The peace deal that few saw coming had been gathering steam in plain sight. Even before the election of Donald Trump, Israel and the UAE had been inching closer, drawn together by three factors – enmity with Iran, a loathing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a mutual belief that the agreed formula for peace with Palestinians was no longer working.
More than anything else, combating Iran became the conduit for the two sides. The adage of a foe of a foe becoming a friend has rarely been more apt. Tehran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon, its extensive reach into the Arab world, potential to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, and Shia Islamic revolutionary zeal, provided enough common ground for both sides to sharply deepen intelligence links to strategic levels over the past four years.
Trust grew, as faith in the Palestinians waned, particularly in Abu Dhabi, where Israeli claims that the bedrock approach of land for peace was broken had won resonance, and the two-state solution, which had underwritten a collective Arab approach to peace, had been eclipsed by more pressing realities.
That the warming ties were taking place as the Trump administration shredded conventions on Israel/Palestine did not seem to matter. Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, slashing US funding for Palestinian refugees, annexing the Syrian Golan Heights, expanding settlements, closing the Palestinian embassy to Washington, and introducing a peace plan that ignored nearly every premise of earlier approaches, were all set aside.
Arab solidarity on Palestine had clearly splintered by the time Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, rolled out his version of a solution. That plan gave Israel a lot of what it sought and diminished Palestinian aspirations. The sum of the proposal was substantially less than that tabled between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat in 2000. Mahmoud Abbas turned up his nose and has boycotted Trump ever since.
A less than full-throated rebuke followed from Arab states, which had drawn legitimacy for decades by being protectors of the Palestinians but which now had other priorities. Things were changing quickly.
The effect of the UAE crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, putting his name to a US deal that puts his country on a peace footing with Israel is profound. The concession the prince won from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank allows the state to still position itself as a champion of the Palestinians. But the net loss for the Palestinian people dilutes that.
Only several events have had the same impetus for Israel since its declaration of independence in 1948 – among them the 1978 Camp David accords that led to peace with Egypt, the pact with Jordan signed 17 years later, and the Oslo accords of 1993 where Israel and the Palestinians formally recognised each other. And now this.
The impact is just as significant for the Palestinians, who are now confronting a paradigm shift that leaves them further away than ever from self determination. The splintered diaspora is ever more entrenched across silos in the shrinking West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Egypt.
Reconciling falling fortunes on the ground with the stark new regional realities is wrenching for the Palestinian leadership, which has appeared paralysed in recent years and increasingly at odds with key patrons – one of the most important of which is no longer shy about acknowledging it.
More than at other times the UAE now is a geo-political engine room of the region. Zayed has taken interventionist positions on Yemen and Qatar and positioned himself as the lynchpin of an axis opposing Ankara, Doha and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE’s stake in the Libya conflict can be viewed through the same lens. The forsaken Palestinians, meanwhile, have received aid to tackle the coronavirus, and lip service about existential issues.
The UAE’s lead position on a peace deal is unlikely to leave it isolated for long. As Trump touts a rare diplomatic win, rumblings abound in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states that others will soon follow; Bahrain and Oman being likely candidates, and possibly the regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, whose signature would mark a seismic event in the history of the Middle East, and in global geopolitics.
Enlisting Riyadh as a partner of Israel had been unthinkable under templates that governed how the conflict was managed, and how it could be solved. Saudi Arabia’s former leader, King Abdullah, had been a champion of a 2002 approach that would lead to collective Arab recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to the boundaries that demarcated the nascent state and Palestinian territories before the 1967 war.
Accepting what is on offer now would have been unthinkable. But attitudes of Arab states have shifted so markedly that some now see the Palestinian cause as a distraction from broader issues and its leaders as a drain on their time and resources.
The two-state solution was barely kicking when Trump took office. It is flatlining now. While Israel celebrates, Palestinians are facing one of their most bitter reckonings.