Part V: Israel and the UAE: The Realists

Realists have the most reason to gloat. They operate in terms of international politics as a conflict and congruence of national interests. The Israel-UAE deal marks the largest shift away from the centrality of issues like justice, transparency, and self-determination to focus almost exclusively on national interests. For them, in earlier regimes, the serious consideration of moral issues gummed up the prospects for peace. After the Israel-UAE deal, the dynamic has radically shifted in favour of self-interest as the exclusive reference point for advancing the reconciliation of Israel and Arab states.

Except for the Palestinians. Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based business consultant and political commentator, who participated in the Foundation for Middle East Peace webinar, is a Palestinian realist focused on the European states rather than the protest movements. He urged European governments to recognize Palestine as a state before it was too late. The UAE-Israel deal merely allowed Israel to escape from the dead end of annexation and America to escape the embarrassment of a peace proposal that totally flopped. For Bahour, now was the time for Europe to use its political clout with Israel, given that the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The Eu must intervene in the peace process to which it has heretofore taken a back seat.

Basour’s standpoint is not the same as the perspective of Marwa Fatafta and her colleagues. That may reflect Bahour’s business perspective (with partners he formed the Palestine Telecommunications Company and the PLAZA Shopping Center), his computer technology expertise and his more traditional state power centered analysis. Like many other Palestinians, he benefitted from the tertiary educational system in Israel, earning a part-time joint MBA from Northwestern University and the University of Tel Aviv. Further, he is an American born in Ohio who returned to the West Bank (his father was Palestinian) following the signing of the Oslo Accords and was deeply disappointed and disillusioned about the Oslo route. It is unclear whether he shares Jared Kushner’s view that what Palestine lacks is a good system of governance as a basis for expanding the economy. “The thing that was inhibiting all the investors from going into the West Bank and Gaza was not Israel; it was the fact that there’s not a strong system of governance. There’s not a judicial system where they can feel comfortable making investments. And there’s not a security regime where they feel comfortable making long-term capital investments.”.

Unlike Fatafta, he believes that the failure of Oslo is pushing Palestinians back towards confrontation and likely armed struggle. Instead of an appeal to the street, he is more focused on a re-balancing of state power, that is, using the Europeans to offset the new alliance between the Americans, the UAE and eventually all the Arab Gulf states and Israel. Without real powers as partners, the Palestinians are in deep trouble in achieving their goal of a viable independent Palestinian state.

There is another route which the PA seems to be taking. Though Abbas originally tried to forge a common front with Hamas and Fatah, the latter two are now on their own working together to confront Israel and launch joint resistance. In the meanwhile, the PA has clearly greatly softened its criticisms of the Israel-UAE deal. The PA also announced its readiness to open talks with Israel. It is noteworthy that Arafat’s widow came out and supported the deal.

Palestinians have to accept the following realities:

  • The Palestinian issue has lost much of its currency in Arab world
  • The Right-wing Israeli and American outside-in vs inside-out strategy now appears to be on top
  • The Palestinian leadership has very little support
  • The prospect for change within the Palestinian community is very limited in contrast to the views of Marwa Fatafta
  • The chance of marrying the interests of the Palestinian people with those of the populace in authoritarian Arab states seems limited
  • Arab regimes do not represent their people but are more akin to Petro-Republics
  • There is a reasonable prospect of mutual solidarity with the people of Yemen and Iraq
  • Palestinians do have to count on a younger generation
  • Palestinians having lost all leverage with America during the Trump administration are unlikely to claw back more than token victories if Joe Biden wins and are destined to lose all influence in America if Trump wins
  • The only real leverage on Israel to change course depends on Europe which is Israel’s largest trading partner and that is the potential that must be exploited.

Otherwise de facto annexation will continue – Gantz just authorized 5,000 new settler homes – by restricting building permits to Palestinians, land seizures, imprisonment of Palestinians who challenge either the current Palestinian leadership or Israel. Using European and international linkages is the only realistic route for Palestinians to achieve self-determination on a reasonable and fair size of Palestinian land.

For Arab realists in the Gulf States facing the threat from Iran, a very different realignment is necessary, a growing partnership with Israel and a move to the side of the Palestinian problem. There is not only the issue of border security for the UAE, but the purchase of F-35s and other advanced military equipment. There is also the issue of cyber-security, an area in which Israel is a world leader. The UAE would benefit from closer cooperation with Israel on the use and perhaps even development of this technology. Finally, there is the issue of the Yemen proxy war in which the UAE hopes to learn from Israel how to manage such conflicts.

The Trump White House has advertised itself as the “deal-maker,” but it did not have a single successful deal to its credit until the UAE-Israel agreement came along. Trump needed a diplomatic achievement to present to voters since his foreign-policy gambits vis-à-vis China, North Korea and especially the Israel-Palestinian conflict have failed thus far. The achievement of driving Iran further to the ground seems to have provided only a temporary respite.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had promised his right-wing base annexation of parts of the West Bank. However, he was forced to acknowledge that without U.S. support – that would not be forthcoming unless he recognized a Palestinian state – any concrete move towards that goal placed Israel’s national security at risk. It would certainly publicize that he was burying President Trump’s peace plan and not simply setting it to one side. Netanyahu seems to have had no genuine interest in the efforts of the Bahrain conference and the $50 billion dollar plan for the Palestinians to double their GDP, create a million new jobs, decrease the poverty rate and cut the Palestinian dependency on handouts. Further, if Joe Biden wins the upcoming election, even de facto annexation will re-emerge as a bone of contention between the Israelis and Americans. Bibi needed an off-ramp.

The UAE has much to gain through the agreement, not least by being able to take credit for halting annexation. It also believes that a peace deal with Israel can solidify its standing in Washington and help to deflect criticism regarding a variety of activities which future administrations might find problematic: its involvement in the war in Yemen, its close ties with China, and its outreach to Iran to reduce tensions in the Gulf. In addition, the Emirates may be taking such steps to better protect itself from regional threats in the event of Washington’s continued retrenchment from the Middle East—by enabling its ability to buy more advanced weaponry from the U.S. and seeking closer security cooperation with Israel, a leading regional military power.

Other countries that follow suit will gain as well. Sudan hopes that in return for a deal it will be removed from America’s terror list. Malawi plans to locate its embassy in Jerusalem in return for Israeli technological assistance. A whole series of transactional quid pro quos are expected to follow this initiative.

Looking ahead, Israel can now focus its efforts on the more pressing national-security challenges it faces. At the top of Jerusalem’s agenda is preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons. In the end, however, it means abandoning the premise for peace built into UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in return for all states in the area to respect one another’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Dore Gold, now President of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, wrote, “If there is a new diplomatic doctrine at work here it comes from a realistic understanding that the Jewish state can reach peace with its neighbors if it can address their most vital concerns. Israel is not the regional policeman, nor should it attempt to take on such a role. But it must make its contribution to upholding the regional order along with its Arab allies.” The Emirates played a leadership role in shifting the frame of Middle East relations from pro-Palestinian plus anti-Israel by focusing on Jews and envisioning a politics of plus Palestine and plus Jews, thereby displacing the up/down binary.

The UAE sponsored and publicized interactions between rabbis and imams. One of the grandsons of a very close friend had the second Bar Mitzvah in UAE history. All this is being done without outside interests demanding internal reform and remake of Arab potentates in their own liberal image. Further, this revised globalism is paired up with strengthening national borders and national sovereignty in opposition to either pan-Arabism or pan-Islam.

As Jared Kushner wrote, “We tried to change the paradigm of how people viewed the objectives in the Middle East, to show that there was much more alignment. Instead of using the historical context, we started shifting it around common interests.” Versus the experts and the risk-averse, take risks. Disrupt. Then mitigate the downside. Lubricate the upside. That is the Trump realist philosophy for making change. It often produces chaos.

There are five strategic factors in play:

  • The threat of a militant Iran
  • The increasing threat of radical Sunnis: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS
  • The rise of the street with democratic expectations and demands
  • The impending expected full withdrawal of America from the region
  • Israel’s economic, technological and military clout.

What is on offer is a doctrine of Peace Through Strength rather than peace through the spread of liberalism and democratic ideas and ideals. Further, the Arab states have to move from a dependency on oil revenues to a post-fossil fuel economy by developing their own technological capabilities. That can be accomplished much easier if they are partners with Israel. That will also strengthen the opposition to Iran, the country with ambitions to be the regional hegemon. Thus, the Obama doctrine (and my own) that Iran’s polity and policies can be moderated through relationships and exchanges while putting in storage the nuclear program, was replaced by a strategy of undermining Iran’s economy to undercut its ability to support its satraps. Hence, the Israel-UAE agreement marks a radical transformation in the Middle East from its pan-Arab nationalist as well as pan-Islamic phases to a realignment marking the birth of a new political order.

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