Part IV: Israel and the UAE: Idealists

When Canada gaveled the Palestinian refugee talks and I served as an adviser, a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once pulled me aside during a recess in the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “Howard,” I was told. “You will never be a diplomat.” You were trained as a philosopher to think in clear and distinct ideas. Diplomats work with equivocation. That is how peace deals are made.”

I may not be good at equivocation myself, but I can spot it. I see at least four areas of equivocation in the Israel-UAE deal, the first of which is what to call it. The formal name is the Abraham Accords. However, few refer to it by that title. It is either called the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement, the Normalization Framework or the Normalization Agreement. Israeli diplomats tend to use the first name, UAE diplomats the second and American diplomats the third. What is the difference?

Observers point out that it cannot be a peace agreement since Israel and the Emirates were never at war. Further, preceding the agreement, the two sides had been in negotiations on a number of topics. Defenders of the name want to contrast it with an Israel-Palestinian deal, such as the Oslo Accords, which was an inside-outside peace agreement directly between the parties involved. Peace deals include provisions for a cessation of (violent) hostilities. However, this deal marked a new era, a new beginning and a break from the old paradigms by working from outside-in. Instead of Arab states waiting to make agreements with Israel until after the Palestinians did, giving Palestinians a veto on agreements, Arab states, which were not frontline states but eager to trade peace for peace, would make Israel-Arab agreements and change the dynamic of Israel-Palestinian negotiations.  

For the UAE, not wanting to step on Palestinian toes even as they cross the Rubicon towards a new relationship (excuse the mixed metaphor), the deal is more accurately referred to as a Framework Negotiation, that is, one within which a large number of largely transactional agreements can nest. But what about the agreement to remove annexation from the table? What about the desired agreement by the UAE to have Israel set aside its veto on any Middle Eastern government purchasing the most advanced and highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States? Since they are at the heart of the agreement, American diplomats prefer the term a “Framework Agreement,” one that sounds more conclusive than a “Framework Negotiation.”

Thus, the Abraham Accords in terms of language treads across the marsh of different interpretations, any one of which can sink the negotiations in quicksand. Further, an agreement marks a dividing point between before and after. The UAE seems to want the deal to stand simply for a step up the ladder of cooperation rather than a radical shift in the dynamics of war and peace in the Middle East.

There is a second area of equivocation, one that is being fought behind the scenes rather than in the open. America and the USA have an understanding that the U.S. will ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative edge in military equipment compared to any government in the region. UAE has asked to purchase F-35s, primarily to be used to execute its part in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. The F-35 Lightning II supplied by Lockheed Martin (as well as its principal partners, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems) is a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft  intended to engage in strike missions, ensure air superiority and provide electronic warfare, intelligence and surveillance capabilities. 

The issue of sales to the UAE can be settled by the US supplying the aircraft, but with not as much of the technical wizardry on board so that Israel retains its technical edge. More easily said than done. Which F-35: a) the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A supplied to the US Air Force and first used in 2018 by Israel; b) the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B supplied to the Marine Corp; and c) the carrier-based F-35C supplied to the American navy? What technological differences since the key to the high performance is how loaded the aircraft is with advanced technology? This will involve very detailed technical negotiations for which Israel will have a significant advantage since it probably knows the performance of the aircraft, specifically the Air Force version, probably better than the Americans. Further, Israel, in contrast to the UAE, has the technical and scientific capability of adding further modifications to improve performance in all areas of its operations. If you are an idealist, you want clarity and transparency so there will not be any sources of dispute later. In this case, fat chance!

Clearly, Israel is also deeply divided on this issue. Israel’s intelligence minister insists that there will be no F-35s sold to the UAE in return for entering the deal. (But could they be sold, not as a condition, but as a separate arrangement.) On the other hand, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Tel Aviv demanded compensation in return for the US-UAE arms deal, such as advancing the provision of technology by one year.l

But reasonable equivocation and ambiguity to make the deal work is also required. However, instead of Bibi merely insisting that whatever weapons America supplies to the UAE, Israel will maintain its significant technological edge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly denied reports that he gave the okay to US arms sales to the UAE. That may, in fact, be true. He may not, as yet, have signed off on such deals, but repeated assertions of that kind do little to prepare the Israeli public for the most probable outcome.

A third area of equivocation is whether annexation is suspended, off the table (Donald Trump) or stopped. Netanyahu claims he agreed to the first while the UAE insists on the last. “We’ve shut the door on annexation,” stated UAE Ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba. Clearly, this is a serious bone of contention. Netanyahu insisted that annexation has merely “been postponed” and “is very much on the table.” The issue will boil down to the length of the suspension. Is Bibi willing to grant suspension for a year or for five years or indefinitely? Is the UAE willing to accept an indefinite suspension instead of a clear cessation?

Language easily covers this difference since, depending on the term of cessation, it can mean effectively stopping new settlements. But what about expanding existing ones? And if you are willing to accept indefinite cessation, why not accept the terms of the American peace plan, accept the existence of a Palestinian State and get a U.S. imprimatur on the lands on which Israel already has settlements? As usual, however, Netanyahu is more interested in the immediate rather than the long-term political benefits. For him, it was sufficient that he escaped the blind corner in which he had gotten himself trapped by delaying annexation of parts of the West Bank. Such a move would have imposed considerable political and economic costs on Israel. Ensuring the long-term future of a secure, Jewish, and democratic state could be bracketed without disturbing most Israelis who had little interest in annexation at this time.

Here, the problem is not so much the UAE but the position of Bibi’s competitors from the right and especially from the Yesha (Yehuda Shomron, Aza, lit. “Judea Samaria and Gaza) Council. How does Netanyahu get language that satisfies the UAE, America and his right-wing coalition partners?

There is a fourth issue easily settled – the location of the UAE embassy. No equivocation will be involved. UAE will not and Netanyahu will not insist that the UAE locate the embassy in Jerusalem. However, the UAE has been very clever in also deciding not to locate it in a Jewish-Israeli city like Tel Aviv but in an Israeli city with a large Palestinian population. However, Washington is pressuring other allies to relocate to Jerusalem while the EU warns Serbia and Kosovo not to do so lest it endanger their bid for membership in the EU.

However, the larger issue is the demand for clarity and transparency by idealists to forestall problems in the future (cf. Nimrod Novik, a foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a veteran of track-two diplomacy, “Pitfalls to Avoid in the Pending UAE-Israel Agreement 27 August 2020). Nimrod’s position stands in stark contrast to the experience of diplomats who are content to use equivocation to solve negotiations in the present and postpone contention to a future time. I am not the only adviser that has been stuck on the use of clear and distinct language and terms in agreements.

Simply put, there are problems in whatever way one resolves the issues of clarity with respect to before and after and which continuity to reinforce – almost certainly the transactional one of mutual interests. But this should not lead to complacency. Henry Kissinger was a master of equivocation or what diplomats call “constructive ambiguity”. In the case of the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement, Aharon Barak, later Chief Justice, pointed out that Egypt’s draft in Arabic, Israel’s in Hebrew, and the United States’ in English differed on important points and these differences later proved detrimental when it came to signing the agreement and even more so in its implementation.

What about the synchronic frame – the inside versus outside and the above and below? The big advantage of this agreement is that all parties, even critics, agreed that an outside-in approach had replaced the former inside-out paradigm. Further, since the UAE and Israel had never actually been in a shooting war, there did not need to be losers or winners. The agreement could be presented by all sides as a win-win situation – except for the strategic position of the Palestinians. It should be no surprise that all the parties, to minimize misunderstandings, agreed to only use an English draft of the agreement.  

It was also clear that neither party saw any large need to satisfy the street, whether the street referred to ordinary Palestinians or to citizens of the UAE. Netanyahu was only concerned with his fellow politicians rather than any protesters. This was a top-down deal.

Further, it was easy to live with since almost all the issues were transactional rather than going to the heart and soul of either culture. Nothing to live and die for was being surrendered by either side. In fact, that was precisely why the Palestinian were so disturbed by the deal. Their ability to use Arab state recognition as leverage had been pulled out from under them. The UAE had indeed sacrificed the Palestinians as agents in the process even if they might argue that it was for their own good. Effectively, identity politics were set aside for a new Abrahamic vision allowing motives, interests and intentions all to be realigned.  There need be no fundamental differences on law and defining the legitimacy of either party, no substantive differences over administration since coordination was enabled without any element of coercion, and, since issues of justice and democracy were totally ignored, the deal did not offer any opportunities for those advocating social change.

What about the charges of Palestinian idealists who viewed the agreement critically as simply opportunistic? Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argued in The Conversationalist that the deal vindicated the Israeli right’s “long-held narrative” that if Israel maintained its military strength and refused to compromise, “the international community and the Arab world would ultimately accept Israel on its own terms.” Yet the settlers’ Yesha Council condemned the agreement because it suspended the annexation process. They were far less interested in how Arabs looked at Israel than in any obstacles put in the way of their maximalist ambitions.

Netanyahu had used the agreement to escape from the corner in which he had taken himself with an inability to satisfy his base, his right-wing critics or the Americans. The UAE Agreement offered an end run around the problem. Therefore, Israeli domestic politics proved to be the determining factor in forging the agreement and explains why it had wide support among Jewish Israelis.

Look at the way the Americans played it when the deal they had worked on for three-and-a-half years was so easily shuttled to the sidelines. President Trump’s Senior Adviser, Jared Kushner, turned it into a positive outcome. President Trump “was able to get Israel to agree to have a two-state solution with the Palestinians — and, for the first time in history, to agree to a map that outlined the territory that they would be willing to work with.” There was no such spin by Netanyahu, his government or the Knesset. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu explicitly denied that he had accepted a Palestinian state and a definition of Israeli borders. But facts have never counted for much in the Trump regime.

The question, however, for the UAE, is why they get no credit from the Palestinians for preventing Israeli unilateral annexation of West Bank territory — a critical accomplishment. Do the Palestinians not see this as a gain possibly worthy of bargaining leverage? The answer is simple – by and large they do not. As a result, one can expect the breach between the UAE and the Palestinians to grow further.

Similarly, Netanyahu and his followers seem to be much more concerned with short-term political gains by retaining as wide as possible support for the deal and minimizing the ammunition given to opponents, putting challenges to Bibi’s leadership once again on the back burner, and offering a distraction to the COVID-19 crisis that has been so badly handled. At the same time, he retains the much larger victory of the paradigm shift of focusing on peace for peace versus peace for land. Given that, what does it matter if he does not satisfy the idealist interest in clarity and transparency, especially when the deal in itself weakens the Israeli Left and the peace camp even further.

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