The Arab League, Palestine, and the tide of normalization

Forty-six years ago, in October 1974, the Arab League met in Rabat, Morocco. The League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The decision challenged the United States, Israel, as well as Jordan and a month later the United Nations bestowed the same recognition on the PLO. Although it was evidence of Arab unity and solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the Arab League’s decision also represented the policies of major Arab states. Today, however, those same states are leading the drive toward normalization with Israel and the Arab League appears to have abandoned the Palestinians. 

Last month, the “Abraham Accords” were signed at the White House. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel formalized diplomatic relations and Bahrain signed a declaration in support of peace. On October 18, Bahrain and Israel formalized ties. The UAE and Israel have moved quickly to implement normalization with increased commercial flights, cargo shipments, and promised investments. 

Meanwhile, the Arab League has supported the Accords. This is in sharp contrast to how the League responded to Egypt’s unilateral peace agreement with Israel in 1979. Egypt’s membership in the League was suspended and the headquarters were moved from Cairo to Tunis. Instead of chastising the UAE and Bahrain as the first Gulf states to normalize relations with Israel, the closing statement of the meeting of Arab foreign ministers called for finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in accordance with international law and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. 

This was compounded by the League Council. In its last meeting, Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Minister, failed to issue a draft resolution condemning normalization with Israel. In addition, the Palestinian Authority’s request to hold an emergency meeting was rejected. Instead, the League determined that a regularly scheduled meeting was sufficient. In response to the League’s inaction, al-Maliki resigned as the chair of the League Council session. Yet as chair, al-Maliki was unable to halt normalization or organize an effective opposition to it within the League. And the message of the League’s members was undeniable: the Palestinian issue is no longer a priority.

Through their media arms, the Gulf states have encouraged hostility toward Palestinian rights while promoting normalization with Israel. Emirati newspapers called Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan “the brave peacemaker.” Yet it was the UAE’s Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and not the Crown Prince that signed the agreement and attended the White House ceremony. 

Saudi Arabia recently joined that media war with the appearance of former Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bin Sultan expressed his disdain for criticism of the normalization agreements. In a pointed warning to the Palestinian leadership, he defended the actions by the UAE and Bahrain. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has led the Arab states in dramatically reducing their support to the Palestinian Authority. 

Before and after the Accords were signed, UAE Crown Prince bin Zayed claimed that agreement halted Israel’s annexation of the occupied West Bank. The UAE’s First Abu Dhabi Bank and Emirates National Bank of Dubai quickly signed memorandums of understanding with two of the largest Israeli banks, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi. While these agreements promise economic and commercial cooperation between the UAE and Israel, they also make the UAE a partner in Israel’s annexation policies.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, Bank Hapoalim and Bank Leumi own branches in six Israeli settlements. These banks facilitate the illegal settlement operations and grant loans to regional and local settlement councils. Both banks were listed in a February 2020 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that identified companies active in Israeli settlements. 

These facts are known to the UAE and Bahrain. Both countries served as Liaison Officers of the Regional Offices of the Arab Boycott of Israel organized by the Arab League. On August 12, the day before the UAE-Israel normalization agreement was announced, the 94th session of the Conference of Liaison Officers was held. It reiterated support for strengthening the boycott. However, on August 28, President of the UAE, , cancelled the country’s 48-year-old boycott law of Israel.

To further implicate the Gulf states in Israel’s policies, Israeli Prime Minister recently announced the construction of 5,400 new settlement housing units in the occupied West Bank. And he has repeatedly stated that annexation was “postponed” but “not canceled.” In addition, the demolition database of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that 205 Palestinians were displaced in August when the UAE-Israel deal was announced. This is a significant increase from previous months. Of course, this is a familiar pattern for Palestinians. 

Twenty-seven years before the UAE and Bahrain stood on the White House lawn, Yasser Arafat shared a hesitant handshake with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He repeatedly referred to the Oslo Accords as the “peace of the brave.” For Palestinians, the Oslo Accords never translated into peace or statehood. For Israel, it means Palestinians abandoning their legitimate rights and affirming Netanyahu’s strategy of “peace for peace” with the Arab states.

Since the Trump administration took office, Israel has worked vigorously for normalization with the Arab states while undermining negotiations with the Palestinians. It has relied on Washington to incentivize the Gulf Arab states, especially by heightened sanctions on Iran, while also pressuring the Palestinian leadership. Caught in between are Palestinians under occupation and refugees across the region.

Even before President Trump unveiled his “Deal of the Century” at the beginning of the year, he implemented a series of decisions that rewarded Netanyahu and Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. In 2018, the Trump administration cut off funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN Agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. The US was the largest donor to UNRWA and the cuts were maintained even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, the Trump administration and allies in the U.S. Congress eliminated funding to the Palestinian Authority, including humanitarian assistance and projects. 

As the November presidential election quickly approaches, there is even more pressure on the Arab states to normalize ties with Israel. This is unlikely to change if Vice President Biden is elected, as he supported the Abraham Accords. Meanwhile, the aging Palestinian leadership has been unable to effectively counter the normalization tide or challenge American and Israeli policies. Instead, they have continued the same diplomatic strategies with decreasing returns as demonstrated at the Arab League. Yet there is still strong support for Palestinian rights across the member states of the United Nations as well as a new generation of activists in the United States, Europe, and the broader Arab and Muslim worlds. Galvanizing that support will mean more than relying on an increasingly hostile and indifferent Arab League.

The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.

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