By Yousef Munayyer
Taken at face value, many might welcome the announcement that the United Arab Emirates will open diplomatic ties with Israel. Some may see it as progress toward peace in the Middle East, where Arab countries and Israel been in conflict in various points in modern history.
In reality, that optimism is misplaced. This deal will only deepen Israeli oppression of Palestinians and perhaps, in the short term boost the election prospects of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump -- neither of whom seem to be particularly interested in peace, justice or equality.
The UAE, of course, would not be the first Arab state to establish full relations with Israel. Israel's neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, signed peace agreements with Israel long ago. And the UAE has had a behind-the-scenes relationship with Israel for years before bringing it into the light.
The reason that Arab regimes, including the UAE up until now, have yet to normalize ties with Israel is because of Israel's treatment of their kin, the Palestinians. Palestinians today continue to live under Israel's military occupation in occupied territory, as second class citizens inside Israel, and as refugees denied repatriation by Israel.
Appalled at what Israel has been doing to Palestinians for decades, the Arab public are decidedly against establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. A poll in 2018 found that 87% of respondents in various Arab countries opposed establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, and the largest group of respondents cited Israel's oppression of Palestinians as the reason why.
It's important to note that the UAE has broken with a formalized consensus in the Arab world as to how to approach Israel, in light of how it treats Palestinians.
For nearly two decades now, the consensus position of the Arab League as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which brings together the over 50 Arab and Muslim countries, has been the Arab Peace Initiative: full normalization of Arab diplomatic ties with Israel, in return for peace with the Palestinians in line with international law. That was reaffirmed unanimously by the Arab League (including the UAE) as recently as this February, in response to the Trump administration's plan for Israel and Palestinians.
Now, however, the UAE has essentially given away a critical bargaining chip for nothing. The announcement claims Israel will suspend annexation -- not abandon it -- and in return is rewarded with normalized ties with the UAE, even as its occupation continues.
To be clear, Palestinians living in occupied territory can express no sovereign self-determination and are instead ruled ultimately by the Israeli military. Occupation is supposed to be a temporary condition, but Israel's posture in the territory has suggested nothing of the sort. Instead, it has transferred its civilians there, spending billions on colonies and infrastructure and taking natural resources. These violations of the Geneva Conventions are war crimes. In fact, the Israeli settlement enterprise in occupied territory continued to kick into higher gear after each peace agreement. The message that the UAE is sending Israel, just as Egypt and Jordan did before it, is that its perpetual and deepening colonization of Palestinian land and life is acceptable. Israeli officials are already talking about how annexation is just on temporary hold so this diplomatic photo opportunity can proceed for now.
There is a word for a system in which one group of people is subject to rule without being afforded the same rights, such as voting, because of their group identity. It is apartheid—and that is the best way to describe this unending system of injustice today.
One has to wonder what the UAE gets out of this. It is clear that it helps Netanyahu, who is gearing up for yet another possible election in Israel. It also helps Trump, who can claim a diplomatic coup, which Joe Biden is unlikely to criticize, ahead of his own reelection vote. (To the contrary, Biden actually welcomed the announcement, without mentioning Trump.) Don't be surprised if we see more announcements like this from close UAE allies before November. Keep in mind that the UAE has been extremely close to the Trump administration and was among the first and only countries to offer supportive words for his so-called "Muslim ban," the directive to block travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
Some have suggested that it could open the door to more US arms sales to the UAE.
Counterintuitively, Iran could be strengthened by this, too. For Tehran, it's an unexpected propaganda coup within the region, as it can point to the UAE as validating Iranian claims that the Emiratis and their allies will betray regional kin for the West and Israel.
Moments like this also underscore precisely why the US garners so much distrust among people in the region. The United States has been speaking about the importance of promoting democracy in the Middle East for as long as most people living there can remember, and yet it applauds unelected authoritarian regimes who disregard the will of the people in order to open relations with an Israeli government that rules millions, who have no right to vote in Israeli elections, by military might. If you think about it, it is a very odd way to say you support democracy.
Ultimately, this announcement will do little to change the lives of Palestinians, for whom diplomatic talk and negotiations over decades have produced nothing. It will, however, hurt the Palestinian leadership, which has used the Arab consensus around the Arab Peace Initiative to hold out hope for a Palestinian state, even as Israel and America under Trump are openly hostile to it.
Ironically, that might be a silver lining to all this. Supporters of Israeli apartheid hope that by breaking the Arab consensus, they can squeeze the Palestinians into agreeing to a long-term apartheid arrangement that they can call peace. These Jim Crow fantasies are just that, however. In truth, Palestinians today make up half or more of the population in the territories Israel controls, and the Palestinian leadership is already under growing pressure from a new generation to forego its failed statehood project that has derailed their liberation and change course instead to a struggle for equal rights in a single state.
Peace is not an arms deal to be made between anti-democratic regimes. It must be made between peoples.
Leaders of oppressive governments like those in Israel and the UAE might have a lot in common, but ordinary people in the Middle East and beyond will not warm to Israel until it ends its oppression of Palestinians. And as much as it may like, when it comes to relations with the Arab world around it, Israel cannot substitute the Emirati regime for the Palestinians who are living under its jackboot and with whom they will ultimately have to live as equals.