Part III: Israel and the UAE: A Palestinian Perspective

I begin with the Palestinians since they are so greatly outnumbered by the positive support the deal has received. It is a perspective many if not most readers probably have not encountered. Though I refer to other voices, I focus primarily on one Palestinian, Marwa Fatafta, who appeared on a Foundation for Middle East Peace Webinar on 1 September with Sam Bahour and Elizabeth Tsurkov whose views I will discuss in two subsequent blogs.

Various rival Palestinian factions appeared to be united in their objection to the deal, one of the few items on which they were united. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting with those factions, including both Fatah and the PLO along with (through video-conference between Ramallah and Beirut) Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ziyad al-Nakhalah, presented a united front against the Israel-UAE deal to normalize ties. Ironically, very soon after, Palestinian Authority officials expressed a desire to renew security coordination with Israel, in spite of the apparent united opposition to the deal.

Critics come from many different directions and include other states which condemned the deal. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, attacked the UAE government for normalizing ties with Israel, accusing the country of “committing treason against the Islamic world, the regional nations and Palestine.” Tehran’s foreign minister described the agreement as a “dagger … unjustly struck by the UAE in the backs of the Palestinian people and all Muslims.” “The deal will pave the way for Israeli influence in the region” and will throw into oblivion the Palestinian question” when Palestine is a country that has been “usurped by Israel.”

Turkey also called the deal “unforgivable” and “hypocritical.” The Middle East “will never forget and will never forgive this hypocritical act by the UAE,” declared Turkey which threatened to withdraw Turkey’s envoy from the UAE. “The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pronounced.

What a statement of blatant hypocrisy!  Turkey retains its embassy and ambassador in Tel Aviv even though, at a time when Israeli-Turkish relations were much friendlier, Turkey had previously downgraded its relations with Israel following the 1956 Sinai War and after the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law in 1980. Erdogan personally visited Israel in 2005, admittedly with the ostensible purpose of advancing the peace process.

Turkey signed and ratified an agreement on reconciliation with Israel in 2016. Among its terms, Turkey cancelled all appeals against Israeli soldiers involved in the killing of the nine “unarmed” volunteers bringing assistance on the Mavi Marmara to the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Israeli soldiers being dropped by helicopter were attacked by those on board the ship with clubs, iron rods and knives, resulting in nine soldiers being wounded, two allegedly by bullets from those on board. 2010 was the low point in Turkish-Israeli relations. In the reconciliation agreement, Turkey agreed to prevent terrorist or military activity against Israel on Turkish soil, including stopping all funding and aid to organizations advocating terror. Turkey also agreed that all aid for Gaza would pass through Israel.

Iran was not hypocritical since Israel is its intrepid foe. Iran insisted that Palestine replace Israel and not simply that Palestine be recognized as a state alongside Israel. The foreign minister of Turkey, in contrast, affirmed the two-state formula and called for East Jerusalem to be the capital of the independent Palestinian state. If Turkish charges were hypocritical and hysteric, Iran’s claims were contradictory. If the UAE agreement with Israel would soon fall apart, how could it throw into oblivion the Palestine question? It is difficult to detect a pattern in such irrational responses that seem to be made far more to express outrage and for public consumption than as articulations of policy and thought-out positions.

Though the Palestinians were also outraged at the agreement, some articulated clear positions which they defended with arguments. Their claims fit within an historical context beginning with the historical presumption that the swath of land through the Middle East was the exclusive territory of Arabs and, for many, Muslim Arabs. There is a standard explicit or implicit trope behind the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Arab countries, Jews are a foreign ethnic group engaged in systematic and conspiratorial efforts to undermine the mystical union between the people and their fatherland. The arrival and ideology of the Zionists when they came to Palestine disrupted the natural historical process of self-determination for the Arabs in Palestine.

Within this context, Palestinian nationalism was conceived that eventually emerged as the central Arab signature cause. The Arab states’ loss in 1948 and their even more devastating and demoralizing 1967 defeat by Israel forced the revolutionary Arab nationalist movements and republics to accept a measure of coexistence with the traditional Arab monarchies. That served several purposes. First, in the face of the imperial aggression and Arab victimization, pan-Arabic nationalist sentiment was aroused among the masses and pan-Arabic nationalism became the guardian of what it meant to be an Arab. It also meant that identification as an Arab, even for the anti-nationalist monarchies, became intricately tied to hostility towards Israel and Jews more generally. Historic religious antisemitism in the Middle East, to the degree that it existed, morphed into ethnic antisemitism.

Marwa Fatafta insisted that the Israel-UAE deal marked another turning point in the long saga of Arab and Palestinian oppression and victimization in the pursuit of Palestinian self-determination which emerged in the 1960s to partner with pan-Arab nationalism. Corrupt and sclerotic Palestinian leaders in the Palestinian Authority had betrayed their own people. Within this continued tale of woe and despair, Fatafta called for a resurrection of the moribund PLO, a militant organization theoretically pledged to confront Israel and one which linked Palestinians not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but those living in both Israel and the diaspora. Surprisingly, instead of putting forth a doctrine that the Middle East needed a new and more sophisticated political consciousness (and the death of the old one), Fatafta went back to resurrect the old one that was central to the claim of Arab (and Muslim) predominance through all of the Middle East.

Marwa Fatafta is no fanatic. She was a Fulbright scholar. She holds an MA in International Relations from Syracuse University and an MA in Development and Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen. She is a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network, and an expert on digital rights. She had worked in Jerusalem as the Communications Manager for the British Consulate-General. In light of changing events, of which the UAE-Israeli Agreement was but one prominent instance, she has pushed for reclaiming the PLO and resurrecting its legitimacy as a basis for re-engaging Palestinian youth and directly confronting Israel. Though she is not always clear whether she intends that confrontation to be non-violent, her MA thesis explicitly advocated non-violence. The Israeli-UAE agreement marked a switching point for the resurrection of the PLO.

She asks: How can the PLO maintain accountability as both a national liberation movement and governing body? How might Hamas and Islamic Jihad be integrated after decades of exclusion? What models of Palestinian youth leadership can be further developed? It is quite clear that she voices the view of many Palestinians who have given up on the peace process with Israel. In her program, she joins Nijmeh Ali who holds a BA from Haifa University and an MA from Hebrew University in calling for a return to resistance as the only way the powerless can express power and oppressed groups can create change. Both work and share beliefs with Dana El Kurd, also a Shabaka member with a PhD in Government from The University of Texas at Austin specializing in Comparative Politics and International Relations.

These are no slouches. They oppose the authoritarianism of the Palestinian and Arab state leaders, the assaults on freedom of expression, press freedoms and civil society, but also what they view as the oppression of Israel. The UAE-Israel deal marks a clear dividing line when it became clear that Palestinians could not count on the support of any Arab authoritarian leader to achieve their freedom. Further, they see a continuity in Palestinian history from the time Palestinians were under the heels of the corrupt and authoritarian Ottoman leadership, the colonial might of Britain and then the Israelis who usurped Palestinians lands, evicted Palestinians who became refugees and reduced Palestinians in Israel to second class citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to third class non-citizens. It is a tale of continuous disenfranchisement that will only end when Palestinians acquire their own state.

Their diachronic vision of before and after and from here to there is complemented by a synchronic view shared in part by all observers that the deal marks a dramatic shift from negotiations of land for peace to one of peace for peace, from an inside-outside peace process to an outside-inside one. On the other hand, they clearly have the view that they belong to those below and that those above, whether in the Palestinian government, Arab authoritarian states and in Israel that have their knee on Palestinian necks, need to be changed. The Palestinians need to rise up and their preference seems to be through the use of non-violence, though unrest in the streets so easily turns into violence.

This fits in with a long held assumption in the region that if the leaders of Arab states in the region betray the Palestinians, if they undercut their effort to get a state of their own, if they fail to stand against Israel, they would face serious domestic problems. Further, the appeal of these Palestinian critics was not only to youth and the street, but to an alliance with all people who are oppressed around the world, whether active in Black Lives Matter or other movements of protest against their governments and the ruling class. That is their struggle. That is what they express a willingness to die for, though it seems more cerebral and driven by reflection rather than fear. They view all the issues discussed as merely transactional, none having to do with morality or justice, and not one in service of ordinary people, whether the matters are ones of financial and technological cooperation, flights or security.

This connection is, ironically, supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu who connects strategy and diplomatic foreign policy successes with commercial, entrepreneurial and military strength at home. Palestinians point out that the other correlate is corruption that is pervasive through the whole region. Political systems in Arab states, and in Palestine, are controlled by ruling elites who abuse their power to the disadvantage of the ordinary citizen. The institutions lack accountability mechanisms, anti-corruption laws and regulations, at least none that are enforced. The crackdown on political dissent, free speech, independent media and civil society organizations has intensified.

This past year, however, the UAE had the best score on the corruption, oppression and anti-freedom index than ever before. “This may be due to good and efficient management of public finances, improved public procurement and better access to public services and infrastructure. However, despite their high ranking, these monarchies place severe restrictions on civil and public freedoms and suppress any form of political dissent or criticism placed on the ruling families.” For these critics, civic space has to become more open, has to become free.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no longer the Middle East’s primary geopolitical fault line as Gulf regimes in fear of Iran’s growing regional power and hegemonic ambitions, to one degree or another, quietly or more openly, align with Israel without necessarily fully normalizing ties as Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have done. The cold and proxy hot wars between Iran and most Arab states is a distraction from the needs of the oppressed in all the countries of the region. Hence, the UAE-Israel deal is but a key building block in cementing the position of the two opposing Middle East camps, neither of which represents the man in the street.

For Palestinian critics, the so-called peace deal is but an arrangement to reinforce the hot and cold wars and to shift the balance of power in Yemen, Libya and Syria away from insurgents in theatres where the UAE for one has stumbled badly. These Palestinian critics want to shift attention back to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but only by linking a reborn Palestinian nationalism with encouraging rebellion in the Arab surveillance states. The UAE, and other authoritarian Arab states in the region, have purchased Israeli spyware. UAE did so to attack the IPhone of human rights activist, Ahmed Mansour, using a rare, zero-day, Israeli exploit of Apple’s iOS.

Palestinians have been the guinea pigs in this dismal record of human rights violations and the orchestrated campaign to dehumanize and delegitimize them. Therefore, it is no surprise that the head of Mossad led the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi. Israeli spies and businessmen would no longer need to use foreign passports for travel to the UAE. The deal was, as Iran and Turkey both declared, a stab in the back. It was an arms deal, a diplomatic deal, a financial deal and anything but a peace deal. For that reason, though it was a course-changer, it remained peripheral to the central issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Israel-UAE agreement offered proof positive that all previous agreements, especially the Oslo Accords, were null and void. The ancient Palestinian leadership clings to the still-born child of Oslo and offer verbal declarations and no action. Changes have been facilitated by a marriage of Israeli and American lies that unite the authoritarian trends within each country to the reality of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.

The young Palestinian leaders within a renewed PLO offer a consensus-building mechanism, elections, accountability and transparency, empowered because Palestinians are a crisis-oriented people characterized by resilience, solidarity and a refusal to be turned into victims. Instead of surrendering to anger, disappointment, and despair, they are committed to mobilization and constructive activism.

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