The announced treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates met with a swift condemnation from the Palestinian leadership. Yet while the declaration is certainly a boon to all three leaders directly involved and especially to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, two leaders desperate to fight off what looks like approaching doom, the Palestinian leadership may have been wrong to present themselves once again as losers and victims. There are at least three possible reasons why the agreement may benefit them.
First, there is the immediate and obvious statement that the annexation Netanyahu had promised has yet again been put off, perhaps indefinitely. The Palestinians and the Israeli left have been putting great effort into campaigns to prevent it, without any response of note. Yet Netanyahu probably himself realized that it would be impossible to honor his promise to the extreme right, and the UAE agreement allowed him to withdraw gracefully, even victoriously, from yet another failed commitment. Furthermore, it is doubtful that Netanyahu will be able to fulfill it in the near future, if only because the great financial cost, quite apart from the diplomatic one, is daunting in the coronavirus-devastated economy. But annexation, if ever and however executed, would be a disaster for Israelis and Palestinians alike; if such a plan has been thwarted all involved should be grateful. The foregoing of the extended sovereignty plan, as is it is known in Israel, also allows the Palestinians to refocus on the other, ongoing crimes being committed on Palestinian territory, such as land grabs, housing demolitions, and settler violence, rather than on theoretical future ones.
Second, the very talk of annexation has opened a new opportunity for the Israeli left to re-introduce discussion of the 53-year occupation itself. Many Israelis, and the generation born after the 1967 War, are hardly aware of the status of the territories. Although East Jerusalem and the Golan are the only areas over which Israel itself has declared its sovereignty, many Israelis – including those living beyond the green line, are unaware of the status of the territories. In 2006, Minister of Education Yuli Tamir declared that all Israeli textbooks must show the green line in maps, but prior to her term and certainly since, most schoolchildren and many adults would be hard part to even sketch it. In terms of Israeli law all the nearly half a million settlers are living abroad, in areas under military (and not governmental) control. Yet driving from Jerusalem to the large suburb- settlement Maale Adumim in a car with Israeli plates it is easy to ignore the checkposts and remain oblivious to the border. The aborted declaration of sovereignty and the UAE demand to scrap it are an opportunity to remind Israelis on the far side of the line that their sense of comfort is an illusion, that their own country has as yet refused to officially recognize the settlements as Israeli territory, and that even countries seeking ties are unwilling to condone them.
Third, once an agreement is signed, and despite the fact that the UAE (like most of the Arab world) is largely uninterested in the Palestinian cause except as a political football, the support could be used as leverage in the future. Today, most Israelis believe with much justification that the world is against them. When talk of annexation began nearly a year ago, most Israelis were unfazed by the unanimous international criticism, to which they have become accustomed. They see the Arab world as hopelessly and eternally hostile. Yet if representatives of the Emirates are to be seen in Israel, together with Egyptian and Jordanian ones, attitudes might change. A broader peace may be seen as less of a mirage, or a pipe dream as Shimon Peres’ “New Middle East” was viewed. If Israelis see that on the one hand, a growing number of Arab states are willing to recognize Israel, and on the other hand they are utterly unwilling to accept annexation, the message might be clearer. Moreover, Israel will also have more to lose if its new-found friends use their clout. Once signed on a settlement, the threat of backtracking would be more formidable.
Relations with the United Arab Emirates actually began in 1994, under Yitzhak Rabin, who also visited Oman, established ties with Bahrein, and traveled to Qatar in 1995 (representatives of Morocco, Oman and Qatar attended Rabin’s funeral). The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 offered peace to Israel with all the nations of the Arab League in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 borders. It has since been twice re-affirmed by the League, but first ignored and then rejected by the Israel. Such a document would have been seen as a dream come true to the older Israeli governments, to whom the Arab League was known for its three “nos” in the Khartoum Resolution of 1967: no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiations. Palestinians have also made headway in five decades, gaining not only growing recognition but some control over what the Oslo Accords defined as Areas A and B, even if the IDF and settlers encroach upon it. The establishment itself of the Palestinian Authority was Oslo’s greatest accomplishment, and it has so far held together despite repeated predictions it would collapse. 53 years of battle have left Palestinians under occupation and Israel scarred by terrorism, but perhaps the greatest frustration is that peace has in many ways never been closer, despite the incursions and illegal settlements.
Thus the Palestinians understandably feel they are yet again being sold out, as a third Arab country signs an agreement with Israel without a withdrawal from their land. It is true that the hawkish Netanyahu government is currently benefiting from the latest declaration, and that the Arab League appears to be caving in as their fears of Iran grow. But it is not too late to take advantage of the new situation. Ties between other Arab countries and Israel can be helpful in bargaining for the Palestinians, in assuaging the fears of the Israeli public, and in improving conditions in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Gradual steps, beginning with the dismantling of settler outposts that Israel itself declares to be illegal, could be part of confidence-building measures. To paraphrase Abba Eban, Palestinians have become so accustomed to missed opportunities that perhaps they don’t know when they haven’t.