It’s all very well that Israel has established normal relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But where does that leave the Palestinians and their fight for an independent state, now that Arab regimes are deserting them?
By no means has the long-standing Palestinian conflict with Israel been resolved. If at all, it would seem that seven decades since the establishment of Israel, the Jewish state has almost succeeded in quashing the Palestinians’ struggle for an independent and viable homeland.
Israel has largely benefited from internal squabbling among Arab-Muslim states and a debilitating feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom see themselves as leaders of the Sunni and Shia sects respectively.
The feud, triggered by the 1979 Shia Islamic revolution in Iran, has impacted politics leading, among other things, to violent conflicts and continuing tension among countries in the region. Paradoxically, in this fight, the so-called leaders of the two sects seem to have missed the point that they subscribe to the same religion, Islam.
Bahrain and the UAE have normalised relations with Israel. But this would not have been possible without the backing of Saudi Arabia, which dominates politics in the Gulf region and treats the smaller states as its vassals. Only Qatar has walked out of the Saudi orbit as a result of which it has been ostracised by the Gulf nations.
Iran’s nuclear programme came under Washington’s crosshairs in early 2000 under the George W Bush administration and since then it has been watched with suspicion not only by the US but also its allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In 2015, when Bush’s successor Barack Obama struck a nuclear peace deal with Iran, an alarmed Saudi regime did the unthinkable by aligning with Israel on the issue. This was the first sign of an improbable realignment in the region.
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Since then, much sand has shifted across the deserts of Arabia. The Saudis have built and consolidate relations with Israel. Though never formally announced, the level of interaction between the two is almost that of two nations in a normal, friendly relationship.
Incidentally, India has been a beneficiary of this warming up when in April 2018 the government in Riyadh allowed Air India to operate flights to Israel via Saudi airspace.
In 2017, when Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner came up with a controversial peace plan that was seen as a dilution of the Palestinian cause, the Saudis were entrusted with the task of convincing the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to accept it. And they faithfully followed the US diktat. Worse, the Kushner plan completely undermined the Saudis’ own peace plan of 2002 that had promised total normalcy with Israel in exchange for the return of Palestinian territories occupied in the 1967 war.
While it was possible for Bahrain and the UAE to normalise relations with Israel, for the Saudis it is a tricky call to formalise its relationship with the Jewish state, as the consequences could be far-reaching if it indeed took a step in that direction. In that sense, it appears a tactical move of the Saudis to let two of its vassal states go in for normal ties with Israel and gauge public reaction to it.
The Saudi rulers are also aware of the massive Arab street support for the Palestinian cause and have made it a point to generously fund it. Two years ago, the Saudi government, at an Arab summit, announced a donation of $150 million for the Palestinians and $50 million for Palestinian refugees. Though a substantial amount, in the overall context, it can only be interpreted as mere lip service for a cause that the Saudis have to appear supportive.
In reality, it’s nothing less than a 180 degree turn. Saudi Arabia was among nations like Egypt and Syria that took the lead in opposing the creation of Israel in 1948. Saudi played a major role in backing Palestinian resistance and, for years, provided logistical support in the fight to regain land lost to Israel.
Interestingly, while the Arabs including Saudi Arabia and its two “friends” Bahrain and the UAE besides Egypt and Jordan have established normal ties with Israel, two non-Arab Muslim countries, Turkey and Iran, have upped their opposition to Israel.
While Iran’s position has remained unchanged since the 1979 revolution, Turkey which was the first Muslim country to normalise relations with Israel in 1949, has in the last decade or so turned increasingly hostile since the coming to power of the Islamic party, the AKP, in Istanbul led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This has resulted in deepening divisions among the Muslim countries of the region, benefitting Israel, much to the dismay of Palestinians who have waited for decades to regain their lost homeland.
For the Palestinians, who have soldiered on for seven decades leaning on the support of fellow-Arab and Muslim nations, the tectonic shift in regional politics during this period means the original vision of a two-nation plan – an independent Palestine and Israel side by side — is in tatters.
As it stands today, the Palestinians have only two small enclaves to call their own – West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even this is under the occupation of Israel, a situation that even the United Nations recognises as such. East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital, is under Israeli control. Over time, Jewish settlements have gradually swallowed up land that was meant for use by Palestinians when the dispute is resolved.
Palestinians are, therefore, up against an occupation that robs them of basic freedoms including that of movement and the right to live and work without shackles.
The Israeli state uses the excuse of Hamas, the Islamic Palestinian resistance group, and its feeble and largely symbolic rocket attacks on Jewish territory to routinely bomb Gaza and demolish Palestinian homes and infrastructure. The latest instance was a couple of days ago coinciding with the signing of the Israeli deal with the UAE and Bahrain.
While Israel has the right to defend itself, the criticism is directed at the Jewish state’s use of high-end fighter aircraft like the F-16s to bomb Palestinian areas in what is described as a “disproportionate use of force” – leading to thousands of innocent civilian casualties.
Under the guise of beefing up security, Israel has built a barrier that has all but ghettoised Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza – making it extremely arduous for farmers to access their land, local markets and for people to visit each other.
The normalisation of relations between Arab regimes and Israel in this context is a sure sign that Palestinians don’t have much choice but to put up with their condition for much longer or, alternatively, think up newer and more innovative ways on their own to end the decades long Jewish occupation.