Tuesday’s historic White House ceremony was the culmination of a rare diplomatic success story. Just one month after the shock announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had agreed to normalize relations and establish diplomatic ties, here they were on the White House lawn, signing the deal.
And, with Bahrain, another Arab Gulf country had joined the Israel-Arab renaissance, brokered by US President Donald Trump and his administration.
Leaders of the four countries hailed a new era.
“After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” said Trump.
“This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace,” echoed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We are witnessing today a new trend that will create a better path for the Middle East,” UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed agreed.
And his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif Al-Zayani, spoke of a “historic step on the road to genuine and lasting peace, security and prosperity across the region.”
These phrases may sound pompous, but there is some truth to them. The agreements signed Tuesday in Washington are a genuine breakthrough in Israel’s 72-year struggle to become an accepted member of the region in which it is located. Until today, many Israelis felt their country belonged more to Europe than to the Middle East. Now they may have cause to rethink.
Israel now has open diplomatic relations with four Arab countries, and as opposed to Egypt and Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain have made it clear that they want their relationship with the Jewish state to be a warm peace.
“The normalization of relations is not just the cessation of a former policy — it is also the start of a new era of friendship,” Hend Al Otaiba, the spokesperson of the Emirati Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel this week.
We are delighted and excited to open up this new chapter together.
— UAE Embassy in Berlin (@UAEinBerlin) September 15, 2020
Of course, Israel does not only have friends in the region, with Iran still seeking its annihilation. The new alliances cemented on Tuesday came about largely because of the joint fight against the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah, its Shiite proxy in Lebanon. The front against Tehran will be strengthened by the historic agreements.
Israel’s closest neighbors — the Palestinians — however, are not part of the festivities, and that’s bad news for Israel.
Even though the foreign ministers from Manama and Abu Dhabi pledged allegiance to the Palestinian cause — Abdullah bin Zayed explicitly mentioned hopes “for an independent state” — no one in Ramallah is under any illusions.
Feeling isolated and abandoned by their Arab brethren, the Palestinian Authority merely reiterated its old positions.
There will not be peace in the Middle East as long as Israel and the US don’t recognize “the right of the Palestinian people to establish their independent and continuous state on the June 4, 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and resolve the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with Resolution 194,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas said.
“The main problem is not between the countries that signed the agreements and the Israeli occupation authority, but with the Palestinian people who are suffering under occupation,” he added.
Ominously, Abbas warned that there will be “no peace, security or stability” for anyone in the region unless the Palestinians get exactly what they want.
Underscoring his point, Palestinian terrorists in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip fired rockets at Ashkelon and Ashdod, injuring two Israeli civilians, in the middle of the White House ceremony, then followed up several hours later with another barrage.
Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians in his speech. He merely predicted that the blessings of the peace with the UAE and Bahrain will “eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.”
The prime minister has long argued that peace with the Arab world will precede peace with the Palestinians. Virtually all analysts dismissed this so-called outside-in approach, arguing that no Arab capital would sign a peace deal in the absence of a Palestinian state.
On Tuesday, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, also a former Mideast peace envoy, suddenly said that he “had long come to the conclusion that if we want to see a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the basis of two states, there had to be a complete reversal of the idea that the Arab world should refuse contact with Israel, until a peace agreement was made.”
The agreements with Bahrain and the UAE are an opportunity “to recast the politics of the region in a way consistent with the only future for the Middle East which works,” he added.
Blair said he understands Ramallah’s objection to the deals, but believes that “in time, the Palestinian people will understand that it is only by radically changing strategy that the legitimate aspirations for a viable Palestinian state can be realized.”
Perhaps Tuesday’s ceremony may have really marked the beginning of the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as senior administration official Brian Hook said this week. But the statements from Ramallah, and the rockets from Gaza, are a clear indication that the wider regional peace many people talked about on Tuesday still lies in the distant future.