On 13th August, 2020, UAE and Israel signed a US-brokered agreement that has come to be known as the ‘Abraham Accord’, implying that the three parties represented the three Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The announcement released following a joint call between President Donald Trump, the Emirati crown prince and the Israeli prime minister — describes the agreement as a step toward the creation of a new “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East to expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation”.
On the surface, the agreement focusses on establishing ‘normal’ relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates including business relations, tourism, direct flights, scientific cooperation, and, in time, full diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level. While the timeline for this process is not yet clear, UAE officials have indicated that “talks will start” in the coming weeks to implement normalization. An important but not specifically spelt out component of the Abraham Accord, is enhanced security cooperation against regional threats, especially from Iran and its proxies.
Under negotiation for quite some time brokered by the Trump administration. One can safely assume that US President Donald Trump speeded the process of the agreement so as to spur his re-election campaign for the November US Presidential Election.
The Abraham Accords comes after months of debate over loudly announced plans of the Israeli government to annex portions of the West Bank. Such a move if made would prevent the mutually agreed two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from ever becoming possible that the signed accord now stipulates that Israel will suspend such annexation in a plus point. However PM Netanyahu has subsequently insisted that suspension only means that it can be done later, the Emiratis are trying to nudge Israel to forego such a step, this could irreparably harm the prospect of a two-state solution.
Israel and the UAE have been inching toward normalization in recent years. In 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic office in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi tied to the International Renewable Energy Agency; senior Israeli officials have visited Abu Dhabi; Israeli athletes have participated in regional competitions in the UAE; and Israel is set to participate in Dubai’s World Expo 2020, which is now delayed to October 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Three Arab countries have already diplomatic and trade relations with Israel, namely Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. Even though Tayyip Erdogan has vociferously condemned the agreement, Turkey is the only non-Arab Muslim country with not only diplomatic relations, but an ongoing and active military program with Israel. At least 12 Arab/Muslim countries also have contacts at various levels. A widely expected outcome of the Abraham Accord is that other Arab countries like Bahrain or Oman will soon follow suit.
What does this mean for the Palestinians? A geographic region in Western Asia, the name Palestine was used by ancient Greek writers, it was later used for the Roman province Syria Palaestina, the Byzantine Palaestina Prima, and the Islamic provincial district of Jund Filastin. It has been inhabited by Semitic people who over the centuries adhered to all the three Abrahamic religions. Located at the junction of Egypt, Syria, and Arabia, and being the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity, the region has a tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce, and politics. It has been controlled by numerous peoples, including Ancient Egyptians, Canaanites, Israelites and Judeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, ancient Greeks, the Jewish Hasmonean Kingdom, Romans, Parthians, Sasanians, Byzantines, the Arab Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, the British, and modern Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians.
The real problem started in the 19th century when nationalism and the idea of nation state spread through Europe and was exported by European colonialism to colonial territories. The idea of Israel became a powerful invention thought out by the German Jew Theodore Herzl in his book ‘Der Judenstaat’ (the Jewish state) published in 1896. He thus became the founder of Zionism, the nationalist movement that aimed at creating a Jewish state. While the British colonialists have their fair share in promoting nationalism not only among Jews but among Arabs as well (Lawrence of Arabia) and by allowing the settlement of waves of Jews in the British mandate territory of Palestine while flushing out the local Arab population neither the Balfour Declaration nor the UN plan of 1947 mandate the creation of a Jewish state by the name of Israel. The UN resolution 181 just recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate and the creation of two independent states one Arab Palestine and one Jewish state and a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem. Maps and borderlines were attached. Given the fact that UN resolutions have never helped to solve a problem but rather perpetuated it (Kashmir) the Zionists did not wait long but in 1948 declared the independence of the state of Israel, and the subsequent 1948 Arab–Israeli war saw Israel’s establishment over most of the former Mandate territory, including the part that was meant to be the state of Palestine. Since then Israel in consecutive wars has annexed more Palestinian territory so that today the two-state solution is possible only with territorial adjustments.
Though consequences are not yet fully clear the recently concluded Abraham Accord does not bode well for the Palestinians. Arab solidarity – always on shaky ground – has taken another hit. While Saudi Arabia has not yet officially positioned itself Egypt and other Arab countries have welcomed the step. Turkey, with diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949 has threatened to cut diplomatic relations. A long-standing friend and security partner of Israel, India has naturally welcomed the deal. Pakistan has so far cautiously reacted and given the fact that Pakistani foreign policy has recently become somewhat ambiguous it can be assumed that the topic will be discussed during the COAS’ visit to Saudi Arabia and other planned engagements.
What should worry Pakistan is the security-related part of the agreement that is strongly anti-Iran though the word ‘Iran’ itself has not even been mentioned. It is important to note that Israel and the UAE reportedly already have security ties, but the agreement brings them into the open and formalizes and probably extends them. Pakistan is a direct neighbor of Iran, the country that first recognized Pakistan. In addition, Pakistan has a sizeable Shia population and while relations could be closer, they have improved a lot during recent years and offer attractive economic options. Given Pakistan’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia there is no doubt that it is the unenviable task of our foreign policy makers to keep a fine balance between the sides.
After visiting Israel in May 2003 I wrote an article entitled “Visiting the Forbidden Land”, to quote, “At no time did I find any animosity or ill-feeling towards Pakistan, or Muslims for that matter. However, a mistrust of the Palestinians was certainly there. Except for a couple of retired persons, the Israelis generally acknowledged they would have to co-exist with Palestinians. Though not many relished the thought, because of Hamas in particular. Moving around Israel was like being in any European country with its stores, fast food outlets and chic boutiques, except that on the roadside and at bus stops you will occasionally find uniformed soldiers, young men and women carrying rifles. They are not on duty, they carry their personal weapons, when they go on leave. Reservists keep their personal weapons at home so that they can be at their pre-designated location bearing arms. Security was pretty tight but fear and apprehension were not so visible within Israel itself. This was in sharp contrast to the West Bank where you could see military vehicles in abundance and a palpable air of fear and suspicion between the Israelis and Palestinian pedestrians. In Jerusalem I travelled through the Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarters, without any restrictions. I managed a very special trip to the “Wailing Wall” and (at some risk to himself), into the adjoining tunnel where the excavations to discover the base of the ‘Second Temple’ were taking place”, unquote.
During my visit to old Jerusalem when Palestinian guards at the gates of the Holy sites were informed that I was a Pakistani, the Palestinian security personnel were unofficially deputed to take me on a conducted tour. I was privileged to say my Zohar prayers in Al-Aqsa itself and Asr prayers at the Dome of the Rock mosque.
To quote my article of 2003 further, “One cannot condone the Israeli brutality on the Palestinians in governing the Occupied Territories. But one must now search for a pragmatic means to end the occupation so as to mitigate the sufferings of the uprooted Palestinian millions. Suicide bombings, coming after 9/11, attracted an adverse world reaction and gave Israel an excuse to establish a boundary to keep a portion of the occupied territories it covets. The raging debate in Pakistan over Israel ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Why Jews are bad-mouthed in the country is a mystery. My parents, at least, never fed us this calumny. On coming into contact with Jews I found them to be as good (and as bad) human beings as anyone else. Why have we been demonising an entire race on the basis of religion? I certainly condemn the Israeli brutality against the Palestinians and have full sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. I also condemn ‘suicide bombings’ and the loss of innocent Israeli lives. Every action has a reaction and this deadly cycle must stop. I strongly feel that dialogue with Israel will bring them in from the cold and help in convincing them that a permanent peace based on co-existence with the Palestinians is possible. Recognition of Israel must not be weighed in terms of pluses and minuses of which one can enumerate many, but on the need to bring all human beings into the world’s melting pot, irrespective of race, religion or creed. We must convince Israelis about our sincerity of purpose by reaching out to them. For that, we must recognise Israel’s right to exist as a nation. If the cost of a permanent peace is to ensure an honorable place under the sun for Israel, that is a very small price to pay”.
There is a difference between recognition of a state and having diplomatic relations with it, there is a vast difference between 2003 with the changed geo-political circumstances and the present environment in 2020. While I feel we can recognize Israel but any diplomatic relations must be subject to substantial progress on the way they treat Palestinians and the establishment of the Palestinian state.
The writer is a defence and security analyst.