The failure to leverage newly-forged relations with Israel into meaningful and forceful diplomatic pressure undermines the political credibility of Arab states in the wake of last year’s normalisation deals.
As violence continues to spasm in Jerusalem, most notably in Shaikh Jarrah where Jewish nationalists have been attempting to evict Palestinians and at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, the seemingly inevitable and disproportionate cycle of Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rockets continues to spiral. Arab states, who recently normalised relations with Israel, now risk undermining their political credibility in the region and beyond.
In the wake of the Abraham accords signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as the secondary normalisation deals struck with Israel by Morocco and Sudan respectively, the conventional thinking was that these states would gain more influence over Israel when it came to the Palestinian situation. This includes Saudi Arabia, and although it did not succumb to pressure to officially normalise relations with Israel, it is widely believed to have approved of the deals.
In fact, the Abraham Accords in particular were largely justified on the basis that normalisation supposedly prevented Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Not only would this have represented the final nail in the coffin of the two-state solution believed by many to have already been on its deathbed, but it would also have, according to an official statement carried by UAE state news agency Wam, represented “a dangerous development that would undermine international efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict."
Annexation would of course pose a major problem for the arguably fractured Arab consensus that still calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the lands occupied by Israel in the course of the 1967 war, hence the argument that normalising relations with Israel would serve to advance the cause of peace.
This latter point is disputed by many who are familiar with the region. They have argued that rather than representing a historic opportunity for peace, the deals merely reflect bilateral interests and hedging of bets in the region’s shifting geopolitical environment.
While the potential long-term consequences of the deals remain open to numerous possibilities, they did clearly serve to undermine the long-held Arab consensus on the principle of 'land for peace'. Consequently, a perception has been created amongst both the Israeli public and political leadership that forging agreements with Arab states no longer requires Israel to withdraw from occupied territory or deal justly with the millions of Palestinians under occupation.
In other words, any remaining ounce of external pressure that Israel might have felt from Arab states to come to terms with the Palestinians before their presence in the region could be normalised has arguably been completely washed away.
The brazenness of Israeli actions today, at Al-Aqsa, in Sheikh Jarrah and now in Gaza is at least partly the fruits of normalisation deals that have effectively entailed Israel calling the bluff of its new Arab ‘partners’.
A muted response
Beyond the expected and largely empty rage from the Arab League, the response from Arab states, particularly those who have recently normalised relations with Israel, has been largely muted.
While, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all condemned Israeli incursions into the al-Aqsa compound, and called on Israel to respect the right of Palestinians to worship freely, they have largely glossed over the issues of ongoing evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and other violations including the attacks on Gaza as part of the ongoing siege of the enclave.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which "unequivocally condemned the recent brutal use of force by the Israeli forces which injured over 300 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and around Al Aqsa mosque" arguably represents a potentially more fruitful avenue for exerting the type of diplomatic pressure needed to advance a solution to the current crisis. However, its power ultimately lays in the ability and willingness of its members who have relations with Israel to leverage those relations into meaningful diplomatic pressure.
In a statement released following an emergency virtual meeting of the Arab League, the organisation’s chief, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, released a statement saying “Israeli violations in Jerusalem and the government’s tolerance of Jewish extremists hostile to Palestinians and Arabs, is what led to the ignition of the situation in this dangerous way.”
Why undoubtedly true, the Arab League has failed to hold its key members to account not only for their silence but for their abject failure to leverage their diplomatic relations with Israel to engage in strong-arm diplomacy in an effort to help remedy the current situation.
Not only can this be seen as a moral outrage, particularly as families are expelled from their homes, worshippers are met with violence during some of the most sacred days in the Muslim calendar and the besieged Gaza strip once again faces a barrage of Israeli airstrikes, but it also ultimately undermines the credibility and political capital of these states, both at home and abroad.
While the Palestinian issue may have lost its status as a cause celebre with Arab governments, data indicates that it remains a highly emotionally charged and sacred cause for a large majority of the public across the Arab world.
The fact that Arab governments who have either normalised relations with Israel or have acquiesced to it are either unwilling or unable to deploy diplomatic sticks to pressure Israel, firstly to roll back its latest incursions and secondly, to push for a permanent solution to the Palestinian question, completely undermines one of the main public justifications for the deals; namely that establishing normal relations with Israel will enable them to play a more direct and constructive role in enhancing the region’s security and stability.
This has two potential long-term impacts. Firstly, it entails that the focus will increasingly shift from the shape of any potential solution to a focus on rights, particularly among Palestinians.
While much of Palestinian civil society, both in Palestine and in the diaspora have already moved beyond the two-state solution framework, should the Palestinian political leadership become convinced that the two-state solution is no longer viable, then the only option left to them will be to insist on equal political rights in areas controlled by Israel.
Secondly, the failure of Arab states, particularly those who recently normalised relations with Israel, to take meaningful diplomatic action to pressure Israel to relent will injure their domestic, regional and international credibility and ultimately serve to further bury any prospects that remain for a permanent solution to the Palestinian question based on the Arab peace initiative.
Whether Arab states are prepared to accept it or not, it has become increasingly clear that Western states have given up on trying to solve the issue.
From the Oslo Accords to the Arab Peace initiative, the repeated failure of the international community and, perhaps more importantly, Arab states to advance a viable and just solution to the issue has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of existing mechanisms, undermined the political capital of regional actors, and ultimately pushed the situation to point where the only solution in the coming years will be found through a Palestinian struggle for equal political rights.
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