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Will Israel’s annexation plan undermine Arab-Israeli normalisation?

Image of the UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba [File photo]
UAE Ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba [File photo]

The position adopted by Arab states over Israel’s plan to annex swathes of the occupied West Bank from next month, including the Jordan Valley, can be split broadly into three categories: those like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco and Egypt which give explicit support to the US “deal of the century” of which annexation and land swaps are part; some which totally reject the plan, such as Palestine, Jordan, Algeria, Iraq and Tunisia; and others which have reservations and have not expressed an opinion one way or the other.

Annexation implies taking control of land and displacing its indigenous people. In Palestine, it is a continuation of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the land that started in 1948 which would not even be on the agenda without US backing. The current administration in Washington led by President Donald Trump has already recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the Holy City and said that Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land are “not necessarily” illegal. It has also stopped all US aid to the Palestinians.

However, in a rare move, the UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, has penned an opinion piece in Yedioth Ahronoth, the largest Hebrew-language daily in Israel. “Annexation or normalisation” appealed mainly to the Israeli right wing and sent a soft warning to officials and the general public alike. He also tweeted a video in English to emphasise his message. Al-Otaiba warned against the proposed annexation and mentioned its likely consequences. The ambassador is keen to protect formal normalisation links with Israel in terms of diplomacy, the economy, cultural ties and security contacts.

UAE: We can disagree with Israel and still have ties with it 

While critics say that his message is more like friendly advice rather than a formal warning, others believe that Al-Otaiba is trying to save face after the UAE had two separate shipments of medical aid for the Palestinians rejected because it did not coordinate in advance with the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the UAE is also home to former Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from the movement by Mahmoud Abbas. Nevertheless, the UAE remains a major supporter of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which provides basic essentials to millions of Palestinian refugees.

It is clear that any instability which follows annexation could revive the spirit of armed struggle in the Arab conscience across the region. It could also affect the growing diplomatic ties if popular anger erupts in open solidarity with oppressed Palestinians, jeopardising full and public normalisation of ties between the Arab states and Israel.

Normalisation with Israel -Cartoon [Arabi21News]

Normalisation with Israel -Cartoon [Arabi21News]

Iran and its proxies in Yemen, south Lebanon and Gaza cannot be ignored, as Tehran is the common enemy of Israel and some Sunni Muslim states. Any destabilisation of the status quo in the West Bank or Jerusalem might encourage the mobilisation of pro-Iran groups and attacks on targets in the Gulf. Turkey, meanwhile, might replace Arab support for the legitimate Palestinian cause and provide financial support for those living under Israel’s military occupation. Moreover, the oil and tourism industries might suffer if, for example, pro-Iran Houthis seek revenge against the Saud-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen and stand in support of the Palestinians and their rights. Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups have also warned of serious consequences if annexation goes ahead. All options, apparently, are on the table.

READ: Israel to dispatch head of spying agency to ask Arab countries to accept annexation

When Trump announced the details of his “peace plan” in January, the ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain and Oman stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House. Trump thanked them for their support. No Palestinian official was present. The “deal” was a stab in the back; a pro-Israel plan; a forced marriage of the Israeli “bride” to an unwilling Palestinian “groom”. The Arab states intent on normalising links with Israel need peace and coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis to end their embarrassment at undercover diplomacy and allow them to have an open economic relationship with the occupation state.

Surprisingly, the only two Arab countries which have signed peace treaties with Israel — Egypt and Jordan, in 1979 and 1994 respectively — did not attend that White House ceremony. They each have a strong relationship with the PA and share more or less the same vision when it comes to ending the Israel-Palestine conflict: full normalisation in exchange for an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, and a return to the 1967 borders. This is based on the Arab Peace Initiative endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 at its Beirut Summit.

The Oslo Accords signed in 1993 were meant to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state within five years. Almost three decades later hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers live on massive settlement blocs built by Israel despite the Accords. Even more Palestinian land has been stolen to build the 708 kilometre-long Apartheid Wall that snakes around the West Bank; there are more than 600 fixed and mobile military checkpoints; and Palestinian communities have been isolated, creating non-contiguous Bantustans. Furthermore, Palestinian homes and other buildings are demolished by the Israelis routinely, and Palestinian Jerusalemites have their residence permits revoked while the Judaisation of the Holy City continues apace. Israel has killed the so-called “two-state solution” under Netanyahu’s successive far right governments, the most extreme in Israel’s history.

READ: Netanyahu promised to never recognise Palestine state, Likud MK says

Jordan has rejected the annexation plan because the occupied Jordan Valley stretches along the border of the Hashemite Kingdom. The area constitutes about 30 per cent of the West Bank, with a population of nearly 65,000 Palestinians and 11,000 illegal settlers. In reality, Israel has near total control in what is already de facto annexed territory.

All of this suggests that Al-Otaiba’s warning may be heeded, because Netanyahu will not want to lose allies in the Arab world, not least new friends such as Sudan, if the situation deteriorates in the occupied Palestinian territories. The Israeli leader is more aware than most that PA President Abbas announced last month that he is ending all agreements with Israel and the US, including security cooperation with the occupation forces.

It’s true that the Palestinian cause has become a headache for some Arab regimes, especially in the Gulf, but for others it is still the “central issue” uniting all Arabs and Muslims. Without a just solution in Palestine, there will never be stability in the Middle East. Although the PA under Abbas is blamed for opening the normalisation door in the first place, the Palestinians insist that ties with Israel must not come at the expense of the people of Palestine who have been struggling for freedom and self-determination for decades.

READ: The world continues to watch as Israel disregards human rights, justice

Israel has invested heavily in normalising ties with the Gulf States. Many secret exchange visits have been made, and social media apps have been used to bridge the cultural and political gaps which exist, encouraging Gulf Arabs to turn against the Palestinians by demonising them as the obstacle to peace with Israel.

At the moment, though, all that matters to Netanyahu is the green light from Trump. He has been able to put together a power-sharing “unity” government and staying in power means everything to him. Annexation was part of his election campaign and it’s time to fulfil his pledge. Palestinian and Arab stances do not really concern him that much, but he is an experienced and shrewd politician who will consider the pros and cons carefully.

Will the soft warning from the UAE’s headstrong Ambassador in Washington, Al-Otaiba, be enough to stop or delay the annexation plan? Or will Israel press ahead regardless and thus undermine normalisation with Arab states fearful of popular unrest in their own countries? Only time will tell, but there are risks for everyone involved, especially the Palestinians, no matter which way you look at it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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