Israel’s peace deals with Gulf states did not come as a surprise to many, especially not pro-democracy Palestinian activist Iyad El-Baghdadi.
“We knew they were going to try to rush through things before [US President Donald] Trump leaves the White House. Maybe the surprising part is how one-sided it seems,” he says. These deals, he continues, could only be signed because the Gulf states are “dictatorships”.
Ever since Trump announced that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain had agreed to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, there has been rife speculation that Saudi Arabia will follow, despite its declarations of support for the creation of a Palestinian state.
“This is going to be their post-Trump insurance policy, because they know they’re going to lose the United States (US) in one way or another. The White House is not going to be as receptive and this is part of the post Arab Spring reconfiguration of the region,” said El-Baghdadi.
Founder of the Kawaakibi Foundation, an Oslo-based organisation, Iyad El-Baghdadi is a Palestinian writer and a pro–democracy activist who has been threatened by Saudi Arabia and imprisoned by the UAE before being deported for criticising leaders in the Middle East and for his work on Saudi human rights projects.
The 43-year-old explains that, Bahrain’s new alliance with Israel may help it entrench its power and crush any resistance to authoritarianism or efforts towards democracy.
“A classic dictatorship,” he repeats.
“It’s a small country where you have a ruling dynasty, which is a minority ruling over a majority, and that majority has been rebelling against them consistently every few years. So, it is a country where these people were depending upon two things – either the West is always going to protect them or their oil is always going to make them fabulously wealthy,” El-Baghdadi explains.
“They know the time in which the West is going to try to protect them and move armies and half their navy into the Gulf just to protect them is gone, so they need Israel as an insurance policy.”
The country also has a need for sophisticated security and surveillance platforms to police its population, he adds, in the wake of the regional uprisings.
In other words, the activist says, they want to benefit from Israeli expertise in the security, military and intelligence fields, as well as weapons and ammunition which have been field-tested on Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.
“They’re hoping that if they have threats, whether it is external threats or internal threats, they’ll have something that’s closer than the States, they’ll have Israel,” he adds.
Human Rights Watch’s World Report for 2020 describes the human rights situation in Bahrain as “dire”, citing the banning of all independent media and opposition groups as well as the arbitrary revocation of citizenship, detention and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and opposition leaders.
Following the normalisation agreement, Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja posted a series of tweets in which she said: “The people of Bahrain are not free, nor do they have any say in what the regime does or decides, locally or internationally. The fight for justice and freedom continues.”
The people of #Bahrain are not free, nor do they have any say in what the regime does or decides, locally or internationally.
The fight for justice and freedom continues.
صمود #فلسطين #بحرينيون_ضد_التطبيع
— Maryam Alkhawaja (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) September 11, 2020
Moreover, Bahrain’s normalisation announcement is particularly “unique” as such a decision would likely have needed Saudi Arabia’s approval, as Manama relies heavily on Saudi funding, indicating tacit acceptance of normalisation from Riyadh. It further raises the possibility that Saudi Arabia might be persuaded to sign a deal itself.
Earlier this week, the annual Arab Opinion Index (AOI) published by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies revealed that more than 85 per cent of its 28,000 respondents opposed diplomatic recognition of Israel. Only six per cent of those polled said that they would support such a move.
This, however, will not change the actions of Arab governments, El-Baghdadi says. “They don’t care… They know they don’t have the consent of their population, but they don’t care. They feel they don’t need it, which has been the case since the spring of 2011. They have had multiple occasions to reform and to reestablish legitimacy by opening up the political system, but they refused every time. They have absolute contempt for their own populations.”
These deals come at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in legal cases having been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, making him the first serving Israeli prime minister to face criminal prosecution.
He is also under scrutiny as the country tackles the spread of the coronavirus which has forced it to impose a second lockdown.
The 70-year-old leader needs this diplomatic success to show his citizens that “they’d be crazy to get rid of him”, El-Baghdadi explains.
“It is basically a gift to Netanyahu. But what’s more for Israel is the status quo. They are free to colonise the rest of what’s left and annex as much land as they want and it cannot be called stealing, because they promised to give back some scraps eventually – that’s basically the two-state solution,” he says.
“The Palestinians, we are very unlucky in our leadership. And this is a problem that goes back even before 1948. There are currently about 800,000 settlers in the West Bank, when Oslo was signed, there were only 200,000. The fact is that we were politically powerless for a long time,” El-Baghdadi says in reference to the Oslo Accords, dubbed the ‘peace process’, which were signed between the Palestinian leadership and Israel in 1993.
“Our leaders have made a lot of mistakes along the way, going back all the way till 1993, what they signed the Oslo Accords accepting a two-state solution without any leverage to push anything forward. And our cause has been suffering ever since,” El-Baghdadi adds.
To those who once counted as allies, El-Baghdadi says, there’s no longer much space for the Palestinian cause, but it is not the end of the Palestinian people or the end of the Palestinian struggle. “There are still 15 million of us,” he adds.