrating Palestinian national aspirations. The policies of unconditional US military aid, however, and the equally unconditional diplomatic cover inherited from the Obama administration, have not shifted.
This attitude comes as no surprise, except perhaps to the Palestinian Authority (PA). More concerning in recent years has been the overt measures by Gulf monarchies, chiefly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to pursue and deepen normalization with Israel. Across the political, military, economic, and cultural realms, Gulf monarchies have been forging deeper ties with Israel, echoing Israeli talking points for domestic audiences, and showcasing their efforts to do both. Further, efforts or gestures to support Palestinians have been conspicuously absent or performed in such an oblique way as to render them self-defeating.
The mid-summer threat of official Israeli annexation of up to thirty percent of the West Bank revealed the hollow character of this supposed ally-ship in crisp detail. In a June op-ed published in the right-wing Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the Emirati Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, appealed to Israelis to drop the annexation scheme on the grounds that it would be harmful to the development of closer ties between Israel and the Arab World. In effect, Otaiba was criticizing annexation for the damage it would cause to Israel’s image, not to Palestinian lives. Further, normalization was presented as the natural and desirable outcome of the relationship between Israel and the Gulf, an outcome that would ultimately be realized if the present course was not disrupted by inflammatory acts like annexation.
The so-called Abraham Accords—normalization agreements that have been deliberately mischaracterized as “peace” deals—were the culmination of this attitude. Through these arrangements, the Emirates, joined by Bahrain, declared their personal comfort with the existence and perpetuation of Israeli occupation against the Palestinians. Annexation was never mentioned in the Accords, neither was occupation. Instead, the four-page document was a platitudinous wish list, conspicuous chiefly for treating an illegally occupying power as a normal state.
It has been suggested that this current low-point is a temporary nadir and when the Gulf Monarchies realize how little they can gain from normalization, they will return to their previously pro-Palestinian position. A common corollary of this thinking is that once the Trump administration leaves, presumably in 2020, the successive administration of current Democratic nominee Joe Biden, will facilitate this reversal. Such thinking rests on two principal fallacies: first, that the Gulf monarchies have only a lukewarm commitment to normalization and, second, that a Biden administration would reverse the circumstances that have prompted these states to initially pursue normalization. The following analysis traces the course of normalization over the past decades, elaborates on the factors that have catalyzed the recent events, and argues that we should not look to a hypothetical Biden administration as a panacea for the ongoing normalization between Israel and Gulf regimes.
The Accelerating State of Normalization
Normalization between Israel and the Gulf monarchies has been ongoing for the past decades, though largely done out of sight. In the last decade alone, the relationship strengthened over mutual support for autocrats such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab revolutions of 2011. But it has hastened significantly in recent years as a result of mutual suspicion and contempt for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Israel’s spyware capabilities have been an object of great value and fascination for the autocratic Gulf regimes, with the Pegasus software used to surveil Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his brutal execution. With the rise of figures such as Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, these ties have now become overt and calculated for maximum symbolic effect.
Normalization efforts by the Gulf monarchies abroad have been accompanied by a vigorous propaganda campaign at home. These endeavors have combined the power of new and traditional media to win hearts and minds with the brute strength of a modern police state to silence and punish all those who object. Over the past years, Saudi Arabia has worked assiduously to malign the Palestinian cause and promote expanded ties with Israel. Troll accounts on Twitter have engaged in sustained campaigns to decouple advocacy for Palestinian rights from Saudi objectives. In April, Saudi Twitterati, with the support of Israelis, launched the hashtag campaign “Palestine is not my cause,” which castigated Palestinians as rejectionists and accused them of being ungrateful to the kingdom for its previous diplomatic and financial support. The Twitter campaign was launched to coincide with the release of the Ramadan serial Exit 7, broadcast on Saudi channel MBC. The second episode, in particular, became notorious for its fawning attitude towards normalization, and its further branding of Palestinians as the true enemies of Riyadh.
Efforts to boost media sympathetic to Israel and hostile to Palestine have occurred in tandem with efforts to silence any dissenters. Since the rise to power of MBS, the state has launched a wide-ranging and harsh crackdown on those who do not toe the established line. Critics of the warming ties with Israel have been arrested, along with anyone who has objected to the ruthless character of the crown prince or his actions and policies. These combined forces have created an atmosphere in which free expression is mercilessly suppressed and the only voices permitted to speak are those advocating closer ties with Israel and the desertion of Palestine. We should expect the same playbook on “Annexation Day,” whenever it comes. The official mouthpieces of the Gulf regimes will offer a buzz of bromides on how much Israel has to lose by such actions, while independent voices, wishing to speak up for Palestinian rights, will be monitored, muzzled, or terrorized into silence.
The Trump and Biden Tracks
The burgeoning alliance between Israel and the Gulf has assumed a gratuitously public character thanks to the matchmaking of the Trump administration. Trump’s election signaled the United States would assume its most pro-Israel, pro-Gulf, anti-Iran posture in history. Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia, which presaged the signing of a massive arms deal. Targeting Iran, the administration withdrew from the “Iran Deal” also known as the JCPOA, encouraged internal unrest, regularly implemented sanctions, and drove circumstances up to the brink of war. These actions have emboldened countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia to deepen their ties and to publicly flaunt them. Jared Kushner, Senior Adviser to the President, has explicitly connected these issues, explaining that the US government recognizes the mutual animosity that Israel and Saudi Arabia share toward Iran and has capitalized on this to knit closer ties.
In contrast to Trump’s belligerence, candidate Biden has signaled that his administration will attempt to lower the temperature with Iran. Biden and other members of the Democratic party have selectively criticized Trump for certain actions, such as the withdrawal from the JCPOA and the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani. As the Democratic nominee, Biden has stated that he would lift certain sanctions to help Iran combat COVID-19. Should this resolve persist beyond the election, a Biden administration’s goals for Iran will likely include resurrecting the JCPOA, followed by the brokering of a negotiated agreement over Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for groups like Hizballah. In the eyes of liberal internationalists, such initiatives are a means to averting war and returning the region to a status quo ante Trump. In such an environment, the logic holds, the imperative for the Gulf monarchies to normalize relations with Israel will dissipate and they will return to their previously supportive position of Palestine.
Biden’s Tryst with Reality
But why should we even entertain such a scenario? Why do we assume that the principal determinant of behavior by states in the Middle East is the current occupant of the White House? While the strategy and orientation of a president is influential, the transformative forces unleashed since the 2011 Uprisings have revealed how frequently impotent the United States has been in realizing its desired goals, or, in other cases, even identifying them. Analysts looking through the prism of US interests regularly assume countries of the region are static and incapable of independent action. Instead, these states wait to be acted upon by the United States or other Western polities who are capable of independent impetus and thus direct the affairs of the region. Countries of the Middle East have far greater agency than this narrow-minded perspective allows. Their leaders, institutions, and people act according to a range of motivations, attitudes, and resources relative to other actors and factors, both internal and external. This reality is often disregarded by those who claim the mere presence of a Biden administration would be sufficient to reverse the past four years.
Take up the example of Iran, for one. A scenario in which Iran scales back its current behavior owing to the posture of the Biden administration inexplicably begins at the end of the story, a time when the two countries have successfully negotiated an accord. But let us start at the beginning, a time when Iran may be in no mood for US overtures or outreach. Supreme Leader Khamenei, perhaps resentful for trusting the US government in the JCPOA negotiations, may refuse to sanction further talks. Fearful of his own position vis-à-vis more conservative Iranian politicians and members of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), President Rouhani may not want to open himself up for such a line of attack. Presidential elections in Iran are also scheduled for 2021, and Rouhani, ineligible to run again, may not want to jeopardize a potential successor’s chances, either before the Guardian Council or the voters, by risky engagement with the United States.
Taking this point further, it may be that by the time a Biden administration is in a position to commence negotiations, they will be doing so with a new Iranian president, one who may be significantly less receptive to bilateral or multilateral talks. In addition, autonomous actors, such as the IRGC, may assume the role of spoilers through avenues that include continuing to challenge US influence in Iraq, arm Hizballah, and prop up Maduro in Venezuela or escalating the minimal support for the Houthis. These moves, calculated to antagonize the United States and imperil chances of reaching any agreement between the United States and Iran, address only possible scenarios within Iran; myriad other disruptive possibilities abound in the region, in the United States, and elsewhere. All may obstruct and ultimately doom attempts by the Biden administration for an “Iranian reset.”
The Fallacy of the Dove
Let us go further and consider the possibility that it is exactly the perception of Biden as a dove that makes Gulf monarchies less likely to reverse their ties with Israel. It was the Saudi perception that Obama was too dovish on Iran, exemplified by the drafting of the JCPOA, that prompted the Saudi regime to shift away from its reliance on the US government. Saudi Arabia had already become wary of Obama due to his limited support of imperiled autocrats the Kingdom considered allies, such as Mubarak, and his limited opposition to those it considered enemies, such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration’s decision to pursue the peace track with Iran, the country of Saudi Arabia considered its most existential threat, was a catalyst in the kingdom’s decision to deepen ties with Israel. In contrast to the Obama administration, the Netanyahu government has harshly and consistently criticized Iran, accusing the country of endeavoring to subjugate Arab states within its expansionist imperial aims, commit a genocide on the scale of the Holocaust, and develop nuclear weapons. Following the same playbook, the crown prince, in the course of one of his publicity tours in the United States, similarly compared Iran’s Supreme Leader to Hitler.
These circumstances effectively presage a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for a future Biden administration. If Biden succeeds in reducing tensions between Iran and the United States through negotiated agreements or conciliatory measures, the Gulf monarchies will grow distrustful of US reliability and, instead, hew closer to Israel. If the US government fails to ease tensions, the Gulf and Israel will strengthen their collaboration with the intent of combatting Iran, or escalating circumstances so as to drag the United States into war. In either case, any joint efforts between Israel and the Gulf monarchies will be underpinned by normalization efforts in the cultural, economic, and political spheres.
Normalization and Joe Biden: Past is Prologue
The Israeli-Emirati normalization agreement, reached under the auspices of the United States, and the subsequent reactions augur such a future. While the United Arab Emirates has presented the pact as a noble sacrifice to save Palestinians from Israeli annexation, the true purpose of the deal was the pursuit of economic and military ends, principally the purchase of F-35 warplanes from the United States. As Palestinians noted, the professed altruism of the Emirates was a thinly-veiled ruse, constituting a betrayal of the national cause. While these comments were echoed by other actors, such as Turkey and Qatar, the reaction by the European Union, Canada, and Egypt, among others, to the agreement was adulatory. Perhaps more significantly, analysts have predicted that additional announcements of normalization by Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Sudan are forthcoming.
Equally important, the ensuing normalization by Bahrain has made clear that Gulf regimes now feel sufficiently emboldened to publicly abandon the Palestinians. Though the Emirates had attempted to justify its normalization agreement on the basis of averting impending Israeli annexation, the agreement by Bahrain dispenses with any illusions of concern for the Palestinians. The Emirates presented their pact as a series of reciprocal concessions, made for the benefit of the Palestinians—a ploy easily and immediately debunked—while Bahrain has not bothered to procure even this window-dressing. Rather, Bahrain has made clear that it feels no qualms about openly abandoning the Palestinians and legitimizing apartheid in exchange for shoring up international guarantees for its domestically unpopular regime.
While all the signatories of the normalization deal have derived important benefits, Netanyahu can be argued to have reaped the largest windfall. For years, the Israeli premier had promoted the idea of a regional peace, whereby Israel would first make peace with Arab states as a catalyst for a final deal with the Palestinians, a reversal of the sequencing articulated by the Arab Peace Initiative and similar endeavors. In reality, this was a cynical attempt to out-flank the inert Palestinian leadership and preserve the misconception that the Israeli government was interested in a two-state solution, despite the freeze in bilateral negotiations and aggressive settlement expansion. These efforts received a fillip with the inauguration of the Trump administration, coupled with the rise to power of the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the dereliction of the PA in its duty to preserve a united Arab front. Through the recently-signed normalization deals, and others expected to come in a matter of weeks, Netanyahu has achieved his twin goals. He has deepened the false impression that he is a committed peacemaker, while simultaneously isolating the Palestinians and cultivating greater impunity in his effort to conclusively extinguish the liberation struggle.
Since the announcement of the normalization deal, the Biden campaign has repeatedly exhibited its willing participation in these fictions. Either as a product of willful delusion or genuine ignorance the campaign has parroted the Israeli line that normalization between Israel and Arab or Muslim states is a path to peace. As early as August, Biden released an official statement celebrating the UAE-Israel agreement. The candidate presented it as an important step in regional peace, closing with the assertion that his administration would actively pursue additional normalization efforts. In the weeks following the announcement, both candidate and surrogates even attempted to take credit for the deal, arguing that the initial contacts were facilitated prior to the Trump administration. Biden went further in later remarks to the liberal Zionist lobbying group J Street, blaming the Palestinian leadership for failing to more proactively engage in dead-end negotiations, attributing part of this presumed intransigence to the debunked canard that Palestinian textbooks are responsible for inciting hatred.
Biden has also made clear that he has no interest in reversing the most odious decisions made by the Trump administration. As early as April he stated that he would not return the United States embassy to Tel Aviv. Instead, it appears that Biden’s position on the Palestinian struggle—mirroring his attitude on many other issues—is to simply return to the status quo ante Trump. This presages a resumption of funding for UNRWA and the PA security forces, along with a reopening of the PLO office in Washington, but no attempts to hold Israel accountable for its decades-long occupation or bring the coercive capacity of the United States to bear in reversing previous actions or deterring existing or future ones. Simultaneously, it augurs a return to plaintive urgings to save the two-state solution through the resumption of bilateral negotiations, supplemented by the drafting of dead-on-arrival peace proposals.
A presumptive Biden administration has signaled its intent to doggedly cling to the vestiges of the twentieth century, principally a commitment to a two-state solution with the PA as a midwife for a state of Palestine and the US as attending physician at its birth. This is evident both through affirmative statements for such an approach, as well as public moves to denigrate competing or alternative visions. What popular support existed for the two-state solution in the halcyon days of early Oslo has irreversibly dissipated. In addition, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, formally vested with the responsibility of negotiating a state into existence, has become so bereft of resources, allies, leverage, and vision that it is not able to restore public enthusiasm or generate momentum to counter Israeli supremacy. In place of these outmoded and moribund structures, the dynamism and capacity to inspire has been wrested by movements that reject the failed paradigm of the past decades. These movements include those advocating a one-state solution according to a rights-based approach and others that do not advance an explicit state-based model for resolution, but strive to hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law, chiefly the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Unsurprisingly, Biden has made clear his rejection of any approaches that challenge a fossilizing two-state solution. During the Democratic National Convention, where Biden became the official nominee, the campaign publicly disavowed Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, who had briefly appeared in a video segment, over her support for BDS. Later, in the release of a platform for Arab-Americans, the campaign condemned the BDS movement, while offering instead its intent to oppose efforts that “criminalize free speech and expression,” a shibboleth for legislation that outlaws BDS. The platform concluded with a recitation of the classic Oslo platitudes: opposition to annexation and settlements, discouraging of unilateral action, and a call for the two-state solution.
This moment presages difficult times ahead for Palestinians. The actions by the Emirates and Bahrain signal that for these and other regimes there is a shameless readiness to abandon the Palestinians and make common cause with their occupiers. Recognition by like-minded regimes that normalization is a chip to be cashed in with United States for any item on their wish list, be it fighter planes or sanctions relief, signals the advent of more “peace” deals. Abetting these activities, either in operations or aspirations, are the heads of the two major political parties in the United States; one keen to play as active a role as possible in the destruction of Palestinian self-determination and the other too ignorant, immoral, or cynical to recognize its service in the same end. Irrespective of whichever candidate or party occupies the White House past 2020, it now appears certain that the pace of normalization will not be arrested or reversed. Whether under the aegis of the United States or not, additional regimes in the region will, as some have astutely commented, make peace with the occupation and, in doing so, demolish the last edifices of the Oslo legacy.