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A tempered euphoria on the UAE-Israel agreement

The deal is a clear win for Israel, the UAE and the US, but annexation and the Palestinian issue remain potential stumbling blocks
The Tel Aviv municipality building lights up with the UAE flag on August 13, 2020, after the announcement of the Israel-UAE normalization deal brokered by the US. (Tel Aviv municipality/Twitter)
The Tel Aviv municipality building lights up with the UAE flag on August 13, 2020, after the announcement of the Israel-UAE normalization deal brokered by the US. (Tel Aviv municipality/Twitter)

In a surprising and very significant step, President Trump announced yesterday that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had “agreed to the full normalization of relations.” The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (who also is the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates), Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, confirmed this in statements of their own and in a joint statement.

The joint statement said that “delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies and other areas of mutual benefit.”

In exchange, “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.” The statement about the agreement, to be called the “Abraham Accord,” also said that “all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshipers of all faiths.”

Relations between Israel and the UAE have known steady and quiet improvement in the past two decades, in the security and business fields. The two countries both view Iran as a powerful, hostile entity striving to achieve strategic superiority in the region through its nuclear program, as well as expanding its regional influence and destabilizing conservative governments in the region. This shared threat perception has enabled significant strategic, diplomatic and security cooperation to develop.

Also, although perhaps less important, is the fact that in the wake of the Arab Uprising of 2010-2011, and its daunting legacy in Syria, Yemen and Libya – including the rise of ISIS – most countries in the region became more concerned with internal and systemic stability, and so, more interested in security and intelligence cooperation, including with Israel. The UAE took the lead together with Saudi Arabia in combatting the wave of political Islam (personified by the Muslim Brotherhood) and popular disaffection in the Arab world. In Israel they found a willing ally, able to provide advanced internal security technologies and more.

The UAE also has made great and successful efforts over the past two decades to diversify its economy and to build a position as a world economic entrepot and technological hub. In this, it has much in common with Israel’s “startup nation.” Israeli firms, including security and cyber firms, have long been developing discreet but important ties with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For years, there has been a steady and quiet stream of Israeli business people (especially those with dual citizenship), athletes, diplomats, and officials, and even government ministers, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, more or less openly. Since November 2015, Israel has maintained an official office to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi (which Israel stresses is not a bilateral diplomatic mission). Cabinet ministers from Israel participated in IRENA’s meetings openly in 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

In recent years, these ties have been given greater prominence, especially by the Israeli side. As Israel entered its unending election season in the summer of 2018, one of the key messages of Prime Minister Netanyahu was that he’s “in a different league” from his opponents; a foreign policy savant able to match world leaders and win unprecedented achievements for Israel. A key exhibit in the evidence for this claim has been the improvements in relationships with the Sunni Arab world, which were presented as being independent of and not linked to the Palestinian issue.

Since its inception, the Trump Administration has been encouraging these dynamics, whether through cooperation between the moderate Sunni states and Israel in facing the Iranian threat, or with the “outside-in” approach to solving the Palestinian issue. The UAE and the Netanyahu Administration are both among Trump’s closest allies in the international arena, and those most supportive of (and dependent on) his re-election.

However, the big step of diplomatic normalization has always been blocked to an extent by the Palestinian issue, and over the past year, also by the Israeli government’s declared policy of annexation in the West Bank. The UAE was not interested in breaking the Arab consensus on the issue. It certainly did not want to place itself in opposition to the Jordanian position against annexation. In this context, UAE ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba published an op-ed in June in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot urging Netanyahu to refrain from annexation, and warning that annexation and “talk of normalization” are a contradiction that “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” This article is reported by some sources to have been the trigger for a new concept: recognition as a reward for forgoing annexation.

The agreement announced yesterday has advantages for each of the parties involved:

  • The UAE can take credit for taking annexation off the table, and thus to a degree inoculate itself to criticism, which has already started, from the Palestinians and the Emirate’s rivals in the Muslim world. It also has proved again its utility to the United States, which will be an asset in Washington, no matter what happens in November.
  • President Trump now has a creative, unexpected, and basically undisputed diplomatic success (i.e., it enjoys broad bipartisan support) going into the final stretch of his election campaign. He also has breathed life into a version of his January 2020 “Vision for Peace” peace initiative, which seemed to be destined for the special dustbin reserved for American presidents’ Middle East peace initiatives.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu gets a face-saving, significant reward for not doing something (annexation) he was not going to be able to do anyway in the current political/diplomatic context. This will provide him with a strong tailwind going into elections (if indeed he decides to go to early elections yet again). It again strengthens the narrative Netanyahu craves whereby he is a foreign policy savant. Despite the fact that Netanyahu sidelined his coalition partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, those to Netanyahu’s political left have no choice but to praise this achievement. Netanyahu also can claim domestically that only his ostensible determination to annex in the West Bank – much criticized in Israel and abroad – brought the UAE to the table. (In other words, Netanyahu pulled out of the fire the chestnuts that he himself had put in play.)

An interesting question is whether the UAE’s move will lead to an “opening of the floodgates” of normalization with Israel by other countries in the Sunni Arab camp. Netanyahu is hinting at more to come. Bahrain (an Emirati-Saudi client state) may follow suit earlier rather than later. Oman may do so as well. Saudi Arabia, with more complex and wider internal and regional considerations, will probably not join the Emiratis in the near-to-medium future.

While justified to an extent, euphoria about the UAE-Israel agreement nevertheless should be tempered. There are quite a few unclear issues, and even possible threats, at this early stage.

  • While the US statement speaks of “full normalization,” Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted that “an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” (This is a formulation notably similar to that used after the meeting by Netanyahu with the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council in February). The UAE stressed that “the UAE will remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people – for their dignity, their rights and their own sovereign state. They must benefit from normalization. We will forcefully advocate for these ends.” The New York Times reports that the Emiratis insisted that the concrete steps toward normalization (including the opening of embassies) will be dependent on the continued halt of any annexation proposals. Those Emirati conditions, however, reportedly remain nonpublic and subject to potential revision.
  • Israeli sources close to Netanyahu hurried to note that annexation was only temporarily suspended and not taken off the table, with Netanyahu himself saying “I did not and will not remove sovereignty from the agenda. Just as I brought peace with an Arab state, I will bring sovereignty. I won’t give up on our right to our land.” These clarifications, aimed at pacifying Netanyahu’s right-wing and settler constituencies, may impact on Emirati willingness to progress rapidly towards full normalization of relations with Israel
About the Author
Dr. Joshua Krasna is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (jiss.org.il). He was chief of an Israeli government research department responsible for strategic, political, and economic analysis of the Arab Middle East, and served in the Israeli embassies in Jordan and Canada. He lectures at NYU and the Hebrew University.
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