By James M. Dorsey
To watch a video version of this story on YouTube please click here.
For the United Arab Emirates, it’s business as usual as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s newly formed government wastes no time in implementing hardline policies aimed at forcing Palestinians to give up on the notion of an independent state and accept Israeli rule.
The UAE made that clear as it welcomed an Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi this week to discuss security, energy, tourism, education, tolerance, and water security.
The 20-person delegation, representing different ministries and headed by Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz, was in Abu Dhabi to prepare for a second Negev summit scheduled for the spring in Morocco.
The Israelis flew to the Emirati capital days after a hardline member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet, Itamar Ben-Gvir, paid a provocative visit to the Temple Mount or Haram ash-Sharif, a sacred place for Jews and Muslims and the third most holy site in Islam.
The first summit of foreign ministers of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and Israel met last year in the Israeli Negev town of Sde Boker to identify joint initiatives.
Last week, the four Arab states condemned Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit. The UAE, together with China, asked the United Nations Security Council to discuss the visit; and postponed rather than cancelled a visit to Abu Dhabi by Mr. Netanyahu.
The UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020, while Egypt became in 1979 the first Arab country to sign a treaty with the Jewish state.
The talks, which started the same day Israel slapped a travel ban on Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Maliki, signal that the UAE and other states are going through the motions with their protests rather than telling Israel there will be serious consequences.
Last month, Mr. Netanyahu formed a coalition of hardline nationalist and ultra-conservative religious parties with a government program that denies Palestinian rights and potentially could lead to the annexation of territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war. It could also lead to Judaising parts of pre-1967 Israel that have significant Israeli Palestinian communities.
The ban on Mr. Maliki was part of a package of sanctions that also included seizing tax revenues Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and channeling them to Israeli victims of Palestinian violence, deducting from the revenues the equivalent of payments made to Palestinians accused of perpetrating violence and their families; and freezing Palestinian construction in much of the West Bank.
In addition, Mr. Ben-Gvir, who oversees the Israeli police banned the flying in public places of Palestinian flags “that show identification with a terrorist organization.”
Israel imposed the sanctions in retaliation for backing by the United Nations General Assembly of a Palestinian request for the International Court of Justice to give an opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Insisting that Palestinians have a right to oppose occupation, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh warned that the measures could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
“Israel wants to prevent even the most non-violent way of fighting the occupation,” Mr. Shytayyeh said.
Israel collects some US$256 million every month for tariffs on services and goods intended for the Authority but deducts US$85 million for regular payments, commissions, and sums paid by the Palestinians to families of prisoners deemed terrorists by the Jewish state.
Ms. Shtayyeh said he would urge Arab states to live up to their commitment to providing the Palestinians with an economic safety net. “Only Algeria is fulfilling its commitments and transfers US$52 million a month,” Mr. Shtayyeh said.
The prime minister will likely attempt to exploit the willingness of the UAE to conduct business with Israel, as usual, to extract financial support as compensation. The question is whether the UAE and other states may seek Palestinian political concessions in dealing with the new Israeli government.
That would make things easier for Mr. Bin Zayed and other Arab leaders prepared to move forward in their strengthening of relations with Israel despite the policies of the Netanyahu government and Emirati and Arab public opinion.
According to a recent survey, the popularity of forging relations with Israel has plummeted in the UAE and Bahrain in the last two years.
In the UAE, support fell to 25 per cent from 47 per cent. In Bahrain, just 20 per cent of the population supports formal relations with Israel, down from 45 per cent in 2020.
Arab soccer fans demonstrated during last month’s World Cup in Qatar their opposition to normalisation of relations with Israel by refusing to interact with their Israeli counterparts and declining interviews with Israeli media. At the same time, Qataris and some athletes, including the Moroccan national team, wore pro-Palestinian armbands and waved Palestinian flags.
Popular sentiment is also reflected in tourism figures. More than 150,000 Israelis flocked to the UAE in the 2.5 years since the UAE and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel, but only 1,600 Emiratis have visited Israel since it last year lifted coronavirus travel restrictions.
Mr. Bin Zayed sees relations with Israel as a hedge against Iran, particularly when he and other Arab leaders are uncertain about the United States’ reliability as a regional security guarantor.
In addition, Mr. Bin Zayed hopes to benefit from Israeli technological prowess to position the UAE as a cutting-edge 21st-century knowledge economy.
Finally, relations with Israel posit the UAE as a beacon of Muslim moderation and earns it brownie points in key segments of Western public opinion, including influential Evangelists in the United States.
An announcement this week that the UAE would begin teaching the Holocaust in history classes in primary and secondary schools across the country drew immediate praise from the Biden administration.
“Holocaust education is an imperative for humanity, and too many countries, for too long, continue to downplay the Shoah for political reasons. I commend the UAE for this step and expect others to follow suit soon,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Ms. Lipstadt was using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.