Archives / july 2021

TP Sreenivasan
A Diplomatic Coup In West Asia


I was at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana in 1979 soon after Egypt normalised relations with Israel with the blessings of the United States.

A pall of gloom descended over the summit chaired by Fidel Castro as the entire Arab world demanded that Egypt should be expelled from NAM for an act of betrayal. The summit was dominated by the issue and it remained doubtful whether Egypt would be able to retain its membership.

A heroic effort by a group of countries, nicknamed the “Gang of Four” - Cuba, Yugoslavia, Algeria and India - salvaged the situation. Egypt was severely reprimanded, but allowed to continue as a founder member of NAM.

The Abraham Accord of 13 August 2020 is equally game changing even after a lapse of 40 years, but reactions were low-key in the Arab world and many countries welcomed it as an important step on the road to peace.

The whole context has changed after Jordan followed Egypt in 1994 and now the UAE has become the first GCC country to fall in line. In between, the US Presidents, regardless of party affiliation, supported the two-nation theory, but stood solidly behind Israel in its policy of holding Palestinian land till peace is established in the form of recognising Israel.

President Trump took the extraordinary step of recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, leaving the issue of the two-nation theory intact. Most of these developments led to severe criticism from the Palestinians and their friends, but a desire for normalcy in West Asia demanded concessions from all sides.

Among the many factors that led to the accord were the loss of oil as a weapon for the Arabs, the emergence of Iran as a destabilising factor in the Gulf with its resumed nuclear activities, the emergence of Saudi Arabia, the determination of President Trump to have his way in West Asia and the Gulf and Netanyahu’s weakening position in his own country on account of repeated failure to get a clear majority in the elections and corruption charges against him.

When President Donald Trump designated his own son-in-law, Jared Kushner as the negotiator to resolve the West Asia imbroglio, the news was greeted with considerable scepticism around the world. It was believed that, as a person of Jewish origin, Kushner would not be acceptable to the Palestinians and their supporters. But by working tirelessly with the Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel, he gave the President a rabbit to pull out of his hat at the right moment.

A joint statement issued by the leaders of the US, Israel and the UAE read: "This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region."

The UAE said it would continue to support the Palestinian people and that the agreement would maintain the prospect of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine and that the "UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship." It is expected that the peace accord will be signed in the White House in early September.

The agreement is a clear victory for Israel as Netanyahu’s ambition was to get Arab recognition for Israel without making any compromise on his expansionist policies or conceding Palestinian statehood, leaving aside the dictum of “land for peace”.

Having accomplished this in the case of Egypt and Jordan, the UAE became another feather in his cap. He had deliberately announced an annexation plan or Palestinian land in June this year, which was characterised by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, as “a watershed moment” in West Asia.

The seeming concession that Israel made by postponing the annexation plan was an empty gesture, but gave the UAE an alibi. Despite the agreement however, Netanyahu stated that Israel's sovereignty claim to the Jordan Valley was still on the agenda and only frozen for the time being.

A Palestinian leader reacted angrily to the UAE stating that “We are nobody’s fig leaf” and wished the UAE: “May you never experience the agony in having your country stolen” and “May you never be sold out by your friends,” making it clear that it was nothing short of a betrayal.

However, many nations of the world, which had supported Palestinian statehood have welcomed the accord on the ground that it protects Palestinian rights nominally and that the two-nation theory is intact.

With the kind of position that India has in West Asia, India reacted on predictable lines: “India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel. Both nations are key strategic partners of India.” It was also stated that India “continues its traditional support for the Palestinian cause.” “We hope to see early resumption of direct negotiations to find an acceptable two-state solution,” India said.

India’s strategic relationship with the US, Israel and the UAE will be strengthened by the new alignment in West Asia. The other Gulf countries, which already have trade and other relations with Israel will follow the UAE model and for Saudi Arabia, it is only a matter of turning the de facto situation to de jure.

The prognosis for the Palestinians is gloomy and their dream for statehood has receded further. The situation on the West Bank and Gaza will deteriorate if protests break out and there will be no sympathy for the Palestinians.

The Nobel Laureate Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Agency (IAEA) at my time in Vienna and a respected figure in Egypt and the world at large, lamented: “Unfortunately, the sympathy of many governments with the Palestinian cause has declined. I hope that with their intellect, unity and peace, the Palestinians will be able to create popular sympathy for their cause similar to what was against racism in South Africa and with the “Black Lives Matter” movement now. The case, in addition to being an issue of occupation and self-determination, is an issue of racial discrimination”.

One hopes the world will give attention to his sage advice, bearing in mind the multidimensional aspects of the Palestine issue.

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