The Arab/Israeli Conflict is No More: What New Diplomatic Relationships Mean for Palestine
President Trump and the First Lady Participate in an Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony by The White House
Article by Amina Fahmy,
For decades after the establishment of Israel in 1948, what is now thought of as a conflict between only two parties was a conflict between Israel and the entire MENA region. Israel fought five wars with various Arab states including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and the then Transjordan, and the fighting was largely seen as a threat to Israeli existence. The issue of Palestinian sovereignty spurred Pan-Arabist movements, providing Arab countries with an issue upon which to build political and social cultures; Egypt and Syria even merged, for a short time, to form the United Arab Republic. When Egypt did take steps to normalize relations with Israel as a result of the 1980 Camp David Accords, other MENA countries criticized then-president Anwar Sadat and distanced themselves from the country. Since then, with the exception of the 1982 and 2006 wars between Israel and Lebanon, an uneasy peace has prevailed over the region and conflict has largely turned inward. Many assumed that Israeli-Palestinian peace would preceed, or at least be a major factor in, the establishment of further diplomatic relationships with Arab nations. However, President Trump’s administration foiled any chances of that happening.
Unlike his predecessors, President Trump has prioritized brokering relationships between Israel and the MENA region, rather than attempting to create Israeli-Palestinian peace. President Trump has stopped concerning himself with Palestinian issues and opened the door for others to do the same. While the normalization of diplomatic relationships with Arab countries presents prima facie victories, they are detrimental to the establishment of peace with Palestine.
On Sunday, October 18, Israel and Bahrain formalized their September agreement to establish diplomatic ties. The UAE and Bahrain are only the third and fourth Arab nations that have done so, prompting hope that others will follow suit. On Friday October 23, Sudan joined Bahrain and the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel. In proceeding with their agreements, the UAE and Bahrain made well-reasoned calculations to put their people first, as their new relationships will likely spur economic and scientific developments and reinforce geopolitical security. However, their agreements do not include any substantive discussion of Palestine and signal a further willingness of the international community to ignore the fact that Israel, in its treatment of Palestine and Palestinians, is violating international law. Perhaps more importantly for practicality’s sake, these are missed opportunities to negotiate the conflict and make a two-state solution less and less likely. Indeed, as it stands now, the Israel-Palestine conflict is an example of the limits of international law in protecting the people it was designed to protect.
Representatives from Israel and Bahrain attended a September meeting with President Trump at the White House to celebrate the Abraham Accords, hailed as a diplomatic victory for both President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Trump and Netanyahu face uphill general election battles, and the Abraham Accords mark a significant development in Arab-Israeli relations that is expected to bolster their respective political stances. Although the accords fall far short of President Trump’s promised Mid-East peace deal, the Abraham Accords did halt Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. After the agreement was signed in September, Israel and the UAE issued contradicting statements about the status of the planned annexation. Israel claimed the annexation was simply paused while the UAE announced that they had put a stop to the plan.
The international community and Palestinian authorities criticized Netanyahu’s June announcement to annex up to 30% of the occupied West Bank. The West Bank, established as a Palestinian territory in 1949 by a UN brokered peace agreement, is home to approximately 2.5 million Palestinians and lies to the west of the River Jordan. It has been illegally occupied by at least 430,000 Israeli settlers since the 1967 Middle East war, and an Israeli annexation would essentially erase the possibility of a two-state solution. Not only would a significant portion of the imagined Palestinian state be gone, but also, reversal of the annexation would require majority support of Israeli MPs–which is highly unlikely due to myriad political factors. Furthermore, even in a context not specific to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unilateral annexation of a territory is illegal under international law.
Despite this promise to hold off the official annexation, the Israeli government has reportedly approved approximately 5,000 additional settlements in October, and has continued with home demolitions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The settlements are in a number of West Bank neighborhoods, including some deep within the territory, threatening the continuity of a future Palestinian state. In late September, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas spoke before the UN General Assembly, requesting a conference in early 2021 to establish Middle East peace consistent with international law. It is easy to understand why Abbas felt the need to raise these concerns now: a broader Arab recognition of the state of Israel, without the caveat of requiring a reduction in the number of settlements, demonstrates a dwindling interest in the establishment of a two-state solution.
Dr. Michael J Koplow, writing for the Israel Policy Forum, contextualized the decision to speed up settlement-building: “The Israeli government cannot count on American policy remaining supportive of unilateral annexation or declaring that Israeli settlements are inherently not in conflict with international law.” Dr. Koplow acknowledges that the United States, despite not being party to the Rome Statutes, is in a position to declare international law relevant. At the beginning of the Trump presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US no longer considers West Bank settlements illegal, reasoning that “calling the establishment of civilian settlements inconsistent with international law hasn’t worked. It hasn’t advanced the cause of peace.” The move by President Trump, along with his decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and cut funding to the UN agency that assists Palestinian refugees, is a stark departure from traditional US foreign policy.
It is certainly possible, but unlikely, that normalization of diplomatic relationships in the MENA region could have occurred under past American administrations. Previous American foreign policy, and particularly Obama’s platform, suggested that the US would not play a substantive role in establishing diplomacy between Arab nations and Israel without including Palestine at the table. By turning his back on policies that offered albeit limited support to Palestinian authorities, President Trump cleared the way for Netanyahu to pursue relationships with Arab leaders with little regard for the Palestinian population, allowing Arab leaders to do the same. Now, as even more of the world, including the region closest to questions of Palestinian statehood, have apparently accepted Israeli violation of what would be Palestinian sovereignty, a two-state solution is more elusive than ever.
Amina Fahmy is a first year law student at Berkeley who is interested in civil rights and international human rights law. Amina's interests in law are rooted in her undergraduate study of social and political movements in the Middle East. Prior to attending Berkeley, Amina spent two years living, working, and studying Arabic in Cairo as a Center for Arabic Study Abroad Fellow.