The Middle East Plays Hardball, and the Palestinians Always Lose

Last week’s deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is the latest reminder that countries are always out for their own interests—and the weak suffer what they must.

By , the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Palestinian protesters
Palestinian protesters set aflame cut-outs showing the faces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and U.S. President Donald Trump during a demonstration in Nablus in the occupied West Bank on Aug. 14. JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images

The most surprising thing about the so-called Abraham Accord, which normalized relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel last week, is that anyone was surprised by it. In what has become maddeningly typical of Washington these days, the response, whether for or against, was rife with melodramatic claims about the implications.

In reality, the UAE and Israel had been inching toward normalization for the better part of the last five years. The leaders of Israel and the Emirates have long believed it advances their political and geostrategic interests to have normal relations. All they’ve done now is take their ties public with the promise of developing them further, albeit with—at Emirati insistence—some conditions. It was a natural step for both countries, one that delivered a cosmetic win for Palestine—but also predictably served to further sideline the Palestinian cause.

Unlike the 1979 Egypt-Israel treaty, the Abraham Accord is not a peace treaty, if only because Israel and the UAE were never in a state of war. The agreement also does not represent a shift in the regional order. Both Israel and the Emirates are long-standing strategic partners of the United States, and they share many views on the region: Iran is a hostile actor, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism more broadly should be given no quarter, Turkey is an increasing threat to regional stability, and Qatar must be kept in a box lest it be able to use its vast wealth to make trouble. Nevertheless there is much in the accord to benefit the UAE and Israel, as well as the Trump administration. Aside from the business ties, scientific cooperation, and tourism that will come with normalization, the Israelis and Emiratis can now bring their security cooperation out in the open and develop it further. The two sides clearly calculate that working together and for all to see will be a powerful deterrent to the region’s bad actors. In turn, the White House gets to tout a Middle East agreement, even if it is not the “deal of the century.”

In return for normal relations, which will eventually include an exchange of ambassadors, the Emiratis required the Israelis to halt their plans to annex West Bank territory. In press releases and statements, Emirati officials make clear that the Abraham Accord “immediately stops annexation.” Clearly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed needed to ensure the Israelis pay a price for his willingness to step into the sunshine with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis have called it a “suspension” of annexation plans, implying they could proceed at another time. The generous interpretation of the different vocabularies is the politics of the Palestinian cause for both leaders. For Mohammed bin Zayed, who does not much seem to like the aging and corrupt Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah, he is sensitive to the idea of justice and rights for Palestinians, at least enough to try to put a brake on Israel’s annexation drive. For Netanyahu, he needs to do what he can to placate the settlers who believed him when he said he was going to annex parts of the West Bank.

Not surprisingly, it is on annexation and the Palestinian issue where the Abraham Accord gets controversial among U.S. officials, analysts, former policymakers, activists, and journalists, requiring everyone to overlook hard truths—although the hard truths in question depend on where one stands on the underlying conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

It is important not to overstate the controversy. Most of the foreign-policy community and a fairly broad mix of members of Congress welcomed the Emirati-Israeli deal. The Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, called it a “historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East.” Not only that, many pundits recognize that the Abraham Accord also promises to forestall annexation. Although any number of observers claim that the threat of annexation was not real, they are overlooking Netanyahu’s tough political position. The very fact that settlers had become critical to his ability to remain in power is reason enough to believe that annexation was a real possibility. Then along came the Emiratis, first in the form of the Emirati ambassador to Washington’s June op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth outlining what Israelis had to gain (and lose) from annexation, and then the agreement that is now called the Abraham Accord, which the Israelis and Emiratis put together with the Trump administration. Netanyahu clearly calculated that normalization with a major Arab state would improve his political standing in a way that released him from the clutches of the Yesha Council, a powerful organization that represents settlers. He must have been relieved.

Netanyahu was not the only one. For the Democratic Party’s leadership and moderates who are uniformly pro-Israel, taking annexation off the table means they do not have to fight with the progressive wing of the party, whose members are openly critical of and at times downright hostile to Israel. And for policy wonks, the Abraham Accord seems to provide another shot at the most elusive of all foreign-policy unicorns: a two-state solution. Of course, what politicians, analysts, and others share here is an ability to conveniently overlook the fact that forestalling annexation—while important—does not actually change all that much. There is no indication that Netanyahu, as a result of the Abraham Accord, is any more willing to negotiate with the Palestinians than before last Thursday. It just returns him to his position prior to September 2019 when he first committed to annexation, which involved maintaining a status quo that served Israel’s and annexationists’ interests.

This brings us to the critics of the agreement who have expressed outrage over what they regard as Israeli, Emirati, and American bad faith. They charge that normalization is a reward to Israel for basically nothing. Lost in this narrative is the very fact that many of the same people articulating it were just six weeks ago vociferously denouncing the possibility of annexation. Now, confronted with an agreement that at the least pauses the process and has the potential—however slim—to alter the political dynamics in Israel in a way that one could imagine some type of compromise, these critics would rather decry the Israeli, Emirati, and American perfidy than get to work trying to transform a tiny opening into an opportunity. It is almost as if they do not want Israel to enjoy regional diplomatic recognition at all unless Israel cedes East Jerusalem, accepts the Palestinian right of return, and returns to its 1967 borders. This has been the position of Palestinian leadership for years—but, needless to say, it has not worked out so well.

Whether it was the commentators taking a victory lap or those rending their clothes over the Abraham Accord, a good time was had by all in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. The problem is that the commentary neither offered any novel ideas to help the Palestinians now that the Israelis and Emiratis are moving to normalize nor insight into why the Abraham Accord happened in the first place. Perhaps that is too much to ask with regard to the former; the Palestinian conflict has no resolution in sight. But when it comes to the latter, the motives should not be hard to discern: Israel and the UAE believe that their power and thus their ability to secure their interests is enhanced by establishing normal relations, and they are not going to let the Palestinians get in the way. Reserve the sentimentality for Twitter.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook