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Trudy Rubin: The Israel-UAE deal won’t resolve the Palestine problem

After 10 days of vacation in an isolated cottage on a Cape Cod salt marsh, it’s hard to return to the world of COVID-19 and stark political warfare.

I’m catching up with the uprising in Belarus, along with the Democratic party convention, and the latest White House conspiracy theories.

But, for me, the most fascinating story that broke while I was away was in the Mideast – the pledge by Israel and the United Arab Emirates to move toward fully normal relations, in exchange for Israel’s suspending the planned annexation of a third of the occupied West Bank.

If the deal is fulfilled, this rich emirate with a population of 9.6 million on the northeast end of the Arab Gulf will become the third Arab state to recognize Israel (long after Egypt and Jordan). Others, like the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, the sultanate of Oman, and Sudan, may follow. Some are billing the pact, brokered by the Trump administration, as a geopolitical earthquake.

Having covered the Mideast for decades, I’m far more cautious about overhyping expectations. Here are my initial thoughts:

1. The UAE move, no matter how significant, won’t transform history or the region. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s plane landed in Tel Aviv in November 1977, that did remake the region. I was fortunate enough to be at the airport when he landed; I was standing on wooden risers as Sadat embraced Golda Meir several rows below, and an Israeli foreign ministry official wept beside me. Egypt’s subsequent peace treaty with Israel, which still holds, ended the conventional Arab threat to Israel, since the most powerful Arab army had taken itself off the battlefield.

That was a geopolitical earthquake.

But the UAE has never fought Israel. And Jerusalem confronts very different threats now than in the days of frontline Arab armies, notably from missiles provided by Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Along with other Gulf states, the UAE is already engaged in efforts to staunch Iranian aggression, sometimes to its detriment as in Yemen. It appears that one big incentive for the UAE deal may be a secret pledge by Donald Trump to reward it with F-35 stealth fighters and advanced drones, a move that Israel opposes. But the deal won’t constrain Iran or alleviate swirling Mideast tensions. Nor will it prevent Russia and China from continuing to make inroads in the region as U.S. reliability is questioned.

So regional game-changer this is not.

2. The deal does reverse the long-accepted precept that the Palestinian issue must be resolved before more Arab states will make peace with Israel, a principle laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative promoted by Saudi Arabia.

But how much will this matter?

First son-in-law Jared Kushner believes the UAE deal will put pressure on the Palestinians to accept his faltering “peace deal” that grants them a fake state composed of disconnected patches of West Bank land without any sovereign rights.

Call it the “outside-in” theory that if Arab states recognize Israel, the Palestinians will have to take whatever they are offered. Trump has bragged that the Saudis, and even Iran, will join the recognition bandwagon.

Yet it is unclear how many other Arab nations will follow the Emiratis’ example, and the Saudis say they are sticking to the old paradigm. Moreover, there is no sign that the “outside-in” theory will force the Palestinians to accept Kushner’s deal. Instead, it might revive violence on the West Bank.

3. The UAE pledge won’t resolve the Palestinian dilemma that threatens the future of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the annexation freeze is only temporary. Meantime, expansion of Israeli settlements and roads on the West Bank are advancing a de facto annexation that becomes almost impossible to reverse.

With no peace deal in sight, despite the UAE pact, Israel is heading toward a demographic one-state reality in which Arabs outnumber Jews.

A Palestinian census in 2017 counted 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with an additional 435,000 in Arab East Jerusalem. The Israeli Defense Ministry echoed those numbers. If you add in the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians nearly equal the 6.9 million Jews in Greater Israel.

The UAE deal does not resolve Israel’s existential dilemma: how to govern over a majority of Palestinian Arabs.

Denying them civic rights, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders have noted, would lead to a form of apartheid, where Israeli Jews rule over a disenfranchised majority of noncitizens. Yet granting Palestinians citizenship in one state would end the Israeli state as a Jewish homeland.

Moreover, a one-state solution of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs is also a nonstarter in a region where communal identity trumps. That tragic truth is apparent all over the region, including within Israel.

So the question remains: If more Arab states follow the Emiratis in recognizing Israel, will that provide a new formula to resolve the seemingly insoluble Palestinian problem? Unlikely. Only if that happens will history mark the Israel-UAE deal as the “HUGE breakthrough” that Donald Trump prematurely claims.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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