Normalization, Peace, History

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the White House signing ceremony of the normalization agreements and Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

On September 15, 2020, three agreements were signed on the South Lawn of the White House: a “Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” a “Declaration of Peace, Cooperation and Constructive Diplomacy and Friendly Relations” between Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain, and a trilateral document called the “Abraham Accords” between all three countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani signed the documents on behalf of their respective countries, with U.S. President Donald Trump signing each as a witness. 

The signing ceremony came just a month after the shocking trilateral U.S.-Israel-Emirati August 13 announcement that Israel and the UAE had agreed to normalize relations and just a few days following Bahrain’s decision to normalize ties with the Jewish state. The two countries become just the third and fourth Arab countries to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Setting aside the personal political considerations of the leaders involved, questions over the impact of possible American sales of F-35 aircraft and other advanced weaponry to the UAE on Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), and the fact that these agreements do not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or entirely create “peace in the Middle East,” these developments truly are historic. 

Below are my main takeaways from these three agreements.

Annexation or normalization, but not both

The Israeli right (at least as personified by its leader for most of the past quarter century, Benjamin Netanyahu) and left are both simultaneously right and wrong. 

Bibi proved that Israel can make peace and establish open relations with Arab countries without making any progress on the Palestinian front. This “outside-in” approach has been the cornerstone of Netanyahu’s belief system for years. Once the Arab states come to realize that Israel (a country with the ability to defend itself against any security threat) is not going anywhere, the thinking goes, their own interests will inevitably lead them to want to make peace. However, these diplomatic breakthroughs come at the expense of declaring sovereignty over/annexing any territory in the West Bank that according to Trump’s peace plan would become part of Israel in a final status agreement with the Palestinians. 

For the left, the idea that Israel had to make peace with the Palestinians before any additional Arab states (besides Egypt and Jordan) would normalize ties has been thrown out the window. On the flip side, the left has succeeded in an important sense: normalization and peace with the UAE and Bahrain (and possibly other Arab countries in the near future) is only possible if the chance of an eventual two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that envisions a Palestinian state encompassing more of the West Bank than Trump’s plan described remains on the table. 

Sovereignty/annexation was a major campaign issue for Bibi’s Likud and other right-wing parties in Israel’s series of three elections in 2019-2020. Many doubt if Netanyahu actually wanted to go through with it in the first place, but it does not look likely to happen now in any case. Though Bibi and his fellow Likud ministers and Knesset members insist it is only “suspended” as per the agreement with the UAE, statements from Trump, senior advisor and peace plan architect Jared Kushner, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de-facto UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan seem to show it is off the table. According to recent reports, American officials gave assurances to the Emiratis that the U.S. would only give approval for it in 2024 at the earliest, and that is only if Trump wins re-election (former Vice President and 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden opposes annexation). 

The issue of annexation is rooted in Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, better known as the “Deal of the Century,” which was released in January of 2020. In a nutshell, Israel would declare sovereignty over/annex approximately thirty percent of the West Bank, including all the settlements and the strategically important Jordan Valley, with American approval. A Palestinian state encompassing the remaining seventy percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and parts of the Negev that are currently in sovereign Israel would be created after a number of conditions are met. Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (his current rival-partner in Israel’s unity government) both embraced the plan. While at first it seemed like annexation was going to happen, some right-wing elements in the governing coalition did not accept the parts of the plan calling for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state, while those on the center-left opposed unilateral annexation outside of some kind of diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Outwardly it seemed as though annexation was going forward this summer. Until it did not. 

In an unprecedented op-ed for an Israeli publication, UAE Ambassador to the United States and Minister of State Yousef Al Otaiba published a piece in Yedioth Ahronoth in June saying annexation would make normalization with the UAE, and a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians, impossible. Moves were being made behind the scenes. Kushner, to his credit, put the brakes on annexation. Netanyahu always said annexation would be done in coordination with the United States. The blessing from Trump to move forward never came. Instead, it was a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough with the UAE (and later Bahrain) that animated Israeli foreign policy this summer. As Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White (who, along with Alternate Prime Minister/Defense Minister Gantz was left out of the loop about the UAE deal by Netanyahu until the day it was announced) stated, Israel “moved from annexation to normalization.” 

The “Deal of the Century” was really a multi-track initiative 

On its surface, the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan was about solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It includes political and economic components, with the end goal being what it calls a “realistic two-state solution.” The one hundred eighty plus page plan aims to address core issues of the conflict, from refugees and the status of Jerusalem to borders, settlements, and mutual recognition. Whether one agrees or not with the solutions put forward by Kushner and his team, progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track was ostensibly the core goal of the plan. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that a broader diplomatic push was part of what they were looking to achieve. 

Trump and Kushner have cultivated close ties with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and other Sunni states across the region. Arms sales, enmity towards Iran (more on that below), an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan not making progress, the possibility of unilateral Israeli annexation, and desire to bring covert diplomacy into the open for a “win” all came together to create the perfect storm for Israeli normalization with the UAE and Bahrain. Some have posited that the entire goal all along was to get some Arab states to normalize relations with Israel outside of the Israeli-Palestinian framework. Regardless of the original intentions behind the plan, that (unintended?) consequence is undoubtedly positive. 

It’s all about Iran, Iran, Iran (well, and other regional threats)

The United States is no longer as engaged in the Middle East as it once was. In a trend that began under the Obama administration, America’s foreign policy is no longer as Middle East-focused as it was during the height of the global War on Terror after 9/11. Domestic energy production, desire to end foreign wars and entanglements, and inability to yield desired diplomatic and security results has led the United States to in many ways pivot away from the region. Israel and the Gulf states do not have that luxury. 

Israel built some ties with a number of Gulf Arab states in the aftermath of the signing of the Oslo Accords with the PLO in 1993. Recently, however, these clandestine relations, which were probably one of the world’s worst kept secrets, reached new heights. Israel and many of the Sunni Gulf monarchies have shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, destabilizing activities in the region, and support for proxies like Hezbollah, the Assad regime in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq. UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash noted that Iran’s actions, decried by much of the Sunni Arab world, made his country see its relationship with Israel “with fresh eyes.” 

Sunni terror groups like ISIS and al Qaeda pose another significant threat. Most of the Gulf states are opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood (including its Palestinian terrorist offshoot Hamas) and an increasingly ascendant Turkey under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party. 

To highlight the growing confluence of interests between Israel and many of the Gulf states, it should be noted that some of the only major actors to come out against these normalization deals were Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, Hamas, and the increasingly sidelined Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas. 

A chance for true people to people peace 

The obvious must be stated: Israel was never at war with the UAE or Bahrain. However, both countries were seemingly part of an Arab consensus that from the aftermath of the Six Day War until the Oslo era said no to peace and recognition of Israel, and in recent decades called for the establishment of a Palestinian state as a pre-requisite for diplomatic relations. This is clearly no longer the case. 

Until last month, Israel had formal peace with two Arab states: Egypt (since 1979) and Jordan (since 1994). The Jewish state had fought a series of war with both of these countries, and each had territorial claims over land Israel had captured during the Six Day War (Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt with the signing of the peace treaty; Jordan did not renounce its claims to the West Bank until 1988, and its status is still pending Israeli-Palestinian negotiations). While formal peace may exist between Israel and these two neighboring states, the relationships are  mostly cold peace between governments, consisting of close security and intelligence ties. Much of the Jordanian and Egyptian publics remain openly hostile to Israel, and there is little in terms of civilian ties and people to people peace.

The agreements with the UAE and Bahrain present the opportunity for a completely different dynamic. On August 31, an Israeli and American delegation flew to the UAE in an El Al plane for talks on a wide array of civilian issues including trade, tourism, scientific collaboration, the opening of embassies, direct flights, and more. A formal memorandum of understanding was signed on banking and finance, with more agreements expected to quickly follow (recent increases in coronavirus cases in Israel and the UAE will undoubtedly have some kind of impact on this timeline). The Israelis were welcomed with open arms by their Emirati hosts. Hotels across the country have been instructed to have kosher food options in anticipation of an influx of kosher-keeping Israeli and diaspora Jewish tourists and businesspeople. Kosher Arabia, a new catering company, was launched just a few weeks ago to provide kosher meals on Emirates airlines flights. 

Across social media, Emiratis have welcomed the new deal. In an interview with the Times of Israel, Emirati Foreign Ministry director of strategic communications Hend Al Otaiba said the people of the UAE are “enthusiastic” about peace with the Jewish state, with “levels of excitement… particularly high among younger generations.” Israeli and Emirati hospitals and universities have signed deals on COVID research collaboration, telemedicine, and artificial intelligence. The opportunities for cultural and academic exchanges, business ties, tourism, hi-tech research and development, advancements in water and agricultural technologies, and so much more are endless. Though many members of the Shia-majority (and somewhat Iranian influenced) population of Bahrain have come out against the normalization deal, there are others in the kingdom who have praised it, including the country’s miniscule Jewish community of Iraqi origin, whose presence in the kingdom dates back to the 1880s. These agreements are a watershed moment not just on the geopolitical level, but also in helping lay the foundation for coexistence in the region and the acceptance of Jews and Israel as legitimate parts of the Middle East. 

Israelis support concessions for normalization/peace when given recognition in return 

Poll after poll in recent decades have shown most Israelis are willing to make concessions for peace and normalization if Israel receives recognition and peace in return. This is no less true when looking at these agreements. According to a Channel 12 poll taken just a few days after the the announcement of the agreement with the UAE, a whopping 76.7% of respondents supported the peace deal over annexing parts of the West Bank, with only 16.5% preferring applying Israeli sovereignty in parts of the territory (6.8% expressed no preference or did not know). Yes, there are questions about how popular annexation truly was even before the August 13 announcement. Nevertheless, these numbers show that a clear majority of Israelis want and are willing to compromise for peace (in this case, by not moving forward with annexation). 

The Palestinians have little to offer Israel outside of calling for an end to the conflict, but the oil-rich Gulf states do (especially in the economic, business, and tourism realms). The norms of the past, in which Arab states would refrain from recognizing Israel until a Palestinian state is formed, have fallen by the wayside. Despite all of these new developments, it is in Israel’s interest to keep the conditions alive for an eventual two-state solution

Any agreement with the Palestinians involves Israel taking big (though ultimately necessary) risks. For the Palestinians to ever fulfill the dream of self-determination, they must clamp down on antisemitic incitement, cease terrorism, end calls for Israel’s destruction, understand that a “return” of refugees from the 1948 war is impossible, and recognize the Jewish state’s legitimate right to exist in safe and secure borders. The road to Palestinian statehood lies with Israel’s citizens. The Palestinians must convince a critical mass of Israelis to support the painful concessions necessary to one day reach an agreement. 

Peace with the Palestinians isn’t around the corner, but the region is changing

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not be achieved anytime soon. There is enough blame to go around, and Israel has made plenty of mistakes since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became front and center of what was once an Israeli-Arab states conflict. However, these agreements could help lay the groundwork for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace. They signal to Israel that it has a right to exist and be openly recognized as part of the neighborhood. They also tell the Palestinians that the Arab world is not willing to sit around while its leaders continue to avoid the negotiating table. 

The famous quote attributed to the Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban that the Arabs “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” sadly continues to apply to the Palestinian leadership. Any observer must admit that the “Deal of the Century” contains many elements from the wish list of the Israeli center-right and was heavily skewed in Israel’s favor. Nevertheless, senior Trump administration officials have made clear that the plan is not a take it or leave it offer. The Palestinian leadership should present a credible counter-offer and be willing to negotiate. Abbas’ boycott of the Trump administration does not help a single Palestinian. The Palestinians should immediately re-engage with the United States because the normalization train has already left the station.

While the UAE and Bahrain are the only two new Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel, other players have demonstrated a willingness to leave the paradigms of the past behind. Recent reports have indicated other countries like Sudan and Oman may soon follow. Even Saudi Arabia, which is unlikely to normalize ties at this moment (the aging King Salman is said to oppose the move, while the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman favors it), has already said it will allow Israeli planes to fly over Saudi airspace. Bahrain would not have normalized relations with Israel without some kind of Saudi blessing, as the monarchy of the island nation relies heavily on its Saudi allies for political and military support. The Arab League, which suspended Egypt when it made peace with the Jewish state in 1979, did not pass a Palestinian resolution condemning the Israel-UAE deal. 

The United States has enjoyed wonderful successes and terrible blunders in its quest to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The ultimate goal of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and peace between Israel and every Arab state, remains elusive. Nevertheless, these agreements are of monumental importance for the region. They do not end a war, but they most certainly do create more peace in an often volatile part of the world. We should all celebrate that. 

About the Author
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.
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