The rumored international efforts to impose a truce between Israel and Hamas – let alone those aimed at achieving permanent peace – are floundering. Though a ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, was reached on May 20, it still only represents a first step. Further international efforts are tainted by the usual biased logic of “Israel has a right to defend itself” versus “support for Palestinian self-determination.”
Yet, another kind of diplomacy might have a better chance at lasting results; one ironically made possible by the Abraham Accords. Essentially, Arab States that have normalized relations with Israel could use the agreements as leverage to push for Israel to ease its offensives. This scenario could become all the more probable as efforts from foreign powers, particularly the US, have thus far appeared inadequate.
On May 17, and after two weeks of intense violence, which has killed over 230 Palestinian civilians and 12 Israelis, US President Joe Biden publicly expressed his support for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tried to persuade Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as Arab leaders, to support a temporary interruption in the fighting.
The approved US$735 million sale of guided missiles to Tel Aviv has perpetuated the Palestinians’ perception of US bias in favor of Israel.
In spite of these diplomatic gestures, the approved US$735 million sale of guided missiles to Tel Aviv has perpetuated the Palestinians’ perception of US bias in favor of Israel, even though some Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have asked for the White House to delay it.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has exploited this systemic crack to accuse the West of selling weapons to Israel and, therefore, having its “hands stained with Palestinian blood.” For all the criticism Erdogan elicits in the Western media, he’s more right than wrong.
Indeed, after hours of debate over three separate sessions, the UN Security Council was only able to issue an insipid call for the cessation of hostilities, a truce but not a ceasefire (the US having blocked statements to this effect at the Security Council). Not even Pontius Pilate fearing Covid-19 would have washed his hands so meticulously, as the statement is contradictory in its unbalanced support for Israel. How could a truce even work in such a lopsided context?
Only Washington – and to a much lesser extent the EU and Russia – have the kind of influence over Israel to ensure that both parties agree to the truce. But Washington’s delay in addressing the latest flare-up in tensions suggests the US administration has other priorities.
The EU, despite lofty words, is weakened by internal fragmentation. Its High Representative for Foreign Relations, Josep Borrell, needed a week just to bring the 27 member states together, let alone lead them toward adopting a common stance. The one aspect that has become abundantly clear is that the optimism generated by the Oslo Accords of 1992 has been completely extinguished.
The US and its allies can only mollify – not solve – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The search for a geopolitical “vaccine” must come from new players.
Adding to the pessimistic mood, Washington’s announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr’s mission to “de-escalate” the violence had not worked so far. As tensions are likely to flare-up again, even if a ceasefire can be brokered by Washington, the United States and its allies can only mollify – not solve – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The search for a geopolitical “vaccine” must come from new players.
China has offered to mediate between the two sides. Beijing has maintained good relations with both Israel and the Palestinians – having recognized the State of Palestine in 1988 and hosted a Palestinian Embassy. In 1992, it established diplomatic relations with Israel, having enhanced these with considerable economic and technological ties. The Chinese propose to host and broker talks between the two parties, focused on a ceasefire and a resumption of the 1967 borders “two-state” solution, which is aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital.
The Chinese must know, however, that if the Israeli leadership were in the least way interested in entertaining such a solution, there would be no need to sully its reputation by pursuing colonialist policies, destroying homes, and killing civilians in Gaza. The level of destruction and the number of casualties in Gaza are such that the media has already presented just a short break in the fighting as a diplomatic triumph.
Enter the Abraham Agreements
Israel has committed an amateurish strategic error in its latest round of offensives, compromising the tenure of the Abraham Accords, which appeared to be heading toward Saudi Arabia’s recognition. The politically embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who again failed to form a new government, appears to have taken advantage of the Sheikh Jarrah situation, and the Palestinian reaction it triggered, to delay a political crisis.
Having chosen yet again to use brute force, he has exposed Israel’s existential Achilles’ heel: After 73 years of existence, Israel remains vulnerable in the face of the Palestinian situation, it can only measure its success by the number of families it displaces from their homes—whether in Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza. And this compromises its regional position.
In the diplomatic frenzy of the post-Arab Spring era, characterized by a decision of Arab leaders to seek closer relations with Israel, while treating Iran as their common enemy, the Palestinian question became marginal. However, Israel failed to calculate that diplomacy has a price. And the Arab States that have established diplomatic relations with the Jewish State – as Egypt and Jordan have shown – cannot ignore the Palestinian question.
Even if Arab leaders would rather forget about Gaza or the Wall in the West Bank, their subjects, their people still care.
Indeed, even if Arab leaders would rather forget about Gaza or the Wall in the West Bank, their subjects, their people still care; especially, when some of the holiest sites of Islam are threatened during the month of Ramadan.
To ignore this reality is to invite popular dissent, as thousands have marched in the streets of Arab – and Muslim majority – capitals in recent weeks to protest against Israel. Despite the criticism it has endured, it must be noted that the Palestinian Authority has proven its willingness to negotiate, concede, and collaborate with Israel (and the West) at every turn, even if it has never obtained anything from Tel Aviv.
The PA has nothing left to give, and the much vaunted “two-state” solution has lost all meaning to Palestinians and Israeli Arab citizens. It has been exposed as a figment of wishful thinking. Therefore, the West and its Arab allies should neither abandon the PA nor simply condemn and sanction Hamas. To do so would allow it (and supporters such as Turkey’s Erdogan or the Ayatollahs in Iran) to gain even more support from millions of Arabs, who would be justified in feeling that the West has betrayed and abandoned the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, the Arab States, which have adhered to the Abraham Accords to open formal diplomatic relations with Israel, could play that very diplomatic card as a Trojan Horse to coerce the Israeli leadership to cease its expropriation policies in East Jerusalem and its disproportionate military retaliations in Gaza.
The Abraham Accords exploited the Gulf States’ (and their allies’) concern about Iran; a fear they share with Israel. Rather than pull away from the Accords in protest, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and the Saudis (which remain a coveted “ally”) need not forego diplomatic ties with Israel, as these add to their “credibility” in Western capitals. Rather, they can resume, or improve diplomatic ties to Iran and its allies – Syria and Hezbollah, in the Middle East, as well as Turkey – exposing Netanyahu’s vulnerability.
Arabs States Restore Relations After Recognizing Israel
The narrative that Israel is surrounded by enemies no longer holds value. The Abraham Accords have opened up diplomacy and allowed common interests to flourish. The agreements have consolidated Arab states relations with both the West and the strongest military power of the Middle East. Therefore the Arabs are on their “best” behavior, and this gives them more room to engage in regional diplomacy at a time when Washington appears somewhere between dazed and uninterested in the region.
It’s doubtful anyone will threaten to pull away from the Accords. But the Gulf states could retaliate by repairing relations with Syria. And it’s not coincidental that in early May, General Khaled Humaidan, the head of Saudi intelligence, visited the Syrian capital in preparation for the restoration of official diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Damascus, which, as hinted by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman himself, is a prelude to better relations with Iran. Moreover, Saudi Arabia issued a clear condemnation of Israel’s actions in the Al-Aqsa mosque and Gaza, reaffirming its support for an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
It’s doubtful anyone will threaten to pull away from the Accords. But the Gulf states could retaliate by repairing relations with Syria.
At the same time, the Saudis have likely given Biden their assent to a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So, the strategy might be to keep the diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv while rehabilitating Iran, Syria, and by extension, Hezbollah, which has the only army able to threaten Israel, as seen in the 2006 war. Iran, unsurprisingly, has supported the struggle in Gaza and has a link with Hamas. In a context of greater “diplomatic” openness – and having less to fear from those which posed a significant threat (such as Saudi Arabia), Iran can focus on both the rhetorical and the tactical support to those regional elements which have maintained a consistently hostile stance against Israel.
Turkey and Jordan, both of which have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, have entered the arena, but they have few tools to apply effective pressure. However, the fact that Jordan and Egypt, weary of Erdogan’s influence over regional Islamist groups, have started to talk to the Muslim Brotherhood, is a sign of the region’s exasperation over the unilateral “peace” efforts that the US sponsored in the Trump years—and which Biden has not repudiated.
Jordan itself is suspicious of the pervasive Turkish influence and possible challenge to its role as custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Christian holy places. Amman, therefore, has an enormous stake in preserving East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state. The alternative being another Palestinian migration to Jordan, where most of its citizens are already Palestinian immigrants and refugees.
The diplomatic context offers new ideas, driving the Middle East dynamics in a more unpredictable manner. The signatories to the Abraham Accords can keep enjoying good relations with the White House, which has few “carrots” left to offer, and corresponding favors to demand. Ironically, the Palestinian question, which previously had not attracted as strong and multilateral recognition from the Arab states may have gained marked significance precisely – and ironically – because more Arabs than ever before have begun to recognize Israel.
Until not even a year ago, it was no exaggeration to suggest that the Palestinians were alone – apart from having support from Iran and Turkey. The thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar that began in January of 2021 has gained momentum. The fact that the Qatari emir visited Saudi Arabia just as the Palestinian situation was flaring up may not have been a coincidence; particularly, as Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, visited Riyadh in the same week.
All of this represents a significant breakthrough, considering the terrible relations between Ankara and Riyadh in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi assassination in October 2018. Nonetheless, only time will tell if these burgeoning relations and efforts among regional countries can be used to broker with Israel and resolve the Palestinian question.