The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Arab world rallies around Palestinians and bloodshed mounts, Trump-era peace deals fade from view

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures toward Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani during a news conference after their meeting in Jerusalem on Nov. 18, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — The videos from East Jerusalem showing Israeli police violently arresting Palestinian protesters were galvanizing the Arab world, evoking sympathy and long-standing anger over injustice, dispossession and unequal treatment.

But the newly arrived ambassador to Israel from the United Arab Emirates, Mohamed al-Khaja, writing for an Israeli news site last week as the images circulated, narrated a rosier version of life in his new home. He described a place where cultures and religions easily coexisted, in a Middle East made placid by diplomatic accords normalizing relations between Israel and the UAE and other Arab states.

His views have seemed perilously out of touch in recent days, during the deadliest conflagration in years between Israel and the Palestinians.

The violence showed no signs of easing Saturday. Sirens wailed in Israel as rockets were launched from Gaza. Israeli airstrikes pummeled areas in Gaza including demolishing a 12-story building that housed international media including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.

Israel gave a one hour warning for journalists and others to clear the building, which it asserted was used as a clandestine hub by Hamas and other Palestinian militants. No evidence was provided for those claims. The Israeli strike brought outrage from media protection groups, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, which demanded a “detailed and documented justification” for the airstrike and noted it could represent a violation of international law.

“Ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.

The bloodshed has prompted fresh doubts about the dividends of the diplomatic agreements signed by the UAE and others, known as the Abraham Accords, and raised questions about whether other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, will strike similar deals with Israel.

Proponents of the accords promised that they would usher in a new era of peace for the Middle East. Instead, the region in recent days has been riven by protests and an outpouring of revulsion over social media at the spiraling Palestinian death toll, images of Israel storming the revered al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Israeli warplanes leveling apartment blocks in Gaza.

The anger, analysts said, has badly undermined an assumption at the center of the accords: that the Arab world no longer cared about Palestinian suffering and was content to let its governments embrace Israel on the basis of other mutual interests.

The accords, which were signed last year under the Trump administration, were “predicated on a sense that Palestinians aren’t mobilizing,” which allowed signatories to conclude agreements that might otherwise have sparked a public backlash, said Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

But that has changed, he said: “The Palestinians are mobilizing.”

As a result, demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians have been held across the region, including in Bahrain and Morocco, two of the countries that signed diplomatic deals with Israel. In Saudi Arabia, which recently hinted at warming relations with Israel as they both confront Iran, a common adversary, there was a sudden shift of tone in pro-government newspapers.

An opinion piece this past week in Al-Jazirah, a Saudi newspaper, accused Israel of “criminal acts” toward Palestinians, likening its behavior to that of Iran.

Saudi media softens tone on normalization with Israel

The unabating death toll in Gaza and Israel also has undercut the notion that diplomatic normalization between Israel and states such as the UAE would give Arab nations more leverage in tamping down recurrent bouts of violence. More than 100 Palestinians, including more than two dozen children, have been killed in Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip. Rocket attacks by Palestinian militants have killed more than a half dozen people in Israel.

In the closing months of the Trump administration, Israel signed agreements establishing full or partial normalization of relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. At a signing ceremony in Washington in September, President Donald Trump said the agreements would “change the course of history.”

The signatories were “choosing a future in which Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians can live together, pray together and dream together, side by side, in harmony, community and peace,” he said.

Critics noted that some of the deals were struck by authoritarian governments that were not accountable to their citizens and were concluded only after inducements provided by the United States that some likened to bribery.

And Palestinians saw the agreements as a dangerous milestone. The accords signaled the abandonment by Arab governments of a peace initiative first proposed by Saudi Arabia decades ago that called for the establishment of full relations between Arab states and Israel only after the latter forged a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Even so, there was a sense among international observers and people in the region “that if a state like the UAE was normalizing, surely the Palestinian file would be part of this,” and that the UAE would be able to use the agreement to advance Palestinian interests, Baconi said.

But such sentiments were “exaggerated,” he added. “This wasn’t about the Palestinians. It was a military, economic and diplomatic deal between the two powers in the region,” he said, referring to the accord between Israel and the UAE. “The Palestinians were collateral damage.”

Even so, the current bloodshed may have left the Abraham Accords signatories feeling exposed. Days after the publication of the optimistic article by the UAE’s ambassador to Israel, his government struck a much harsher tone, a sign it could no longer appear to be indifferent to the mounting anger.

A statement called on “Israeli authorities to take responsibility for de-escalation, to end all attacks and practices that led to continued tension, and to preserve the historical identity of occupied Jerusalem.”

The about-face “shows that the Palestinian question is not off the agenda in the region. It’s very much an issue,” said Baconi. Arab governments also were put on the defensive by an Israeli raid on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s most revered sites, during the holy month of Ramadan. Hundreds Palestinians were injured in the Jerusalem confrontation.

After the raid at al-Aqsa, “Hamas stands to win the PR game for positioning itself as the face of Palestinian resistance,” Baconi said. “This is the last thing the UAE — which views Islamist movements as its main adversary — had hoped would materialize,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has yet to normalize relations with Israel, but the kingdom has been widely rumored to be next in line. Some of the speculation has centered on the growing Saudi willingness, beginning last year, to allow criticism of the Palestinian leadership — in newspaper editorials and in interviews with prominent Saudi figures. Saudi Arabia also praised the Abraham Accords.

That friendly tone toward the diplomatic agreements shifted last week. An article by Talal Bannan, a political science lecturer, that was published in the popular Saudi daily newspaper Okaz called Israel a “racist, hateful entity” that maintains survival “through aggression, racism and raping of land.”

The author warned that when Arab states sign peace deals with Israel, they are signaling a willingness to “acquiesce to Israel’s aggressive behavior and be patient on its expansive strategy.”

In Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled media environment, the article, and others like it, would not have been published without government approval — showing the tensions between the kingdom’s apparent desire to normalize relations with Israel and the need to address public anger over mounting Palestinian deaths.

In a statement Tuesday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry “condemned in the strongest terms the Israeli occupation’s blatant assaults on the sanctity of the holy Aqsa Mosque, and on the security and safety of worshipers.” Late Thursday, the top two trending hashtags in Saudi Arabia were “#IsraelTerrorist” and a phrase directed at Israel by a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing this week: “Shelling you is easier than a drink of water for us.”

The Saudi leadership is conscious of the overwhelming local support for Palestinians and realizes that any official shift in policy in favor of normalization with Israel would be unpopular, said Elham Fakhro, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. But opening diplomatic relations with Israel probably was only a matter of time, with any delay stemming from the desire of the Saudi leadership to “extract the kind of concessions that would make such a decision worthwhile,” she said.

“Saudi Arabia is conscious that it is the biggest prize for Israel,” Fakhro said.

For now, though, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to have any leverage over Israeli behavior toward Palestinians. “Israel really isn’t dependent on them and is not really going to change its behavior based on what they think,” Fakhro said. “Nor do the gulf states really care too much about the Palestinians,” she said, speaking of the leadership. “It’s mutual indifference.”

Dadouch reported from Beirut.