Donald Trump badly needs a foreign policy success to burnish his "dealmaker" re-election credentials. On Thursday he appeared to get one in an agreement which the US helped broker between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalise their relations in exchange for a promise by the former not to proceed with its plans to annex large parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
Palestinian leaders were not impressed, however, by what many saw as a stab in the back and a tacit recognition of Jerusalem, the contested holy city, as Israel’s capital – a return to the unacceptable status quo ante pre-annexation talk.
What might appear to be a setback to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ambitions was, however, quite a coup for the latter. The annexation plans, strongly supported by right-wing settlers, had provoked an international backlash that promised the country’s further isolation and even sanctions if carried out. Thursday’s agreement allows Netanyahu to save face in backing away from the idea by insisting it is necessary to achieve his long-promised priority of improving relations with Arab neighbours who were once sworn enemies.
"There is no change whatsoever in my plan to extend our sovereignty over Judea and Samaria in full co-ordination with the United States, " Netanyahu insisted on Thursday, fuelling legitimate Palestinian concerns that Israel has been rewarded while doing nothing to advance the moribund peace process.
The UAE, for some time a staunch ally of the Trump administration, joins Jordan and Egypt in having formal diplomatic relations with Israel, and will soon add direct flights and a range of economic ties. Other Gulf states, though perhaps not yet the largest of them, Saudi Arabia, are expected to follow suit in formalising warming relations with Israel that reflect an ongoing regional reprioritisation by Arab Sunni-led states of their top strategic concerns. Iran, with its support for proxy armies throughout the region, and the Muslim Brotherhood, now trump Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians as their preoccupation.
The deal would, however, appear to defy the common position of the wider Arab League which insists that Arab governments would only establish normal relations with Israel if it withdrew from the territories and accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But Arab solidarity on Palestine has waned. By the time Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, rolled out his deeply disappointing plan, doubts about the viability of a two-state solution have been widely manifest. Other priorities emerged. A politically weakened Palestinian community is facing a paradigm shift expressed clearly in the UAE deal – that it can no longer rely on old allies to put its case at the top of their agenda.