The Middle Eastern past is never dead

The normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (followed quickly by Bahrain) indicates that the Middle East is undergoing a strategic paradigm shift, with the Palestinians left out in the cold. But anyone who thinks that the region’s oldest ongoing conflict has been laid to rest should think again

Image by Andrew Price

The images were touching. In early October, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin with his Israeli and Emirati counterparts. How better to celebrate the recent normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates? In fact, the establishment of diplomatic ties under this summer’s Abraham Accords had little to do with honouring the past. If anything, the deal is an attempt to escape from history altogether.

For most of my lifetime, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the defining issue in the Middle East. From the Western perspective, ensuring Israel’s right to exist was a way of repaying a historic debt to the Jewish people: Israel, as a homeland for global Jewry, was insurance against future anti-Semitism. But, in the Arab world, the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948, and the ongoing experience of Israeli occupation since 1967, was a perpetual rallying cry for successive regimes, most of which capitalised on Palestinian suffering to divert attention from their own failures at home.

With these lines drawn in the sand, the conventional wisdom was that both the Israelis and the Palestinians would need to be compensated for historic wrongs in order to guarantee stability and peace in the Middle East. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to unlocking a process of diplomatic normalisation across the region. Thus, by agreeing to normalise relations with Israel in the absence of a deal for the Palestinians, the UAE has essentially swept all of this history under the rug. Its embrace of the Abraham Accords, in which it was quickly joined by Bahrain, marks a regional paradigm shift.

As the United States has pulled back from the region, many Gulf leaders have come to believe that a regional axis with Israel will be crucial to safeguarding their interests.

In recent years, Arab elites’ threat perceptions have changed. If their primary enemy in the 1960s and 1970s was Israel, today it is Iran, followed by Turkey. As the United States has pulled back from the region, many Gulf leaders have come to believe that a regional axis with Israel will be crucial to safeguarding their interests. And on the Arab street – where most of the population had not yet been born when Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin agreed on a path to a two-state solution – public opinion has followed suit. Moreover, in recent years, the Palestinians have been out-victimised by other waves of oppression and violence, whether in Iraq after the US invasion, in Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, or in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

The UAE leadership is surprisingly frank about its decision to make peace with Israel. While it continues to support the idea of a Palestinian state, it no longer trusts the Palestinian leadership to leverage Emirati support effectively. In response, Palestinian critics argue that the UAE has thrown away the most powerful card that could be played on their behalf. But the reality is that the UAE, like most others in the region, has wider interests beyond creating a Palestinian homeland. Strengthening ties with the US, and securing US-made F-35 fighter jets, is a higher priority. As Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz put it this month, “the Palestinian cause is a just cause, but its advocates are failures, and the Israeli cause is unjust but its advocates have proven to be successful.”

For their part, the Israelis are hoping that the Abraham Accords will open the way for a new wave of normalisation with other Arab powers, so that the road to regional security will no longer run through Jerusalem. By separating the Palestinian question from relations with other countries in the region, Israel has managed to turn it into merely a domestic problem. The “international community’s” position on the issue will now be more diffuse, and thus weaker. With each new normalisation accord that Israel secures, it will gain an ever-more explicit endorsement from the Arab world.

The deals with the UAE and Bahrain, therefore, amount to a triumph for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s policy of the past decade. But Netanyahu would do well to remember that a victory in the Middle East always contains the seeds of its unravelling. If he makes the two-state solution impossible, he will have laid the groundwork for a challenge to Israel’s future as a Jewish-majority democratic state.

After all, if the Palestinians can no longer negotiate for their own state, their best alternative will be to pursue a one-state solution by pressing for civil rights within Israel. The writing is on the wall. According to the United Nations’ 2019 demographic profile of the Palestinian territories, there are five million Palestinians who could potentially join with the 1,916,000 Arabs living in Israel, thereby outnumbering the 6,772,000 Israeli Jews.

Considering how ineffective and divided the Palestinian leadership is, an organised challenge seems unlikely anytime soon. Yet, long before Palestinians become capable of winning an electoral majority in Israel, a more competent leadership could start to raise serious questions about the health of Israeli democracy itself. Such arguments would reignite debates about whether Israel is an apartheid state, potentially leading to a renewal of international pressure. And that, in turn, could have far-reaching implications for relations between Israel and other powers – not least the European Union, which accounts for about one-third of the country’s total trade.

For these reasons, leading Israeli national-security analysts have argued that, if a negotiated two-state solution is not possible, Israel should develop an unnegotiated one, by establishing a viable Palestinian state unilaterally. But this approach would seem to require a complete reconfiguration of the occupation in the interests of settler maximisation, which could fatally undermine the legitimacy of any eventual Palestinian state. That is why other Israeli leaders with a more strategic outlook – including six former Mossad directors – have begun to look for ways to develop real statehood for the Palestinians through a process of de-occupation.

If Netanyahu fails to develop a viable Palestinian state, his escape from history could prove very short-lived. As William Faulkner observed, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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