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Why do Arab leaders respect treaties with others but not between themselves?

September 18, 2020 at 1:00 pm

Tunisian protesters lift placards depicting a crossed out portrait of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the word “traitor”, during a protest against the leaders of the United Arab Emirates after their deal with Israel to normalise relations, in front of the UAE embassy in Tunis, on 18 August 2020. [FETHI BELAID/AFP via GettyImages]

The so-called “Abraham Accord”, as the deal between the UAE and Israel is known, arrived faster than even the most enthusiastic Zionists could have imagined, even if secret negotiations had been taking place. Bahrain has followed suit with indecent haste.

The first Arab-Israeli peace deal took place in 1979 with the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. Getting to that stage took almost two year from the time that the then Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, shocked the world with his visit to Israel in November 1977. Even then the deal was simply two framework plans setting the agenda for negotiations rather than a commitment to any substantial deal. Negotiations went on for years afterwards.

Such deals are, by their very nature, difficult to agree and are filled with fine details in which more than one devil lurks. Egypt paid heavily for breaking what was then a taboo; it was boycotted by all Arab countries and deprived of substantial financial support that richer Arab states used to provide to Cairo. The Arab League based in Cairo was relocated to Tunisia and the Egyptian economy suffered. Ultimately, in 1981 Sadat paid with his life for signing the accords, among other reasons. Until then there was a strong Pan-Arab position rejecting any form of normalisation with Israel unless and until Palestinians are afforded their full legitimate rights.

The Arab League said that the Camp David deal reneged on a whole host of Arab accords that Egypt had signed up to since the creation of the League in 1945. Fearing that it was setting a precedent for other member states the organisation acted swiftly and decisively.

Egypt was not punished for making peace; it was punished for making peace with a colonial-occupation state with practices rooted in an apartheid system that threatens every Arab state while denying the existence of an entire nation, the Palestinians. A nuclear armed entity, Israel discriminates against Palestinians, even individually — and even its own Palestinian Arab citizens — in every aspect of life. Moreover Cairo was boycotted not only for taking such a step unilaterally, but also for the social, cultural and strategic impact of “peace making” with a state built upon land grabs and total disregard for international law. The case of Egypt could be described as “peace minus normalisation”, as the Egyptians’ resentment of Israel and strong links to the Palestinians made normalisation almost impossible.

READ: Normalisation with Israel and the Palestinian response 

With the UAE deal the situation is different and the precedent is even more dangerous; repercussions are likely to have an impact on an entire generation in the Gulf region. Neither the UAE nor Bahrain have ever fought a war with Israel; they share no borders with it; and they have no economic or security needs which such deal might deliver. Unlike the Egyptians, people in the UAE are less attached to the Palestinian cause, making public opposition to normalisation less likely and thus less effective.

In terms of security, the only major breach of the UAE’s national security of which we are aware came in 2010 when Israeli agents murdered Palestinian Mahmud Al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel. It is unlikely that the murder would have been mentioned in the discussions about the deal just signed with the Zionist state. However, an estimated 100,000 Palestinians expats living and working in the UAE can expect more restrictions and surveillance.

The Palestinians and other Arab countries reject the UAE’s move, with serious grievances about repercussions that go far beyond the “symbolism” of peace making. US President Donald Trump spoke at the signing ceremony on Tuesday about changing the “course of history” with the Palestinian issue becoming irrelevant to future Arab generations. He is distorting history and rewriting it to reflect the false Israeli narrative of the conflict.

Arab League refuse to condemn UAE-Israel normalisation - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Arab League refuse to condemn UAE-Israel normalisation – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Manama and Abu Dhabi are peripheral to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they are effective within the Arab fold, at least as set out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Weaker parties taking such a step alone weaken the rest of the group further; the Arab League in this case.

Moreover, the moves by the UAE and Bahrain reinforce the historical trend that Arab leaders always honour and observe deals that they sign with others but do not respect commitments made to each other, within or without the Arab League. In this particular context, there are dozens of bilateral and Arab League treaties signed by almost all Arab countries, the UAE and Bahrain included, that make normalisation with Israel conditional upon the Zionist state accepting the two-state solution at the heart of the Arab Peace Initiative endorsed by the majority of the League’s members, including the Palestinians. All such treaties are either shelved, partially implemented or not implemented at all.

READ: Anti-Netanyahu protests in US as PM signs ‘peace deals’ with UAE, Bahrain 

For example, Abu Dhabi and Manama are parties to the Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty, signed by Arab League members in 1950, even before the UAE and Bahrain existed as independent countries. The treaty obliges member states to defend each other in war— as NATO does for its members— while banning internal meddling in the affairs of other League members. Both Bahrain and the UAE, and almost all other Arab League members, have never fully implemented the terms of that treaty despite foreign invasions of member states such as Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, to cite a few examples. Instead, the UAE is now intervening in Yemen and Libya in contravention of such a treaty as well as international legal obligations. Furthermore, there are dozens of Arab League and bilateral treaties covering important areas such as agriculture, science, education, culture and women’s issues. They are based comprehensively on the good of the pan-Arab world and are not supposed to be cherry-picked for partial implementation. None of them are really adhered to. The Saudi led Gulf States’ boycott of Qatar, for example, contravenes many Arab League treaties. Conversely, all Gulf States pay great attention to the implement of their various accords with the United States, France and Britain, particularly in areas of defence and security.

The UAE is 50 years old, Bahrain is 51 years old and Israel is 72 years old, but the average life span of Palestinian olive trees is 500 years. Palestine will always be deeply rooted in the land, hearts and minds of millions. None of those three countries are likely to held in such esteem.

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