Opinion

Palestine is left alone

Bandera palestina

For seven decades, since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, the defence of Palestinian sovereignty has been one of the most widespread claims globally. The governments of the Arab countries, organized under the umbrella of the Arab League, have always been the main supporters of the Palestinian cause, both economically and diplomatically. The Arab allies assisted Palestine militarily in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973. Even today, as many as 17 Arab countries do not recognize the state of Israel or maintain diplomatic relations with its governments. 

However, Israel does maintain peaceful (though not tension-free) relations with its two immediate neighbours, Egypt and Jordan. Egypt and Israel signed the historic Camp David Peace Accords in 1979, and Jordan became the second Arab country to recognize Israel in 1994, under the Oslo Treaty. Israel's progressive rapprochement with its neighbours does not detract from the fact that the official position of most Arab League governments is to support the independence of a future Palestinian state and even to insist that Israel is an illegitimate state. However, the Palestinian cause has become diluted, and is no longer a priority for the governments that once took it up.

Pioneer contacts

Over the past decade, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has pursued a strategy of rapprochement with Arab states, especially with Saudi Arabia, probably the most influential country in the Arab League today. Communication between Israel and the Arab bloc still takes place mainly through unofficial channels, but this is no secret: in 2017 the Israeli energy minister admitted for the first time that there were contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and that same year the Ramatkal (the highest position in the Israeli army) gave an interview to a Saudi media for the first time in history.  

Israel has also maneuvered to increase cooperation with two other key countries in the Arab League: the United Arab Emirates and Oman. With the Emirates, it has even gone so far as to conduct military exercises at U.S. bases and in the Mediterranean Sea, something that was unthinkable just a few decades ago. And Netanyahu paid an unexpected visit to Muscat, Oman, in 2018. The Omani Foreign Ministry declared on the occasion of the historic visit that Israel was now "an accepted country in the Middle East. Thanks to this strategy of rapprochement with the Arab countries of the area, Netanyahu intends to claim for himself before his citizens a leader interested in achieving peace in a region as fragile as the Middle East.

The common enemy

There is a clear reason behind the gradual diplomatic rapprochement between Arab countries and Israel. There is little in diplomacy that unites more than the perception of having a common enemy, even more so if that enemy has the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons in the future. Iran has thus become the main reason why countries that do not even recognize Israel have chosen to start normalizing bilateral relations. Isolating Iran is the great goal of the Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and shared by Israel. Counteracting Iran's influence in the Middle East, whether in Iraq, Yemen, Syria or Lebanon, is the Saudi monarchy's top strategic priority

The Arab bloc has long been the largest showcase for the Palestinian cause to expose its claims to the international community, but geopolitical interests have prevailed over long-standing, idealistic claims to Palestinian sovereignty. In other words, fear of Iran has displaced the Palestinian cause.

It is enough to compare two cases to understand the change of direction of the Arab bloc with regard to the Palestinian question. In 2009, all Arab League countries explicitly supported Palestine in a claim made before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to investigate the alleged war crimes committed by Israel in the Gaza Strip. This collective support of the Arab League was crucial in giving Palestine a voice and eventually led to the historic recognition of Palestine as a UN observer state (without the right to vote) in 2012

Just a decade later, in 2020, Donald Trump presented his so-called Century Agreement, a treaty negotiated without a Palestinian presence and disproportionately favoring Israel's claims. The fact that most Arab states have supported this plan (as demonstrated in his presentation in Washington, attended by the ambassadors of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) shows that those times when the Palestinian cause was at the centre of the Arab world's claims are in the past. 

It is possible that, if in the coming months the Israeli government decides to carry out the annexation of a large part of the West Bank (one of the two Palestinian territories along with Gaza) as established in the Century Agreement, the reaction of its Arab neighbours will this time be more forceful and critical of Israel. However, it seems unlikely that support for the Palestinian cause will go beyond cosmetic statements without any real effect. The Arab bloc, in short, seems to have turned the page, and instead Palestine, and by extension its five million inhabitants, is being left alone.