Continuing from last week there are several key matters to be examined about the Israeli-Emirati normalization, which since has been elevated to peace accords. It was clear from the very beginning that this is hardly a unilateral step and both the Emirates and the Americans expected that soon several Arab countries will follow suit. Thus making the Emirates the first in the line and leader of a general regional transformation. It seemed so sure to happen that Israel didn’t even hint such steps, but will full confidence reassured the world that this is only a matter of time. However, their confidence, many times bordering arrogance, might have been their undoing.
In this matter the last week was significant, as State Secretary Mike Pompeo went for a grand Middle Eastern tour to persuade the most likely candidates. A tour that was expected to bring groundbreaking results, be the prelude to the grand normalization conference in the Gulf and possibly a similar trip by Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner. But that brought less then convincing results. Yet all stops in this tour proved to be full of surprises and telling details.
The other matter what we haven’t touched last week was the Palestinian response to the Emirati normalization. Because the Abū Zabī clearly calculated the Palestinian moves, even to be critical. But there are so far less revealed players in the Palestinian fold, who work for the Emirates and work very hard to hammer out something much bigger than a simple agreement between Tel Aviv and Abū Zabī. In this sense what we see today might just be the beginning of yet another stiff struggle within the Palestinian lines, ushering in an era of new Palestinian leaders. A new generation, which will completely depart from the legacy of ‘Arafāt. If that happens, especially if by the Emirati expectations, than we might soon see the final obstacle to be removed from the grand normalization process Washington and Tel Aviv so eagerly awaits from the Gulf. The obstacle behind which many host of Pompeo hid this week.
Where did Pompeo go this week and why he did not manage to achieve better results? Will the Emirates remain alone in this diplomatic maneuver, thus became stigmatized amongst the Arab states, or will manage to deliver some of its vows? And how does the Emirates play on the Palestinian fold to stimulate change for its own benefit in the long run? On this matter, and about the Emirati-Israeli quarrel about a new arms deal between Abū Zabī and Washington the question is open: Who will laugh at the end?
The struggle for the Palestinian leadership
The reason why the matter of the Palestinian leadership, or the question of who is the legal representative of the Palestinian side is a very important question for two major reason. For one, for long decades now Tel Aviv maneuvered beautifully between the struggling Palestinian groups and faction playing them all against each other, and always supporting the weakest. Thus it managed to prove a point that there are no true representatives on the Palestinian sides it could negotiate peace with. While the PLO and ‘Arafāt were the practically uncontested leaders of the Palestinian cause Tel Aviv managed to tacitly support the rise of the Ḥamās. As soon as the Islamic resistance seemed to gain the upper hand it was soon labeled – not unfoundedly – a terrorist movement, and Tel Aviv could refuse major negotiations on the basis that it does not deal with terrorists. Following Oslo the race for legitimate Palestinian leadership, by then via formal elections, was stiff, halting the implementation of the peace accords effectively. This brought the presidential election in 2005 won by Maḥmūd ‘Abbās (PLO), and the parliamentary elections in 2006 won by Ḥamās, which resulted in a complete split between the major forces and between Gaza and the West Bank both ruled by two separate leadership. Since then no new elections were held and the two forces were engaged in a stiff struggle against each other, even thought several times they tried to create a unitary government. Thus since 2006 Maḥmūd ‘Abbās managed to stay in office long after his term expired, but whatever political and international support he managed to gain, he failed miserably either to continue the peace process, or to improve the conditions in the areas under his direct influence. Since that state cannot go on forever and eventually new elections must be held, especially before any major step with the Israeli side, all sides have an eye for the era after ‘Abbās. And the candidates are numerous.
Closely attached to this, the other major reason why Palestinian presidency is important, because the new leader will determine the nature of the Palestinian cause after the last former supporters of ‘Arafāt will be gone. All sides, both within the PLO and all other factions have their respected supporters, and whoever wins, will signal a shift towards the regional policy of their respective supporters. So in this sense, the balance in the region between those willing to normalize with “Israel” and those who wish to continue the struggle until a major step back from Tel Aviv, appear in the inner Palestinian fold as well. Whoever wish to secure a shift for its own policy has to secure power and some sort of legitimacy for its own candidate. It was clear to see that the Emirates knew this well, and already has plans to shift the balance for its own favor. But how?
It was revealed soon after the Emirati-Israeli deal that aside from the American State Department there were five men in particular, who did the most for this breakthrough and to secure backchannels to reach this understanding. One of the them is of course Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and major advisor of Trump, who not only worked a lot to promote Israeli interests in the White House, but took it as a personal crusade to achieve a historical breakthrough under Trump. While his attempts were important, most of them failed and it is his support by Trump for any major shift in the region what proved to be important. So whatever was reached, Trump would back it up. On the Israeli side the two people were important. One of them is Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad, who traveled several times to the Emirates unofficially, and managed to hammer out security cooperation in a number of matters years before this current normalization. How good his connections were already showed as he visited the Emirates on 18 August, so right after the agreement, where he meet none other than Ṭaḥnūn ibn Zāyid, brother and security chief of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid. A very shady, but fearsome and talented spy chief.
The second Israeli prominent was Haim Saban, an Egyptian born Israeli-American media tycoon with very far reaching political connections. As one of the biggest businessmen in America with knowledge on the Middle East he managed to build close personal links to Muḥammad ibn Zāyid and allegedly he was one of the first promoters of the idea of a settlement with Tel Aviv years ago.
On the Emirati sides the first important man was Yūsaf al-‘Atība, the Emirates long serving ambassador to Washington, who oversees the vast media and opinion crafting operations of the Emirates in the US. He was the first Gulf official to write a long article in the Israeli press months before the agreement, thus being the main engineer of the idea that either the Emirates saves the Palestinian territories from Israeli incorporation with a settlement, or these areas are doomed. That argument was to justify the Emirati settlement, which since than was mocked by the Israelis, but Emirati experts still hold to this day. Yet the most important person to secure the connections and to promise some Palestinian support for the deal was not Israeli, nor Emirati, not even American. It was Muḥammad Daḥlān, one the most trusted security chief of ‘Arafāt, until the two a fallout and was eventually squeezed out of power by ‘Abbās after ‘Arafāt’s death. Since than Daḥlān moved to the Emirates and proved to be an invaluable asset. Abū Zabī even secured a Serbian citizenship to him and his family and Daḥlān runs most of the clandestine operations for the Emirates in the region from the Egyptian coup in 2013 to the Turkish coup attempt in 2016. For which Turkey recently issued an Interpol arrest warrant against him.
For years Daḥlān was planning to return to Palestine as a major player. His possible return to the next Palestinian elections suggest that the Emirates is investing heavily on this field and the agreement might be much wider. Daḥlān would be elected and acknowledged as the new Palestinian President and his power would be supported by the Israeli force and the Emirati funds. In exchange he wold drive a campaign to clamp down on Ḥamās – his longtime enemies – and all factions willing to accept Syrian, Iranian or any non-Gulf support, which is a huge gain for Tel Aviv. Also in exchange he would give a fresh start to the peace movement and would soon accept either the Deal of the Century, or some other peace deal, which secures him in office. Thus making the Americans and the Emiratis happy, proving them right that they only needed the “right man” and peace can be achieved. And the Abū Zabī could be happy as well, securing their “own man” as the president in such a central Arab theatre.
Today the Palestinian streets are all but condemning the Emirates for the settlement, naming it as treason. It also created long not seen political unity in Palestine. All that, however, has little significance. The Israelis with the Americans and seemingly the EU behind them can enforce any settlement, they just need someone to sign a deal to legitimize it. Even though the current Palestinian leadership is full of people who are willing to cooperate, but all that went unofficially and no one was willing to commit himself to a formal agreement. This, however, might soon change.
If that hypothesis is correct, it can somewhat answer why the Israelis are so arrogant now, and so active to deny any Emirati reasoning and any arms deal with the US. Because so far in this very critical point there hasn’t been any advance, and Abū Zabī so far hasn’t promoted the idea of a new Palestinian leadership. But as the current one with ‘Abbās at the top is critical to the Emirates, things might get that far. And when it does, there is not much ‘Abbās can do against it, as he proved himself not only incompetent, but also corrupt. And allegedly Daḥlān was very active to deny any achievement from ‘Abbās.
A bitter journey
The very first question after the Emirati-Israeli settlement was not what the Palestinian would say, though it was reasoned to be for their benefit, nor how this relations would work, but that which state would be the next. That is not surprising at all, as both the Israelis and the Americans many time openly stated with full confidence and much arrogance that soon other Arab states will follow the Emirates. All were left to guess, but the much awaited candidates seemed to got cold feet in the last second. So to capitalize on the momentum Washington volunteered to set the machine in motion once again. Which is also very understandable, since elections are coming and Trump desperately needs to cover his domestic troubles with a chain of foreign policy successes and gaining favor with the pro-Israeli lobby groups.
Between 23-27 August State Secretary Mike Pompeo went to a major Middle East journey, and it was not even hidden at all that the purpose is to promote the anti-Iran stance and the normalization with “Israel”. His agenda was to visit Tel Aviv first, thus agreeing on the itinerary, and then to Sudan, Bahrain, the Emirates and finally to Oman. Thought one of the first supposed state to follow the Emirati step was Saudi Arabia, and that would have been the most significant, Foreign Minister Fayṣal ibn Farḥān has already refuted any such possibility before any final settlement with the Palestinians. What’s more, soon after in a television interview former director of Saudi Intelligence Turkī ibn Fayṣal has accused the Palestinians that they are the one who promote the idea that Riyadh should normalize its ties with “Israel” and that they only have informal talks with the Israelis to keep negotiations alive for the sake of the Palestinians. This line is very similar to that of the Emiratis, but it clearly excluded the possibility that Riyadh would take any step now. That is why it was not included in Pompeo’s travel list.
The trip turned bitter from the very beginning, as even in “Israel” Pompeo was not greeted warmly and was criticized for the promises that Washington would sell F-35 fighter jets to the Emirates. Pompeo got severely lectured, thought he reassured Netanyahu that this can only happen after reassurances from Abū Zabī that these jets can never be used against Jewish state, which is an impossible scenario anyways, and that arms deal and the money secured by it is crucial in Trump’s election campaign. After all he promised three years ago to “milk” the Gulf.
The bad omens only gathered more, when on 24 August Morocco expressed that it is not willing to normalize relations with Tel Aviv. Morocco was not only the top of any list, but it was suspected that it could be convinced, given its excellent relations with Washington, its sizable Jewish population and former semi-official ties with the Jewish state. Since Morocco is a significant player in the Arab world its support for the normalization would be significant step. Its “loss” was a bad omen, but thus far not a significant setback. Another bad omen came soon from Kuwait, an important state in the Persian Gulf, strongly under American influence, which could also prove to be an important state to join the process. On 25 August major political activist and Islamic preacher Sheikh Aḥmad al-Qaṭṭān criticized Abū Zabī for the settlement, which by many was understood as a political message from Kuwait.
The first Arab destination was Sudan and Pompeo happily announced that he is on board of the first flight from Tel Aviv to Khartoum. Sudan was a likely and important candidate for a number of reasons. First of all it is a major Arab state with significant economy and military power. It is relatively isolated in the Arab world with Egypt being its only direct Arab neighbor, which already signed a deal with “Israel” decades ago. It is internally weak since the military coup last year, after which the new military junta came under the influence of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. So Abū Zabī has influence to persuade Khartoum. Chairman of the Sudanese Interim Sovereignty Council ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ al-Burhān have already met with Netanyahu in Uganda this February, which was the first direct and admitted contact between the leaders of the two states. Thought the step was heavily criticized, after that Sudan did indeed allow Israeli passenger flights to cross the Sudanese airspace as a token of good will. Thought not interested in any sort of direct contacts with Tel Aviv, Sudan wishes to break out from the international isolation, attract investments, for that needs to get off the American list of states supporting terrorism, and some help in the negotiations with Ethiopia about the GERD project would also be appreciated.
Interestingly the most enthusiastic supporter of a possible Sudanese-Israeli settlement was another key Emirati ally, Egypt. The Egyptian state press clearly admitted that Cairo is stimulating these negotiations, which it would welcome. The reasons are easy to to see. Securing such a breakthrough it would be a favor for the Emirates, the biggest financial and political supporter of as-Sīsī. As for “Israel”, it could reciprocate a favor by halting the GERD project in Ethiopia, over which it has great influence. It shows once again that there are a lot of supportive Arab hands in the matter, and the Emirates is far from engineering the normalization process alone.
So there are issues with which Washington could convince the current Sudanese leadership. However, on 25 August it was openly stated by Khartoum that no such step can be taken before the general elections in 2021, when the transitional process is finalized. Sudanese officials even denied that the matter was discussed in detail, or that the Foreign Ministry would have received any instructions on that matter, and signaled that only Sudan’s status on the list of terror supporting countries was on the agenda. Which Washington admitted, but that put Pompeo on a very accord situation. He was happy to celebrates himself being the first State Secretary to visit Sudan in decades, even coming directly from “Israel”, but thus he traveled to a country his own department considers to be a terrorist state. The fact that Washington was clearly bargaining with Sudan’s terrorist status was also very controversial seriously undermining the validity of these claims, and that was beautifully exploited by Iranian Foreign Minister Ẓarīf. So the trip to Sudan ended without any result. The most promising price was lost, but there were still possible gains to be achieved.
The next day Pompeo left to Manama to meet with Bahraini King Ḥamad ibn ‘Īsā and his Crown Prince. On 26 August they met indeed and Bahrain welcomed the cooperation against the alleged Iranian threat, but it completely refused the idea of normalization, postponing any such attempt after the Palestinian state was set up and peace was achieved there. Thus Manama joined the Saudi, and Moroccan line, which was somewhat surprising, given Bahrain hosted the first summit on the Deal of the Century and was supposed to host a similar major conference soon. Which might happen still, but from this point on it will be quite futile.
This is a major setback, since Bahrain seemed to be an easy, though somewhat insignificant score. Bahrain host the fifth American fleet and is under practical Saudi military occupation since 2011. With these details in mind and a clear Shia majority in the population and in politics, the king is understandably concern by Iran, and easy to be influenced. That, however, also answers the question why it did not join the process and received Pompeo very mildly. It is still under Saudi, not Emirati influence and if Riyadh can say no, so can Manama. Especially if it uses the argument of its masters.
From Bahrain Pompeo left to the Emirates to look over the results. Which thus far were less then convincing. Not much was expressed from the meetings, but most likely the direct consequences of the Israeli-Emirati deal were discussed, like the purchase of F-35 jets, or the transitions of the al-‘Udayd airbase from Qatar to the Emirates, also possibly some support by Washington against Qatar. Not much progress is expected in these matters, as the current American administration wouldn’t be able to deliver any of these before elections anyway. But it was telling that the formal negotiations with Pompeo were led by Ṭaḥnūn ibn Zāyid.
The journey ended the next day in Oman where Pompeo met with Sultan Haytam and his new Foreign Minister Badr ibn Ḥamad ibn Ḥammūd. Though practically nothing was official aired from the meeting beyond the formal confirmation and the mutually important questions were discussed the silence by the American side is more then telling. Oman might have welcomed the Emirati step, but at this point it is unlikely that Muscat would make something similar. Though it is significant that Yūsaf ibn ‘Allāwī long term foreign minister of the late Sultan was not present. This either signals that the meeting was not on that level, or that Sultan Haytam has already started to pull away from the former course. Given the tension, which is growing between Oman and the Emirates both of these possibilities are signaling the same thing. Oman will not normalize its relations with Tel Aviv, unless a general regional shift happens. Which has just been proven to be impossible.
Why the failure?
After much preparations and media support it is somewhat curious why the meetings failed to achieve any results, at least in the formal announcement of a regional conference soon. Anything beyond September in that matter means that it won’t happen, since it can have no significance on the elections. Even bigger question is why certain states, like Morocco, Kuwait, and to some degree even Jordan felt the need to express that they don’t support the normalization.
The answers are multifold, but easy to understand. The Emirati move was soon exposed to be built of false pretenses, namely on defending the Palestinian rights. And it was all revealed by the Israelis. The process has also met resistance bigger than anticipated, which even stopped the Saudis. The Israelis themselves in their arrogance denying any leverage from the Emiratis and openly discussing all previous secret deals made every state think twice before gambling with such scandals. Also, the main stimulant behind the process was Washington. But now, as this administration might not stay for long, many hope that they won’t meet the same pressure from the next American government. But even this one stays, Trump will not press such matters the same way is a second term.
Also in many countries conditions are simply just not that stabile to hold such inner pressure. Like in Sudan, where the current government has to think about their own elections. In short, the Israeli arrogance saying that Arab states will follow because they want to, while also going into a bitter fight with the Emiratis and shaming them made the best to scare any Arab government to do what Abū Zabī did. And that would be a different question why they were so imprudent that time, which is not a general attribute of Tel Aviv.
Has the momentum shifted?
It did. Twice. Once Abū Zabī made the pact there was a general sense that other states would soon follow. Which also caused fear. The Israeli arrogance and the collapse of all Emirati arguments, however, soon stopped the “domino effect”. After such states as Saudi Arabia, or Sudan the indication is clear the imminent danger of general transformation is over. At least for now. Once again it is very curious why the Israelis did they best to sabotage it, instead of stimulating it.
Some things, however, changed. The Emirates might become more isolated with this move, it became a target for two competing agendas, and that might transform it into a clandestine battlefield. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that all formal refusals for normalization is not justified anymore on general principles, like that of Lebanon, or Syria, that any settlement with Tel Aviv can only happen after all Arab matters are closed, but solely tied to the Palestinian matter. While Sudan didn’t even use this argument. So the hypothetical possibility, which was heavily denied even a decade ago is given, only a Palestinian settlement has to be reached first.
That seems very far away, impossible even, but if the suggestions about Daḥlān are right, such a change is closer than anybody could think. And in that case the Emirates would truly prove itself kingmaker, who managed to pull this off. Consequently, while we will probably see a cooling in this normalization frenzy now, the Palestinian field will soon flare up with very far reaching consequences.