Israel and the UAE

Last Thursday, President Donald Trump, with Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) online, announced that they had reached a peace agreement. Donald Trump was given credit for brokering the deal as the agreement was announced following the three-way conversation between Netanyahu, Crown Prince bin Zayed of Dubai and U.S. president Donald Trump. The Israel-UAE deal is the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state. There has been a long gap, almost twenty-six years, since the last one between Jordan and Israel, the Wadi Araba Treaty, signed in 1994. The latter agreement has been under extreme stress following Israel’s announced plans to extend sovereignty into parts of the West Bank.

The Israel-UAE agreement is really a game changer in spite of Jared Kushner making the same claim. It will not lose that status even though a game changer in the very opposite direction took place the very next day on this past Friday. The United States suffered a totally humiliating and unprecedented defeat in the United Nations Security Council when the U.S. could only muster one additional vote, that of the Dominican Republic, and only after a great deal of personal diplomacy expended by Mike Pompeo in his visit to America’s one supporter. The Security Council refused to support America’s resolution to extend the arms embargo against Iran that expires in two months.

Israel’s negotiations had been underway with the UAE for some time. (For a record of the long history of contacts preceding even these negotiations, see Steve Hendrix, “Inside the secret-not-secret courtship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” The Washington Post, 14 August 2020.) Actual negotiations over the last few years were kept highly secret lest Iran try to sabotage the deal. UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, have been engaged in secret negotiations for over a year. The discussions were accelerated in June when Israel announced its plans to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank and when, at the end of June, al-Otaiba proposed to Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz that, “the UAE would agree to normalization with Israel in return for an Israeli announcement that West Bank annexation was off the table.”

Recall al-Otaiba’s unprecedented front page op-ed in Hebrew in Yediot Ahronot on 11 June. He said that Israel was an opportunity not an enemy. The only obstacle to better relations between the UAE and Israel was the planned annexation of the occupied West Bank. This was a clear signal to influence the Israeli debate on West Bank annexation while creating the opening for a UAE-Israel deal. Annexation would upend warmer ties with the Gulf states, al-Otaiba had warned.

In the oval office electronic hook-up, the two countries stated that they had agreed to exchange embassies and ambassadors, establish direct air flights between the two countries and enhance trade. As a quid pro quo for recognition, as described by Israel, Israel agreed to suspend, but not renounce, its plans for annexation as a concession to the United States and the Trump administration. Bin Zayed claimed that Israel had agreed to stop annexation. Al-Monitor erroneously opined that, “The announcement yesterday on normalizing ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s realization that he must abandon his annexation plan.” Though both depictions described the same action, each party gave it their own twist. Further, Trump reinforced bin Zayed’s position by insisting that annexation was now off the table.

The UAE agreed to invest in the Israeli initiative to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Citizens from the UAE would also be allowed to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Over the past year, the two countries had already been engaged in direct negotiations over water and energy. Shared interests in security and economic cooperation had provided the foundation for the agreement. However, bin Zayed referred to the deal as a “roadmap” rather than a full agreement on normalization.

Nevertheless, Trump said that he expected the final agreement will be ready and signed in Washington in three weeks. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen will lead the delegation next week to Abu Dabai to meet with Gulf leaders to fill in the agreement. Trump also observed that, “opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economies” would spur growth and forge “closer people-to-people relations.” Bilateral agreements in tourism, security, telecommunications, technology and healthcare can be expected to follow.

Though Trump received overall credit, three individuals in the administration were acknowledged for special credit in advancing the deal – Special Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, and US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Trump announced that this was but the first in a series of breakthrough events forthcoming. Bahrain is likely to come next followed by other peace agreements between Israel and Gulf States according to other White House voices. Oman has already cheered the agreement. Egypt joined the cheerleading squad.

The right in Israel has trumpeted the success. Instead of peace for land they had negotiated peace for peace. Peace with the Palestinians even as a goal had not been made a condition of the agreement. The Palestinian veto over any deal had been removed. Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, claimed that the deal, “takes away one of the key incentives for Israel to end its occupation — normalization with the Arab world. It basically tells Israel it can have peace with an Arab country in return for postponing illegal theft of Palestinian land.” 

Certainly, the Israelis had not conceded in moving back to the Green Line and evacuating settlements. Jerusalem was not divided nor had the Israeli government agreed even to recognize a Palestinian state as called for in the Trump Peace Plan. Except the other side claimed that Israel in taking annexation off the table had indeed exchanged land for peace. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett of Yamina, while welcoming the agreement as a great success and breakthrough, denounced the concession of suspending plans to extend Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu was accused by the Israeli extreme right of trading Judea and Samaria for flights to Abu Dabai. At the other end of the spectrum, left wing critics of Israeli occupation and supporters of Palestine criticized the agreement and claimed that de jure annexation may be suspended but de facto annexation would continue.

In fact, the prospect of a deal has been on the horizon for over a year. Since 2015 when the Iran nuclear deal had been signed, the Gulf States had been engaged in national security cooperation against their Iranian rival and perceived threat. Iran, of course, renounced the deal as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Turkey announced that the peoples of the region “will never forget and will never forgive this hypocritical behavior” by the UAE. Both the Palestinian Authority and Mk Mtanes Shehadeh of the Joint List joined in the criticism. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the tripartite US-UAE-Israel agreement “a crime by the UAE against Palestinians.”  Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Mubadara party, called the Israeli-UAE agreement a “stab in the back of Palestinians.” Surprisingly, even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, self-described as a “passionate defender of Israel,” also criticized the deal.

Almost all of Donald Trump’s American critics and opponents welcomed the breakthrough without qualification while trumpeting the concession on annexation. Joe Biden said that, “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave and badly-needed act of statesmanship. Annexation would be a bloody blow to the course of peace, which is why I oppose it now and would oppose it as president.”

Strong critics of Netanyahu also praised the deal. The Israel Policy Forum applauded “the historic announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will be normalizing relations. Israel’s broader acceptance in the region is good for Israel and good for American interests in the Middle East, and we hope that other countries will follow suit. We also applaud the announcement that in return for normalized ties, Israel will be suspending its plans to annex part of the West Bank, as envisioned by the Trump initiative. Annexation remains the single biggest threat to Israeli peace with its neighbors and its full acceptance in the region, and we call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove annexation as a policy option entirely rather than temporarily suspend its implementation.”

IPF went on to insist that as welcome as the agreement was, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained the major issue. A peace for peace that simply maintained the status quo was inimical and unjust to Palestinian interests. However, acknowledging that annexation had been an obstacle to peace was itself progress. Nevertheless, sidelining the Palestinians, making them observers rather than actors in forging peace, was itself a blow to the status of the PA. It was also certainly a clear defeat for the forces that demonize and would destroy Israel as a state in the Middle East. Instead, Israel has been increasingly recognized as an integral and recognized state in the region.

The biggest winner appears to be Benjamin Netanyahu. He conceded not one of his basic positions. He demonstrated unequivocally that peace with the Arab world did not depend on resolving the Palestinian issue and certainly not on promising a state for the Palestinians. The outside-in approach was the winner versus the inside-out strategy of the Oslo Accords. Perhaps Netanyahu had been correct all along – namely that given Israel’s strategic capabilities, economic might, scientific and technological know-how, success as the upstart and start-up nation, and the shared interests of Israel and the Sunnis, regional peace with most states in the region is inevitable.

Further, in only suspending annexation plans, he accomplished two goals at once. He found a route out of his inability to deliver, not simply on the 1 July date, but in the immediate foreseeable future. For Benny Gantz would not agree to it without a U.S. imprimatur. And the U.S. had made it abundantly clear that they would not approve the annexation plans unless Netanyahu agreed to recognize a Palestinian state on the remainder of the West Bank lands. Netanyahu had found a back door to escape an international as well as domestic embarrassment. As Ben Caspit commented, “The agreement with the UAE is a candy to dispel spreading bitterness, a pain relief tablet to ease the hangover plaguing Netanyahu’s electoral base since the heady White House event in late January at which the upcoming annexation was declared.” At the same time, Netanyahu did not concede or acknowledge the possibility of a two-state solution. Annexation remained a goal but not an achievable one for the present.

Others gave the credit to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defence Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. “Without them, there would not have been any official agreement with the UAE for the simple reason that they both took pains to block the annexation plans.”

Will annexation remain “an impenetrable impediment to normal and open relations between Israel and Arab states as Michael Koplow contends? Or by simply suspending and not renouncing annexation, did Netanyahu drive another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. After all, if Israel could not be induced to declare annexation dead, the likelihood of relocating the 450,000 living on the West Bank became even more problematic. The status quo of de facto rather than de jure annexation would remain.

Unfortunate as this may be, Netanyahu could mark up another victory for the right, one that would be supported by most of the left.

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