The UAE- Israel Peace Agreement has been described as a “geopolitical earthquake” causing tremors in the region resulting in Bahrain following the lead of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has proved to be a major influence harnessing both hard and soft power to establish itself in the region. During a conference on the UAE -Israel Peace Agreement held by The Mitvim Institute, The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, Moran Zaga, research fellow at Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, says the bilateral agreement with Israel falls under the soft power tactic, but from the diplomatic perspective it is portrayed as a very bold step.
“Whether the Arab countries like or not, it conveys the message that the UAE is a regional power and a confident country that can lead and proceed others.”
The Zayed family is now strong enough in the region and at home to overturn its own narrative and dictate a new order. Zaga who specializes in potential cooperation between Israel and the UAE at the Mitvim Institute, says the change is due to the power of Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dubai, and his half-brother Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates. Other changes that have occurred are due to the rise of a new generation of rulers in four of the seven Emirates says Zaga.
“They have been leaning on the U.S. diplomatic umbrella, and with them leaning on the oil industry it led to a rethinking of a new strategy that embraces diversity of economic channels and international partners,” Zaga says. “This led to an extended network for the UAE and more significant engagement in foreign connections.”
But relations between the UAE and Israel have been ongoing even before Donald Trump became President of the United States says Professor Elie Podeh, author and Mitvim Board member.
“Israel was ready to sign an agreement 20 to 30 years ago.” Podeh says.
He says Ehad Sneh, former Israeli Minister of Transportation, was the first politician to visit the UAE in secret in 2001 and since then there has been a lot of contact. In December of 2019 Oman, Bahrain, Morocco and the UAE signed a non-aggression pact with Israel. In 1973 the Israeli- Jordan Peace treaty was signed, and Egypt followed suit in 1979 after the signing of The Camp David Accords in 1977. Podeh says the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement has not changed much in the region. He says in order for the countries to go from secret to public engagement a breakthrough was needed.
“I don’t think the agreement is a milestone in Israeli- Arab relations, because the regional coalitions have not changed, but rather consolidated.,” Podeh says. “The UAE with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain supported Israel against Iran, what has changed is that the UAE came out into the open.”
Podeh says the acceptance of the agreement among other Arab states is dependent on Saudi Arabia, who initiated two peace agreements in 1981 and 2002, both rebuffed by Israel. But he has no doubt that Saudi Arabia, who accepted Israel along the 1967 borders, supports the agreement.
Ksenia Svetlova, senior fellow at IPS Institute for policy and strategy and former Knesset member, says the UAE will not be satisfied with just an agreement but, they want substance. On August 2, 2020, it was announced that Pluristem Therapeutics, an Israeli based cell therapy firm, and Abu Dubai Stem Cells Center signed a historic deal to develop stem cells together. The UAE is interested in Israeli innovations, investing in Israeli technology, medicine, and people arriving to have treatment in Israeli hospitals. She says the UAE is also very interested in the regional security alliance and the technology Israel and the U.S. have to offer. Svetlova says the two parties are now “dancing” because of a chain of events that had a domino effect in the region.
“Within the last two decades several things have happened such as the Arab Spring, the rise of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, the second war in Iraq and the decline of Arab states,” Svetlova says. “Starting as far back as 2002, there has been a realization that Israel is not the enemy. The Arab States should focus their efforts on resisting Iran and now Turkey with The Muslim Brotherhood.”
And for a country who is quietly known as “everyone’s mistress” within corridors of the U.N., this is an “legendary opportunity” for Israel to legitimize itself in the region Zaga says.
“We’re not only talking about legitimization for an Arab country, but a partner who holds a moderate approach to radical Islam, and symbolizes modernity and stability. So these shared world views between these two countries enabled both of them to establish their relationship on solid ground,” Zaga says.
Zaga says there are many benefits for both sides and right now Israel is touting religious visits, peace tourism, research collaboration, technology and joint ventures. Saudi Arabia has opened it’s airspace for travel between Israel and the UAE and on Monday the two countries signed a banking deal. Bahrain also agreed to open its airspace, and Morocco is expected to establish direct flights to Israel. Many branches of international corporations are in Israel and the UAE which Zaga says could lead to more open collaboration.
“It has another dimension of shaping the country as a hub for global events without the obstacles that exist today, like what we’ve seen in preparation for the Dubai Expo 2021,” Svetlova says. “Israel will find itself more engaged in the chain of opportunities already taking place in the UAE.”
And with the World Cup 2022 taking place in Qatar, Israel is positioning itself to reap rewards of geopolitical economic initiatives coming out of the Middle East as a result of COVID-19. Inserting itself into the region as a part of the Middle East is a growing sentiment among many young Israelis. In fact, The Mitvim Institute surveyed Israelis about visiting countries in the Middle East and Dr. Nimrod Goren, founder of the Mitvim Institute, says most Israelis did not want to visit any Arab country. But if they had to choose, 77% would choose the UAE over annexation of the West Bank. And when asked which component of the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement was most important, 44% of Israelis say economics.
Goren says the consensus in the Israeli government is that the UAE Peace Deal is a good thing, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized by the far left and the far right.
“Whether it comes from the left or the center left they are saying it should not be framed as anti- Palestinian or an anti two-state solution move. And the far right is critical of Netanyahu’s move to suspend annexation,” Goren says.
There will be no embassy in the UAE until there is real progress on the Palestinians issue says Svetlova. However, The American Jewish Committee announced the opening of a new office in the UAE the same week of the UAE Peace Agreement announcement. So, for now, there will be an official building with an American flag.
Podeh says the Peace Agreement was a crack in the glass ceiling, but if Israel wants to be a legitimate player in the Middle East it has to address the Palestinian issue. He says Egypt and Sudan are no longer promoting the Arab Peace Initiative also named The Saudi Initiative, but that is while Trump is in office. He predicts that if Joe Biden becomes President in November the Arab Peace Initiative may be resurrected.
“If all the Arab states normalize relations with Israel before the Palestinians and Israel sit at the table that means there is no Arab Peace Initiative,” says Podeh.
Right now, Podeh says Israel’s task is to come forward and initiate peace with the Palestinians.
“This is the time to offer something tangible to the Palestinians to see if we can go forward in tandem with The Emirates and the rest of the gulf countries.”
The achievement of Israel- UAE Peace Agreement has diverted attention away from the core problem, which Goren says is the Palestinian issue. He says since the beginning of the conflict Israelis have preferred to deal with Arabs and not Palestinian leaders which could lead to a “bubbling up of frustrations” among Palestinians.
“I think it would be very nice to visit Dubai, but Ramallah is more important,” says Goren.