The unintended lessons of the UAE-Israel deal

Extending their hand to Arab countries that chose to normalise instead of hurling invectives at them will earn the Palestinians new allies in the region and the world.
Monday 24/08/2020
Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line up a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya.  (AFP)
Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line up a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump seems eager to surprise Americans and the world with new announcements on a near-daily basis — from his suggestion that Americans consider injecting disinfectant into the bodies of COVID-19 patients, to making unsubstantiated claims that the US mail system is not reliable and that November’s election should be postponed.

But his surprise announcement on August 13 that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel had agreed to open full diplomatic relations was certainly not fake news. It was an announcement that captured a lot of attention….both welcome and not.

It is not a secret that Israel has maintained quiet relations with the UAE as well as with other Arab Gulf countries. But the announcement that the two countries are establishing full diplomatic relations put the UAE in a small club that includes only two other Arab nations: Egypt and Jordan.

The UAE and Israel will expand cooperation in many areas, from technology to security and tourism.

Angered by the move, Palestinian authorities called the announcement a “stab in the back.”

But people in the street in the West Bank want nothing more than to see normal life and to end the predicament of having their territory surrounded by walls and security checkpoints.

A few weekends ago, there was a rare phenomenon of West Bankers going to the beach, passing through tanks to an unexplained lapse in Israel security, which allowed literally thousands of Palestinians to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

For the younger generation, this was in most cases the first glimpse of the seaside, despite their living less than an hour’s drive from the West Bank. Reports were that the Israelis simply stood by and allowed the Palestinians to enjoy their rare day at Israeli beaches. There is not a Palestinian who would not want to do this again, reported the New York Times.  

Two years ago, I took part in a group forum at a West Bank Palestinian university aimed at enabling American visitors to hear from the “20-something” generation of Palestinians, a generation that has only known occupation. After numerous students spoke and the Q&A session started, a Palestinian professor chairing the event seemed to jump on every question posed to the students and give her own answers instead. It was clear that the students were frustrated, particularly when a question was posed to them asking if they or their professors would be willing to work with Israeli academics who wanted to work and collaborate with Palestinian students and professors. Rather than letting the students answer, the Palestinian professor immediately responded that they would never collaborate with Israeli professors or students, as it would be traitorous “to work with the colonists.”

After the session, we invited some of the students to join us at a small restaurant/cafe in Bir Zeit village, providing them with a less intimidating atmosphere to speak candidly. They felt their professor prevented them from saying what they would have liked to say, which was that they would very much want to meet and have exchanges with their Israeli counterparts.

At another forum in March where American citizens met with students from several West Bank Palestinian universities, we purposely avoided university grounds so the five students attending could speak freely. When we assured them that they would not be recorded, we heard from each of the five that they wanted to have exchanges with their Israeli counterparts. Some admitted that they do so on social media, or have had the opportunity to attend university programmes outside the Middle East. They found that their exchanges with their Israeli counterparts were among the most rewarding relations they had ever had.

“We are governed by men who are 70 years and older, men who have found ways to benefit and enrich themselves while we the youth, only hear about what can be. It is time for another direction,” noted one of the students. “We keep hearing about elections, but it has been fifteen years since there were elections,” added another.

In my numerous visits to the Palestinian territories and meetings with people from many walks of life, I often hear statements reflecting what is supposed to be the politically correct Palestinian discourse. But in private settings, nearly every Palestinian admits that they just want to have a normal life, one that might allow them to travel, both in the region and beyond. They want to enjoy a life that does not subject them to the indignity of passing through checkpoints. They want to be able to enjoy the benefits that their Palestinian counterparts who hold Israeli citizenship have: access to travel, filling the ranks of Israeli universities, joining the professions of medicine, the academy, the arts and more. The constant message from this generation that has only known “occupation” is that they want what their counterparts with Israeli citizenship have.

For many Palestinians, any step towards normal relations with Israel can only be a beneficial step, though perhaps with some bitterness. There is now political fatigue in the Arab world over what they see as Palestinian leaders’ lack of vision. The traditional stance by Arab nations to stand by the Palestinians until a solution is reached has led nowhere. Countries like the UAE and others who are developing relations with Israel no longer see support to the Palestinians and establishment of formal ties with Israel as being mutually exclusive.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Standing still will never bring change. Palestinian leaders’ continued refusal of any cooperation or dialogue with Israel has brought nothing to their people. Despite the reasons for this lack of cooperation and dialogue, stubbornness about holding firm appears to have tired to the UAE and most other Arab nations who now prioritise the task of taking care of their own concerns.

So, what can the Palestinians do?

While steps towards establishing formal relations with Israel may seem to be a form of “betrayal” to parts of the Arab and Palestinian public, it could ironically be the first step on a path that breaks the tragic stalemate that has so far severely victimised the Palestinians. Extending their hand to Arab countries that choose to normalise instead of hurling invectives at them will earn the Palestinians new allies in the region and the world. It will also help them build a level of trust with Israel, a trust that may help the many Palestinians who want to have the oppression of occupation lifted from their shoulders and give something to the coming generations who are simply yearning for a better life.

Moving forward is what is needed and might be the best route towards giving Palestinians the dignity and the nationhood they yearn for. Moving away from old formulae that never worked is the wise thing to do. This may well be one of the unintended lessons of the UAE-Israel deal.