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[Research Reports]
From the Arab World's "Three No's" to Normalized Ties
—The Establishment of UAE-Bahrain-Israel Diplomatic Relations and the Palestinian Question

Ryoji Tateyama (Emeritus Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan)
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‘Middle East and Africa’ Research Group # 1
The "Research Reports" are compiled by participants of research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The Research Reports represent their authors’ views. In addition to these Research Reports, individual research groups will publish “Research Bulletins”, covering the full range of the group’s research themes.

After the Third Arab-Israel War in 1967, which ended in a crushing defeat of the Arab participants, Arab leaders resolved to seek "no peace, no negotiation, no approval" with Israel. The Khartoum Resolution, known as the "Three No's" of the Arab world, is now rarely mentioned in Arab circles. On the contrary, the reaction of the Arab countries to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in August and September was generally supportive or favorable. Why has the attitude of the Arab countries toward Israel changed so much even though the Palestinian Question has been left unsolved? What does this change mean for the Palestinian Question?

Agreements spanning security to economy and technology

At the signing ceremony held at the White House on September 15, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel signed treaties and declarations officially marking the normalization of diplomatic relations. At the ceremony, US President Trump praised his diplomatic achievements, calling the occasion a "new dawn in the Middle East". However, there was no feeling of historic elation as the one the world had witnessed at the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords 27 years ago between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), held in September 1993 at the very same White House. This is probably because the new agreements are mere reconfirmations of the status quo and will not bring about major changes in the complicated strategic environment of the Middle East.

It is well known that the UAE and Israel have engaged in behind-the-scenes contacts. One background factor often pointed out is that Iran is seen as a "common threat" by both countries. However, the UAE, after having severed its ties with Israel when Mossad assassinated a Hamas leader in Dubai in 2010, soon resumed its contacts with Israel. This was because the UAE needed Israeli technology: Israel's technology is indispensable for the UAE as it diversifies its economy and builds a mass surveillance society.

For Israel, expanding its relations with the UAE brings not only security benefits but also economic benefits such as exports and investment. Several Israeli and UAE companies have already agreed to launch joint ventures for novel COVID-19 research. Regarding Bahrain, which has a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, the normalization of relations may reflect Saudi Arabia's intentions. In early September, the two countries allowed "all flights", i.e., Israeli planes, to fly to and from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

This brings the number of Arab countries that have established diplomatic relations with Israel to four, including Egypt and Jordan, but these four countries cannot be discussed on equal terms. Egypt and Jordan fought all-out wars against Israel in the past, and the treaties meant peace agreements to end these wars. On the other hand, neither the UAE nor Bahrain had ever fought against Israel; instead, they were merely following the same path of confrontation with Israel as a member of the Arab world.

Most Arab countries that do not share a border with Israel are in similar positions. Nevertheless, Arab countries have rejected Israel for a long time because of what the American scholar of the Middle East Michael Burnett calls "symbolic politics".

From total refusal to expanding ties with Israel

Until around 1970, the Arab states lacked national legitimacy and their leaders were under intense pressure to pursue "Arab unity". Therefore, the leaders competed with each other to play the guardian of "the Arab Cause" and attempted to mobilize the people in support. In that context, it appealed most to the Arab public to take up the Palestinian Question, and Arab leaders could not cease being hostile to Israel nor withdraw their support for Palestine. That is why the Arab leaders who suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1967 war declared the "Three No's" and took a stronger stand against Israel.

However, in the 1980s, the situation surrounding the Palestinian Question changed. The two-state solution gradually gained international support: it envisaged the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by Israel, with East Jerusalem as its capital, which would coexist with Israel. The PLO also became more inclined toward the more realistic two-state solution than the principle of "Liberation of All Palestinians", and began to explore the possibility of peace talks with Israel. Needless to say, a series of these changes led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

At around that time, the national foundations of Arab countries had gradually become consolidated, and the necessity of symbolic politics decreased. The result was the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted at the 2002 Arab Summit. If Israel were to withdraw from all occupied territories and allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, Arab states would make peace with Israel and normalize relations. In other words, the Arab states, by ratifying the two-state solution, abandoned their stance of "Three No's", their total refusal to deal with Israel, and shifted to normalizing their relations with Israel, albeit conditionally.

By this time, however, several Arab countries had already started informal contacts with Israel. It is said that the UAE began contacting Israel around the time of the Oslo Accords, and in the late 1990s, Qatar and Oman each opened trade representative offices with Israel. In the 2000s, the Second Intifada broke out and the peace process stalled, bringing the contacts with Israel to a standstill. Nevertheless, relations were not severed, and they became active again in the 2010s. Many Arab countries, faced with the threat of Iran and Islamic extremists, domestic turmoil following the "Arab Spring" and the need for urgent economic development, found various advantages in their approach to Israel.

Trump's peace plan providing an excuse

The United Arab Emirates insists that it was successful in stopping the West Bank annexation plan on the basis of an Israeli promise to 'suspend' the plan in the agreement with the UAE. However, as Netanyahu boasted, "(Israel) made no compromise on the territorial issue"; Israel has made no promises to withdraw from the occupied territories. After all, it can be said that Israel's annexation of the West Bank rapidly became more realistic when the Trump peace plan was announced in January this year, ironically providing the UAE with the pretext of "stopping the annexation".

Oman and Sudan are likely to follow the UAE and Bahrain. If Saudi Arabia, the sponsor of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, is to normalize its relations with Israel, it may need a new "pretext". Nevertheless, the concentration of power in the hands of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) will further accelerate Saudi Arabia's closer ties with Israel. Palestine's isolation has been deepening as Arab countries increasingly seek rapprochement with Israel.

Immediately after the announcement of the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, harshly criticized the UAE, denouncing its "betrayal of the Arab Cause". Nevertheless, he has since softened his tone out of fear of further isolation from the Arab world. In fact, the Arab League Foreign Ministers' Meeting held on September 9 did not adopt the draft resolution against the UAE that had been prepared by Palestine, and only confirmed the existing principle of supporting a two-state solution instead.

Unrealistic two-state solution and endless occupation

Can Israel rejoice without reservation over its new relations with the Arab countries? The population balance of the entire Israeli-controlled region, including the occupied territories, is rather complicated. The Jewish and Palestinian populations are statistically about the same, or the latter slightly exceeds the former. Moreover, some five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are denied almost all their basic human rights, including political rights, in the name of "autonomy". Some two million Palestinians in Gaza, in particular, have already been under Israeli blockade, with Egypt's assistance, for more than 13 years in what the Palestinians themselves derisively call "the world's largest open-air prison".

When the PLO accepted the two-state solution, there was a lively discussion in Israel about the "cost of occupation". In this case, the cost refers to the risk of undermining the foundation of democratic values that Zionism has aimed for, rather than the military burden, as a result of ruling other ethnic groups by force. From the Israeli perspective, the Oslo Accords and the subsequent peace process were supposed to be efforts to free itself from the burdensome "cost of occupation". Yet, while the peace process dragged on, the number of settlers in the West Bank has continued to rise, now sitting at well over 400,000. Moreover, Israeli society has become more and more rightist, with the rise of religious and nationalistic ideologies which regard the preservation of the occupied territories as absolute rights. Annexation of the West Bank will be proposed again.

Faced with this reality, the opinion of Palestinians in the occupied territories has changed dramatically over the past ten years or so. Whereas the heated arguments for "Independence Tomorrow" have faded away, we often hear people saying that they will remain in the occupied territories and continue to protest about human rights issues even across generations. Now that a resolution of the Palestinian Question based on the two-state solution has become unrealistic, Israel must continue to confront the Palestinians in the occupied territories who are rooted in their land and continue their struggle.

Israel's war crimes could be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). In December last year, the ICC Prosecutor requested the Pre-Trial Chamber to make a judgement on whether the Occupied Palestinian Territories are under the jurisdiction of the ICC. The Prosecutor wrote in the document that there were sufficient grounds to believe that war crimes were being committed by Israel. If it is judged that the West Bank and Gaza are under the jurisdiction of the ICC, it is likely that Israel will be prosecuted for war crimes by the ICC.

Nearly 40 years ago, a prominent Gaza leader told me the following: "From ancient times, different external forces, including crusaders, came to this land and made it into a country. But as time went on, they either became Levant (localized) or left. The Jews in Israel will do the same."

(September 17, 2020)