Israel escalation puts new Gulf partners in diplomatic bind

By: AFP      Published: 05:56 PM, 15 May, 2021
Israel escalation puts new Gulf partners in diplomatic bind
(L-R) The leaders of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE with then US president Donald Trump after the signing of the Abraham Accords. AFP

The deadly escalation between Israel and the Palestinians has embarrassed Gulf states which forged ties with the Jewish state and put a strain on their Abraham Accords that were billed as a game-changer.

The bloodshed has prompted condemnation from Israel's new Arab partners, at a time when Muslims have been celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Less than a year after signing normalisation agreements with Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have been forced to change course and turn to critical rhetoric.

"These statements are largely intended as a public relations exercise towards a domestic and regional Arab audience that continues to overwhelmingly support the Palestinians," Elham Fakhro, an analyst at the Crisis Group think tank, told AFP.

The Abraham Accords swept away decades of consensus, and were condemned as "treason" by Palestinian leaders who feared they undercut their demands for a homeland.

They were struck at the urging of then US president Donald Trump, who hailed the "dawn of a new Middle East" as his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a mere "real estate dispute".

It has now come roaring back into the headlines.

"The Abraham Accords were never intended to address the conditions of military occupation and land dispossession facing the Palestinians," Fakhro said.

'Speed bump'

In Bahrain, daily demonstrations have been staged in support of the Palestinians, with the foreign minister, Abdullatif al-Zayani, expressing "strong condemnation of the attacks launched by the Israeli forces on the Gaza Strip".

Internet users have shared photos of themselves wearing the Palestinian chequered keffiyeh scarf, and civil society groups have called for ties with Israel to be severed.

In the UAE, which has tight curbs on social media, many users have shared videos and photos to denounce the occupation and brutality of Israeli forces.

As rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, others with ties to the leadership in Abu Dhabi accused the coastal enclave's rulers Hamas of terrorism -- reflecting the UAE's zero-tolerance of political Islam.

It is a far cry from the heady days after the accords were announced, when prominent Emiratis tweeted "Shalom Aleikum" -- a combination of Arabic and Hebrew greetings.

For Hugh Lovatt, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the crisis is "the first real test" for the UAE, which for years had quietly cultivated ties with Israel.

"From Netanyahu's perspective, the Abraham Accords vindicated his long-held belief that Palestinians could be effectively sidelined as Israel developed its ties with neighbouring states," Lovatt said.

"Is the UAE prepared to put its relations with Israel on the line for the sake of the Palestinians? The answer appears to be 'no' at present," he said, pointing to gains such as technology partnerships and access to military hardware from the US.

"Given the deep bilateral interests that underpin normalisation for Israel and the UAE, escalation in Palestine is probably at most a speed bump, not a brick wall".

'Create distance'

After the Abraham Accords were signed last September, eyes turned to Saudi Arabia, the region's heavyweight and custodian of Islam's holiest sites.

But the kingdom stuck to the old consensus, rejecting any normalisation without a resolution of the Palestinian issue.

King Salman has voiced "strong condemnation of the Israeli measures in Jerusalem and the acts of violence carried out by Israel", and stressed his country "stands by the Palestinian people".

The UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, expressed "grave concern over the escalating spiral of violence" and called on "all parties to take immediate steps to commit to a ceasefire, initiate a political dialogue, and exercise maximum restraint".

While criticism is muted in the UAE, things are more complicated for the other Arab states that moved closer to Israel because of active civil society groups which support the Palestinians.

Normalisation is a strategic issue for Morocco, linked to US recognition of its sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara.

Faced with pressure from the street, the North African country condemned the actions of Israeli forces in annexed east Jerusalem that triggered the exchange of rocket fire with Gaza.

"Morocco should play a mediation role... If it fails to do so, it would be preferable for it to distance itself from the normalisation process without going so far as to break off relations," said Tajeddine Houssaini, an international relations professor at Rabat University.

Sudan, which established ties with Israel in return for its removal from a US list of state sponsors of terrorism, has condemned Israel and warned that its actions will perpetuate "a cycle of violence".

"Israel's entire strategy with Abraham Accords was based on the argument that the Palestinian issue was no longer relevant," tweeted Vali Nasr of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Now thanks to a series of Israeli mistakes it is back in force."

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