FOLLOWING the historic peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates on August 13, world Jewry experienced euphoria. With the UAE becoming the third Arab country – and arguably the most powerful – after Egypt and Jordan to normalise ties with Israel, there is real cause for optimism. Israel and the US expect more to follow, with rumoured suitors including Oman, Sudan, Morocco and Bahrain.
What appears most promising from the deal, however, is the shattering of the Palestinian veto on Israel’s relations with Arab countries; the belief that the road to Israeli-Arab normalisation runs through Ramallah. According to Middle East expert Thomas L. Friedman, this deal may even “force [Mahmoud Abbas] to the negotiating table.”
In recent years, Palestinians have increasingly become afterthoughts for Arab nations. The only states to strongly condemn the deal were Turkey and Iran, neither of which are Arab. This silent – and at times vocal – support for the deal signals two key regional changes.
First is the acceptance of Israel as a key player in the region and someone you want on your friend list. The second is increasing frustration towards Palestinian rejectionism, and Arab indifference to their cause.
Amid celebrations, however, last week’s murder of 39-year-old Rabbi Shai Ohayon (z”l) in Petah Tikva by a Palestinian should have brought us crashing back down into reality.
The attack is no different to previous terrorism aimed at Israelis, but is significant in reminding us of the fundamental difference between Israel’s relationship with Palestinians and with surrounding Arab nations – particularly wealthy Gulf states.
This fundamental difference is strikingly relevant. The day-to-day lives of Emiratis are largely unaffected by affairs in Israel and the Palestinian territories. While many care for the Palestinian cause, they are nevertheless increasingly happy to reap the benefits of a relationship with Israel.
In recent years, regional issues have played a key role in forcing Israel and many Gulf states together. The elephant in the room, of course, is Iran. A majority Shiite Muslim nation, Iran poses a severe threat to the Sunni Gulf states – in particular Saudi Arabia, which views itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power. Frictions have been increasing for years, with the Saudis fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in a devastating war in Yemen.
Tensions surged in September 2019, when drones attacked major Saudi oil facilities, knocking out more than half of their output. Iran has since been blamed for the attack.
To sum up the relationship between Gulf states and Iran, in a 2018 interview with ‘The Atlantic’ editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that “the Iranian supreme leader (Ali Khamenei) makes Hitler look good.” Not exactly a compliment, even in a region where Hitler received much support.
While Saudi Arabia is not expected to officially normalise relations with Israel in the near future, the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed shares the same concerns vis-à-vis Iran. Luckily – or unluckily – for them, Israel is leading the regional fight against Iran’s growing influence and desire to attain nuclear weapons. This, in combination with various other forces, has placed Israel in a favourable light for the Gulf states.
For many Palestinians, however, the conflict with Israel is viewed as an existential issue. It cannot be solved through land swaps or financial compensation, nor by Israeli acceptance of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Best-selling author Micah Goodman describes three core pillars of Palestinian opposition to Israel. He labels them as “the centuries-long trauma of Islam’s humiliation by the West; the decades-long trauma of the mass Palestinian exodus during the War of Independence; and the fifty-year trauma of occupation and military rule from the Six-Day War to the present.”
Expanding on the first pillar, he explains the concept of ‘muqawama’ – resistance. According to Goodman, “the hatred that Palestinians feel toward Israelis is rooted partly in the broader hatred of the Arab and Islamic worlds toward what they perceive as continued Western imperialism… It is a struggle whose importance is in its existence – a struggle for the sake of struggle.”
For Palestinian adherents to this view, there is no room for compromise. Any acceptance of a Jewish state is viewed as acceptance of Islamic and Arabic inferiority to the West.
Today, Hamas is the leading party that adopts this existential opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. With PA President Mahmoud Abbas, at 84 years old, nearing the end of his rule, this is greatly concerning to Israelis.
According to a 2018 poll from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 35% of Palestinians would vote for West Bank rulers Fatah, with 34% preferring Hamas. However, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh is preferred by 49% of the population, compared to Abbas, with 42%.
Couple this with the problem of Palestinian ‘refugees’. Despite the unshakeable Israeli stance that any peace deal will not involve a return of millions of ‘refugees’ to their pre-1948 homes, Palestinian leaders refuse to prepare their people for this fate. And who can blame them? It would be political – if not physical – suicide for any Palestinian leader to tell Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan that they will never return to what they view as their ancestral homeland. Abbas admitted as much in 2008.
Further, a 2011 leak from the office of chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, revealed damning evidence. Known as the Palestine Papers, these internal PA memos provided the political and legal framework for Palestinian negotiators, documenting a decade of negotiations with Israel. One such document stipulates that each of the seven million ‘refugees’ must be given the “choice” to return to their homes in pre-1948 Israel. Palestinian officials have never questioned the legitimacy of these documents.
Ask a child in Lebanon’s Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp where they are from, and they’ll give you the name of a Palestinian town that their great-grandparents lived in until 1948, such as Taytaba, a town that no longer exists. They view themselves as heirs to an inalienable and inevitable right of return to their actual homes in Palestine.
As a result of this ingrained intransigence, it remains a non-negotiable Palestinian demand.
According to former politician Einat Wilf and journalist Adi Schwartz – both children of the Israeli ‘left’ who have long championed a two-state solution – the so-called Palestinian ‘right of return’ is at the absolute core of the conflict, and has become “a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace.”
This is not to say that responsibility for ending the conflict rests solely with the Palestinians. There are those in Israel who strongly oppose any establishment of a Palestinian state, in particular on the far-right. And even without the hardliners, Israelis have largely reached an impasse where they no longer truly desire a two-state solution. Many of them are either happy with the status quo, or are too scared to face up to the seemingly unassailable challenge of ending the conflict.
It will take sweeping changes of political and social currents for the Israeli public to readily accept a Palestinian state. And once again, who can blame them? Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas’s resultant takeover, the fear of an Islamist stronghold overlooking Israel’s population centres has been etched into the Israeli psyche.
Deeper than opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state or compromise by the Palestinians, however, is the trauma that followed the Oslo Accords. According to Thomas Friedman, in 2000 the Oslo process was “snuffed out entirely by a mad Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign against Israelis and a merciless Israeli smashing of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”
Not only did it shatter any Israeli hopes for a partner in peace, but the IDF’s response – as justified as it may be – traumatised Palestinians. Friedman likens the breakdown in trust to a couple with a turbulent courtship who finally get married. After one year of marriage, however, they both cheat on each other. Such a crushing blow cannot be easily repaired – if at all – and its reverberations remain to be felt on both sides today.
So, we arrive back to the murder of Rabbi Ohayon and what it represents. Despite the groundbreaking nature of the deal with the UAE, Palestinian rejectionism and hate remains. It was on show for all to see in Petah Tikva, this time manifesting in 46-year-old Khalil Doikat. Shin Bet understands that Doikat suffered from mental disorders, however many Israelis and Palestinians receive the same message from the attack nonetheless.
With the Palestinians furiously rejecting the UAE deal, calling it a “stab in the back”, Rabbi Ohayon’s murder should serve as a wake-up call to all that nothing has changed in Ramallah or Gaza. Ismail Haniyeh recently claimed that Hamas rejected investments worth $20 billion for the Gaza Strip, as it required the dismantling of Hamas’s military wing and a new policy towards Israel. Normalisation be damned!
A new era of normalisation between Israel and the Arab world may be on the horizon, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the forces among the Palestinians peddling conflict will suddenly disappear. If there is one thing to learn from the history of the Middle East, it is that pragmatism is not nearly as valued as it is in the West.
While Fatah politicians in Ramallah are more adherent to realpolitik than Hamas, and although the UAE and other Arab countries may pressure them to soften their stance towards Israel, great obstacles remain. Any resolution requires either the reversal of 72 years of the Palestinian narrative – a scenario that enters the realms of fantasy – or an acceptance, including by the more than three million Palestinians in third countries, of an Israeli state with defensible borders, and no return of ‘refugees’ from 1948 or ‘67.
And all of this without the compromises that are required from Israel. If neither Israelis nor Palestinians are ready for peace, there will never be peace, irrespective of good intentions of countless American Presidents. We now know that neither the Israeli administration nor the Palestinians were genuinely ready to make the painful concessions required for the Oslo Accords to succeed. It is just as clear today that similar sentiment looms large among Palestinians, and is certainly present in Israeli society.
This piece is in no way an ode to continuing the conflict. The status quo is not sustainable. Drastic change is required, and soon. The unfortunate truth is that this deal with the UAE will not work miracles overnight. It’s a battle won in the war over the world’s hottest piece of real estate, but any such process to truly end it will be long and painful for both sides. As for now, those sitting in Ramallah could not be less interested in beginning that process.
Josh Feldman is an active member of the community involved in informal education and pro-Israel advocacy.