Israelis have every reason to welcome the new breakthrough in relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and to hope it gets finalized soon. Such a change of status within the Arab world, with a possible warm peace (as opposed to the cold peace with Egypt and Jordan) and extensive economic ties and strategic cooperation, can be a game-changer. Arab governments dropping Palestinian rights as a condition does not mean Israel can forget about that existential issue and threat.
Labeled the Abraham Accord, the deal is a political win for all three governments, though with varying degrees of benefit. Although there’s been no actual hostility between the two countries, and in fact much business being conducted unofficially since the 1990s, UAE would be the first Gulf state to formalize these relations.
Unlike U.S. President Donald Trump’s January 2020 attempt at a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace plan, “Peace to Prosperity”, at least this time the Arab party to the agreement was in on the negotiations. But as with that previous plan, the Palestinians are again left with less than before.
The only tangible outcome from that so-called “deal of the century” was a soft license for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to begin annexing major portions of the West Bank. Anyone who took seriously Netanyahu’s earlier promise to annex should also heed his latest insistence that the UAE agreement involves only a “temporary” delay in those plans. If that’s the case, it seems Israel gets all the normalization without giving up anything.
For Trump, the UAE deal would represent an achievement that no U.S. President since Bill Clinton – whose Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty remains intact – can claim. The only other Arab state in a peace treaty with Israel is Egypt, courtesy of Jimmy Carter. Since Jordan’s King Abdullah was threatening to suspend elements of his country’s treaty if Netanyahu proceeded with annexation, last week’s announcement eases the pressure on both leaders.
Hard-core right-wing Israelis still resent Netanyahu’s squandering the opportunity to formalize Israeli control in the West Bank. If the UAE accord comes to fruition, however, this will validate their long-running insistence that Israel can painlessly make peace with the Arab states without ever having to finalize a deal with the Palestinians – or that Palestinians will learn to live as non-citizens under permanent Israeli sovereignty.
For Israel, the UAE deal was never really a choice between annexation and normalization. Israel already exercises sovereignty-like control over the West Bank; it actually benefits from the lack of any formal declaration of its status. Even though Trump would probably allow annexation after the fact, Netanyahu knows it would undermine cooperation with a future Biden administration and weaken the credibility of American Jewish supporters. Europe and the international community had sanctions standing by, and Israel itself would shoulder greater responsibility and control over the lives of disenfranchised Palestinians.
Giving Israel the Grand Prize of normalization in exchange for not escalating seems like a major concession by the UAE and a victory for Netanyahu – the diplomatic equivalent of extortion – especially given the low probability of annexation.
This nominal threat gave the UAE a pretext to bypass the Palestinians – as though they were rescuing them from the jaws of disaster. The only real impediment to full diplomatic relations with the Emirates had been the lack of a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement that includes East Jerusalem. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative lays this out very clearly, and conventional wisdom holds that public opinion across Arab lands staunchly supports the Palestinian cause.
If the UAE truly intends to sideline Palestinians and accede to Israel’s longstanding de facto control of the West Bank, then Israelis and the pro-Israel community in the United States should still temper their celebrations. Securing peace treaties with regimes 1,000 miles away won’t magically erase the inherent challenges in Israel’s backyard. For the sake of its own soul and democratic character, and its long-term threat horizon, at some point Israel needs to address the aspirations of over four million Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.
If, as Trump has promised, a document is signed within the next few weeks and supplemented with bilateral agreements on trade, direct flights and more, then we will know this has real substance. And if other Arab states like Bahrain, Oman or Morocco follow suit, then it indeed heralds a sea change.
It’s no secret that key Gulf states prefer Trump, for his Iran stance as much as his downplaying of democracy at home and abroad. Coming just ten weeks ahead of the consequential November 3 U.S. election, even a symbolic spectacle could be enough to give Trump an edge in two or three swing states. And any failure in the talks wouldn’t become evident until well into 2021, long after the last votes have been counted.
As for a New Middle East helping Trump win a second term – a classic “October surprise” – this seems improbable. With the curtain being raised now, this will be old news by Election Day, and Democrats will have plenty of time to hone an effective electoral counter-strategy. The bulk of Evangelical voters are already pledged to Trump, and a UAE treaty doesn’t come close to the messianic optics of a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Most American Jews have been repelled by Trump’s domestic agenda and much of his “America First” foreign policy, despite the Embassy move. Arab-Americans who feel persecuted by Trump and his supporters will hardly be impressed with yet another blow against Palestinian self-determination.
Regardless of new deals with stable Arab states that aren’t really enemies of Israel, long-term sinkholes like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran have mostly festered under Trump. And Americans, whose lives and way of life are in imminent danger from a pandemic, will ask why Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been arranging airline routes and joint ventures across the Mideast instead of coordinating a national response to Covid-19 in the Midwest.
Why not wait eight weeks and deliver a last-minute fait accompli with as many as a half-dozen Arab states on board? Besieged by protesters and a criminal trial, and with a fourth election possibly looming, Netanyahu needed this early boost. And for his part, Trump famously lacks impulse control. There may also have been concerns in the Emirates about potential interference from fellow Arab League members, including within the Gulf Cooperation Council, and sabotage from Iran.
With the Abraham Accord, the UAE disarms its Republican and Democratic critics on Capitol Hill by delivering a geopolitical win for the United States, and it relieves Democrats of pressure to punish Israeli annexation. It goes a long way to sanitizing the instrumental UAE role in Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe and the ongoing proxy war against Libya’s UN-recognized government. It also helps the Emirates displace Qatar as the region’s leading dealmaker.
The interests of the U.S. President, Israeli Prime Minister and UAE’s ruling elite are evident. But for now, this agreement is barely “ink on paper”. With U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetting across Central Europe all last week and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi kept out of the loop for months, it’s unclear which experts and bureaucrats are expected to fill in and implement all the details.
Turning a White House announcement into lasting change on the ground – for better or for worse – will be the test.