Sam Menassa

Palestine Between Practices of the Past, Vision for the Future

Although the two peace agreements, between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and the United Arab Emirates, differ from those that previously been signed by Tel Aviv with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in that the two Gulf states had not been in confrontation with Israel and economic and investment dimensions dominate the agreements, the breakthrough they manifest is of equal importance to that of the former, especially at this stage, exceptional by all standards, of the Arab world’s history.

For, in addition to the Arab Spring’s events in several countries and its fragmentation repercussions in many them, with civil conflicts combining with regional and international interference in countries such as Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the last decade has been warked by the expansion of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalism. The first can be seen in the emergence of several militant terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, which wreaked havoc and devastation everywhere they went. The other is the Iranian attack on several Arab countries, where armed groups alien to their societies, were implanted. They mutinied, either penetrating or replacing the state, using it as a spearhead for its battles. It is not an overstatement to say that the dubious way in which Iran has been engaging with the Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, for more than a quarter of a century, is perhaps the primary reason for the Arab’s rush to normalize ties with Israel.

The two peace agreements between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel portray a scene of the Arab world that can be summed up in three frames.

The first is of the Arab world, as a political unit and a regional system, is collapsing, such that most of its countries have disintegrated or become failed states, leaving only a few that maintain some form of political and economic stability. The countries’ unity as a political block is broken, and they seem incapable of forming a mutually beneficial, even fragile, political framework allowing them to agree on minimal common ground under the umbrella of the Arab League.

The second frame is of the collapse of the consensus on the Palestinian question being the entire Arab nation’s cause, whereby no party is entitled to taking a unilateral decision on the issue. The peace process between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel is a consequence of this, and its just the beginning, as a result of the US President Donald Trump’s policy vis a vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and settling it, apparent in the deal of the century, and its general focus on economic relations and development rather than the political issue. This is the beginning of a new phase where Arab countries unilaterally normalize ties with Israel, with future steps potentially being taken by countries on the Nile Valley, the Maghreb, and the Levante, in a deviation from the slogan of that says the Palestinian issue’s settlement is to be made exclusively through Arab consensus.

This slogan would have yielded positive results had it been used prudently and if it were genuinely adopted. However, it had dire negative replications because it emerged from the totalitarian and authoritarian Arab regimes’ hijacking the Palestinian cause and their exploitation of the struggle. Internally, it was used as a rack on which they hang their failures and justify all crimes they perpetrated against their people, and externally as a bargaining chip, to achieve their authoritarian interests rather than their countries’ interests. During this phase, these regimes formed the front of resilience and confrontation with Hafez al-Assad’s regime at the top. They monopolized Palestinian and Arab decision-making, obstructing any initiatives for a settlement. On the surface, they used the pretext of the “sanctity of the cause” to argue that neither the Palestinians nor any Arab country have the right to act and determine their fate unilaterally. They insisted that instead, the decision should be united Arab. Beneath this superficial justification was apprehension about giving up a treasure that justifies their existence and the weapons they used as they please to serve their interests. After major Gulf states such as the UAE and Bahrain signed a peace with Israel, this closed circle was broken. With it, the Arab totalitarian regimes’ monopoly of Palestine decisions was a major reason many Arab peace initiatives were sabotaged.

The third frame depicts the Arab-Israeli conflict fading. First and foremost, because of internal predicaments facing most Arab countries, as well as the debilitation that now characterizes the Palestinian Authority, the massive rift between “state of Ramallah” and the “state of Gaza” and their deeply entrenched dispute. Instead of transforming the Gaza Strip, after Israel’s withdrawal, into an oasis of peace and stability and a successful economic zone that exemplifies what a Palestinian state could be, it has been transformed into what it is today, subservient to foreign powers, poor, isolated, and terrorized.

Going over these three frames of the Arab rush may evoke some to see its disadvantage only, though it has many positive aspects. Most notably, this Arab world is what our ancestors and our fathers have aspired to build from the begging to the middle of the preceding century. Saying that we do not regret its collapse is not blarney.

Most of the countries of that world have been unable, since their independence, to establish modern states because they were dominated by totalitarian and corrupt regimes, which have exploited, among other things, the Palestinian cause to drag the region into conflicts that superficially appeared to be waged against occupation, while these regimes’ aim, beneath the surface, was self-preservation. These wars did not liberate Palestine or even put Israel under pressure; rather, the regimes used them to justify oppressing their people and putting their lives on hold, under the pretext that no voice is louder than the cry of battle.

Easing tensions with Israel and the path that began today with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain end the Arab-Israeli conflict’s prioritization, bringing the needs and concerns of the peoples of the region, which had been revealed by the Arab Spring revolutions, to the forefront. This does not at all imply that burying the Palestinian cause, which is a question of justice and a people’s right to their homeland. However, normalization may help to make the process of reaching a settlement more efficient than that of violence and war, mostly if the Palestinians were able to benefit from peace.

Without a doubt, there are many risks around this stage. The two peace agreements may exacerbate Iran’s sense of isolation after the blockade imposed by US sanctions and the blows it is receiving in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, and push it to adopt more aggressive and hardline policies, especially in countries where its vassals have influence. Fears of unprecedented Iranian recklessness, which would have unforeseeably dangerous consequences, are legitimate.

The second threat is Israeli narcissism, especially with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is making decisions based on personal electoral gains rather than his country’s interests. Israeli credibility is requisite for the consolidation and fortification of peace, one which is not cold and includes economic, educational, health, and security dimensions. It also has to meet the Arab initiative with material concessions that push in the direction of a just settlement of the Palestinian question.

The third danger is the persistence of the reluctance that has characterized US policy towards the Middle East over the past decade and its endless support for Israel. Whether Donald Trump is reelected for a second term or Joe Biden wins, Washington must lay out a clear vision for its policies in the region that protects the process of normalization between Israel and Arab countries, taking Palestinian and Arab interests into account, foremost of which is the two-state solution, as well Israel’s interests.

There is a need for a unified vision today, not just of the region’s economic future, but also of how to fortify this future with responsible and just political positions that address the root causes of the issues, not manage them with painkillers. This is required if the peace process is to differ from those the past, allowing it to propel a new phase of prosperity in the region, and allow it go from living in the past to enjoying the present and looking to the future