Sam Bahour made the comments below in an interview with a journalist which did not air but that he later transcribed and shared with us. –Editor
The announcement of normalized relations between the UAE and Israel comes as no surprise for Palestinians. The normalization by several Gulf States, led by the Emirates, and Israel has been ongoing for a long period of time, under the table in a way, and this brings it to the surface. In analyzing, I would say it was brought to the surface at this specific time for a very concrete reason. And that’s Trump-Netanyahu’s failure to move forward on their “Peace to Prosperity” vision with annexation.
This was a colossal failure. Not only did they not bring the Palestinians into the game, thank God, but more importantly, even the international community was very clear that this is illegal, this will destroy the potential for a future resolution between the two sides, and even more important, within that international community, was Jordan, which took a very strong stance, basically threatening the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
All of those together culminated in the failure of Trump and Netanyahu to be able to realize any part of the plan. The way they run forward to get out of the crisis is to create this red herring, by describing the deal in the press conference at the White House as something so historic. They said historic so many times, I was wondering what the history books are going to write because nothing has happened yet.
What has happened is an indication to enter into some kind of normalization. So, it’s kind of a baby step forward that merely publicly states what is already a reality. So to me, the issue is not the UAE-Israel. The issue is the failure of the “Peace to Prosperity” vision to even have its first step, which was annexation to be realized.
As for Palestinians, the deal definitely puts the Palestinians in a smaller corner than we already were in. Given the international attack against us led by the US, I don’t envy people in the Palestinian leadership in terms of how they have to deal with the day to day crisis. Not only Corona but also the financial strangulation and the continued occupation. Let’s remember, the occupation has not stopped for one day, not for one day throughout. Not only since the “Peace to Prosperity” vision was announced, but for the last fifty-three years. So that’s a heavy weight that the Palestinians are carrying.
But we are steadfast. I mean, if we do not know how to do anything– we do know how to be steadfast and that’s kind of something that is built into our DNA. So, anyone who thinks that such announcements are going to make the Palestinians vanish is living in La-La-Land.
Having said that, there is a very crucial and sensitive diplomatic moment here. Is the Emirates announcement part of a larger plan that other Arab states will jump on the bandwagon to be able to serve Trump’s demands of them? Let’s remember, these are not democratic states, and these are not democratic, representative governments. That fact should always be in the back of our minds. The Gulf state governments do not represent the people who are citizens of their countries.
So I don’t know why the US is getting so excited about a non-representative government making an announcement, probably because they may be non-representative in the US, but that’s a different story.
The fear here is that the Palestinian leadership last week called for an emergency Arab League statement, condemnation, and a meeting; if that happens and there is a behind the scenes plan to roll out multiple countries entering into public normalization with Israel, such a meeting may backfire.
What is at stake here is any semblance of Arab unity on this issue. That could be the victim of this entire ordeal. I should note as something realistic here, the Palestinian people at large have almost zero faith in the Arab League and its institutions to be able to intervene in an impactful way.
That said, politically and publicly, it’s important that at least they posture as a unified front against Israel, as long as the occupation is maintained. If that public front is dismantled post-Oslo Accords, starting with the Emirates, we will not have lost much given they have not given much, the Arab League, for a very long time. But again, one doesn’t want to take somebody who’s an ally, even if it’s only a public ally and not a material ally, and lose them.
So what’s at stake here is a broader Arab configuration that up until now has been rather publicly clear that they will only normalize with Israel after the occupation ends. We should remember that the Emirates was one of three states, Bahrain and Oman being the other two, which were in the White House meeting when the peace prosperity announcement happened in Washington in January. So this is not a surprise that they are mingling with the Israeli side. It’s very clear.
I think it’s more important for them to serve the demands of the Trump administration because they fear Trump. In fact, they may exist today because of Trump. Without Trump backing them up, they are in very serious domestic issues and regionally, they have already lost credibility a long time ago.
Many of the Arab countries have supported UNRWA over time and given material support to Palestinians. But more interesting is their facade of support: their public posturing of support so as to appease their local population.
They know very well that their peoples, the peoples of the Arab world, are 110% aligned with the Palestinian struggle. So by showing this public Arab front, they’re able to tell their people that they are at the right place in history here. Whereas their actions up until now underground, behind the scenes, under the tables, are starting to be emerging publicly.
Egypt has already disappointed us. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has been deafeningly silent throughout the entire annexation, partly because he has a domestic issue. He has an issue with Ethiopia regarding the dam, and that is a life or death situation for Egypt, and they need the US to be involved to help them on that front. So, I am not surprised that Sisi, another non-representative leader of his people, a non-democratic state, joins the Trump bandwagon out of fear given that other issues that are important to Egypt may be damaged if they go head to head with Trump, given he’s a loose cannon.
As far as the Palestinians are concerned, what I believe needs to happen, and I’ve written about this for years now– It is time to stop issuing statements only and start to rejuvenate the Palestinian institutional capacities to also be more representative. Because we have moved into a configuration that is reminiscent of other Arab regimes: not having elections and not having an operational political system. So it’s time for the Palestinian leadership today to acknowledge that it has failed throughout the Oslo process and has stayed around much too long after that, to have any kind of real impact.
They are losing credibility, whatever is left of their credibility in the Palestinian communities. It’s time for a renewal of Palestinian leadership within an institutional framework. So also the younger people could have a voice in what they want to do; and we don’t know what they want to do because we don’t have an operating political system today. We don’t know what the appetite of the Palestinians is to address the Israelis. For example, will that be through massive civil disobedience, think of the First Intifada? Or to drop the two-state solution and revert to one democratic state with one vote for each citizen, from the river to the sea? All of these are potential.
I personally still commit to the state of Palestine in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And I think that has international support and traction. We need to create a leadership that can not only maintain that but also address the Israelis head-on with their acts of occupation every day. And that will mean mass mobilization and diplomatic mobilization to continue to get traction, to do one thing, to hold Israel accountable.
If we are the last people standing, we will be calling for Israel to be held accountable because that’s the only way Israel will change its means. For Israel to think that it can make a deal outside, in the Arab world, without dealing with the inside, dealing with the Palestinian issue, they are mistaken. They may have normalization with the entire Arab world, but they will still have a backyard, which is the biggest threat to their existence, and they will never be able to ignore that.
Israel believes it can manage the problem, because Palestinians are being funded to remain stable. Israel is maintaining a $30 million transfer from Qatar every month into the Gaza Strip. So Israel by definition is making sure that its enemy in Gaza is well funded to be able to not threaten it at the borders, at least. That is a short term strategy.
When we say Israel is convinced that they can live with this, what we are saying is the current Israeli administration, which is representative of the far-right, the extreme right, a settler-based government– they are the ones who are dreaming and maintaining the illusion that the status quo can be held.
I think the majority of Israelis don’t believe it. And we can see that today in the streets. I mean we have demonstrations coming out in Israel that are bigger than before Corona. They’re coming out in the Corona time with mass and social distancing to be able to call for Netanyahu’s removal from office. The public I think understand that Netanyahu’s administration is taking them to a very dark space, a space that may be threatening Israel’s existence. And I think when we speak of the elements in Israel who believe that the status quo is okay to be lived with– that is a very small fraction of the Israeli society.
Everyone wonders if Saudi Arabia will be next. I don’t think so. It’s more realistic to think that Bahrain, Oman, and Sudan, the latter being a very weak state, might be the next to normalize. Those are like freebies that the US can influence within an hour.
Saudi Arabia is a different calculation. Saudi Arabia being the bulwark that it is within the Middle East, I think will have a very difficult time making the overt kind of normalization with Israel without demanding any kind of political price that Israel would have to pay. But of course the region is changing fast and the region is fearful over Iran, mainly Saudi Arabia. So how much that fear plays a role as a function into the politics– I don’t know.
What I do know is that whatever happens in the region, the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence is not going to disappear, not by the stretch of anyone’s imagination.
So yes, the UAE deal changes the equation. This changes the allies that different parties may have, but the core of the conflict remains the sore spot. So either we deal with the core concept or we tippy-toe around it just to buy more time as the reality becomes more difficult by the day.
And that’s the calculation people will need to make. We’ll see Trump’s calculations over the next three months, and whether he remains in office, which of course would change the entire equation overnight.
But people need to bear in mind that annexation per se has already happened on the ground. There’s de facto annexation right now.
What the Israeli right hopes to do is make a legal determination within their political system that actually doesn’t change much on the ground. And that legal plan has failed so far. I believe all that we’re seeing with this flurry of diplomatic activity is an acknowledgment that the Trump-Israeli plan failed, dramatically failed. They could not get the first step of annexation off the ground.
And the reasons are very important. Europe is contemplating sanctions; for the first time they are discussing sanctions. The entire world condemned the US-Israeli plans. They understood very clearly, the Israeli side, that they cannot just have annexation and get away with it.
So the issue of accountability has started to enter the discussion, even in the US you have the Sanders campaign and part of the Democratic Party talking about linking aid to Israel, conditioning on Israel’s compliance with international law and not having annexation. So for the first time, and I’ve been following this all my life, accountability is, let’s not say that it is taking place, but at least it’s starting to be discussed seriously, especially when the EU mentions sanctions. That is major. That’s the failure.
What we are seeing today is a celebration of failure only.
There is a personal agenda here too, on Netanyahu’s part, which is not hidden, which is to stay out of jail. He will use any dramatic event, this being one of them, annexation being another, the “Peace to Prosperity” plan being another, to stay outside of the realm of being held accountable for the corruption charges that are being levied against him. So, this is part of his shifting attention to other grand issues. So people forget that he is being indicted. He is someone who possibly very likely will end up in jail.
Interestingly his co-partner Trump is in the same position: someone who may be facing legal charges the day he’s out of office. Those are the leaders and the quality of the leaders that are making these grand decisions. I wouldn’t put my money on those horses!