Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.
It is normal for countries with deep disagreements to nonetheless maintain diplomatic, trade and commercial relations. Yet there are also circumstances when such relations are regarded as non-starters, from most countries' freeze-out of North Korea, the U.S.'s severing of ties with the Soviet Union after it tried to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba and Israel’s non-relationship with Iran, a country whose leaders routinely call for its destruction.
Given the importance of dialogue between countries, however, there is always a question of when to pursue or end normal relations with a “bad” actor that repeatedly violates international norms, carries out genocide and other atrocities, or whose behaviour otherwise merits punishment. But if violating international norms, peddling racist rhetoric and abusing people under one’s control historically constitute grounds for refusing normal relations with a country, aren’t Arab and majority-Muslim countries justified in their long-standing approach to Israel?
While Israel acts democratically toward its Jewish citizens, its policy toward non-Jewish citizens and its decades-long occupation and colonization of Palestinian territories have been flagged by the United Nations as violations of international law.
Still, Arab and majority-Muslim countries' long-standing policies on Israel have always been subject to change in the event that certain conditions are met. The moderate Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative – which was passed unanimously in 2002 and later adopted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – offered diplomatic normalization in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the areas it seized in 1967. In doing so, Israel would have merely had to abide by international law; as the UN Security Council made clear in Resolution 242 (1967), there is a global consensus on the “inadmissibility of acquiring land by war,” and Israel is therefore obligated to withdraw from the occupied territories, and then to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue that was created when Israel was established in 1948. Arab and majority-Muslim countries even agreed that the “achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem [would] be agreed upon in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194” – in other words, giving Israel a veto over how this inalienable right would be implemented under its proposed settlement.
But Israel didn’t just reject the reasonable proposal – it went on to make the situation even worse. Under the watch of the Israeli army, more Palestinian homes have been bulldozed to make way for more settlements. And since then, Israel’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to countenance the outright annexation of even more territory.
And yet, despite such belligerent leadership in Israel, the United Arab Emirates decided last month to normalize relations with Israel. With a population of just 1.4 million nationals, the UAE is breaking with a global consensus held by 423 million Arabs and 1.8 billion Muslims. A month after the UAE’s decision, Bahrain, with just 1.6 million people, announced that it would follow suit.
UAE leaders argue that engagement with Israel will improve the chances of achieving an acceptable peace settlement and ending the occupation, noting that Israel has already agreed to suspend its planned unilateral annexation. But this argument is hollow. If anything, the UAE’s overture will enable Israel to harden its position.
After all, it didn’t take long for Mr. Netanyahu to declare that “annexation is still on the table.” The UAE’s olive branch, he pointed out, proves that Israel doesn’t have to give up land for peace, as former U.S. president George H.W. Bush once suggested.
In short order, Mr. Netanyahu’s boastful statements totally destroyed the UAE’s justification for its decision. But the UAE is not backing away from the agreement, which will be signed in Washington on Sept. 15; the Arab League has not condemned Israel’s decision to abandon shared principles and commitments.
Needless to say, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration and the Netanyahu government are delighted to have “flipped” an Arab country without any need for meaningful Israeli concessions. To be sure, Israel and the UAE and Bahrain do not have any land disputes of the kind that stood in the way of similar agreements with Egypt and Jordan in the past. Yet those agreements are proof that normalizing relations with Israel does not advance the cause of peace.
For their part, Arabs and Palestinians long for normal relations with Israel, but only after the occupation has ended. When one party is a military power with even more powerful friends, peace must be reached through a just settlement, not unilateral action. A country that serially violates human rights and international treaties should not be rewarded with normal relations, even from tiny Arab gulf countries.
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