It was a year ago when first media reports of an emerging normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates appeared. In late August 2020, the first official Israeli delegation visited the Gulf, and two weeks later, agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were signed at the White House.
But a lot can change in a year. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who orchestrated the agreements, never managed to fulfill his dream of an official visit to Abu Dhabi; on Sunday he flew to the United States on a personal visit as a private citizen.
So what changes have the normalization agreements produced one year on? According to the Israeli defense establishment, while a lot has changed for the better, it's not as much as initially expected.
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The move, concocted by Netanyahu, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and then-U.S. President Donald Trump broke the years-long diplomatic stalemate between Israel and the UAE. However, all three had grander goals in mind.
The agreement was supposed to pave the way for normalization agreements with many other Arab countries, first and foremost Saudi Arabia. It was supposed to consolidate a new, pro-American strategic alliance in the Middle East as a response to the Shi’ite axis led by Iran. It was also supposed to prove that Israel doesn’t need peace with the Palestinians to improve its relationships with other countries in the region.
The agreement itself was dramatic and impressive. It may have been the Trump administration’s only major diplomatic achievement in the region, and it was certainly one of the high points of Israel’s foreign policy during Netanyahu’s 12 years in office. When Morocco and Sudan later joined the normalization agreements it added even more feathers in his cap.
Nevertheless, their strategic regional impact has been limited. Israeli defense sources say the main achievements of peace with the UAE have been economic and technological. As Netanyahu hoped, Emirati sheikhs have demonstrated great interest in making large investments in Israel.
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Defense and intelligence ties between the two countries also improved, though neither country offers much information about that. Recent media reports about the activities of Israeli cyberweapon companies revealed that the UAE is a leading consumer of this Israeli technology, which is sometimes used aggressively to harm journalists and human rights activists. These deals were signed with encouragement from the government.
But any hope Israel had that the UAE would be part of a more overt alliance, and work aggressively to block Iranian moves in the region, soon dissipated. The UAE’s involvement in the Palestinian arena has also been minimal; Emirati money hasn't replaced Qatari funds in the Gaza Strip, despite growing Israeli support for the idea.
It seems that the Gulf states are being extra cautious for two reasons. First, Iran is viewed as a strong regional power that isn’t going to capitulate to Washington and isn’t afraid of attacking American and Israeli interests in the region. Second, the new U.S. administration has reduced the appetite for closer ties with Israel in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which Trump and Netanyahu had hoped would join the normalization deals.
Whlie Trump was the normalization’s main patron, current U.S. President Joe Biden is much more skeptical. These days America's focus is on the Far East and its tense relationship with China. Under these circumstances, the UAE apparently views closer public ties with Israel as a step too far.
All of this is also indirectly related to the recent dramatic developments in Central Asia – America’s gradual exit from the region, which began toward the end of the Obama administration (then characteristically flip-flopped under Trump), is accelerating under Biden. America's withdrawal from Afghanistan lead to the Afghan government’s stunningly swift capitulation to the Taliban.
The last time a quasi-military force managed to take over large swaths of a country this quickly was in summer 2014, when much of western Iraq and eastern Syria fell to ISIS. The fall of Kabul, which climaxed in the Afghan president’s flight from the capital on Sunday, is the greatest achievement an Islamist organization has racked up since.
America’s justified anger after the terror attacks of September 11 ended up costing it two failed, bloody wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden, without undue sentiment, ended two decades of failed American investment which included enormous financial cost, and the unnecessary loss of many lives.
The Biden administration is now being attacked, with some justification, for its flawed intelligence (it didn’t foresee such a rapid collapse) and its abandonment of Afghans collaborators to the mercies of the Taliban fanatics. But America’s failure there has many culprits; Biden is just the last in the chain. But it’s unlikely anyone would have acted differently in their place.
It’s easy to assail the Americans over the humiliating scenes from Kabul, which recall the pictures from America’s abandonment of Vietnam in the 1970s. But in fact, Israel did something quite similar in southern Lebanon in 2000. It, too, decided to cut its losses and left its allies behind. In Israel’s case, they were left on the other side of a fence rather than thousands of kilometers and oceans away.
There’s no doubt the scenes from Kabul are sending chills through America’s allies in the Middle East and raising questions about whether similar steps lie in store in their own neighborhood.
Predictably, some social media users said on Sunday that this proves Israel can’t count on America and must rely only on itself. It would be interesting to know whether proponents of this idea would be willing to give up Washington’s vetoes of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council or its $3.8 billion a year in military aid for self resilience.
But Israel is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. America’s ties with and Israel and its commitment to the state are completely different, as are the benefits America sees from the partnership. Still it’s clear which is the superhero and which is the sidekick.
America's reduced interest in the Middle East in favor of a turn toward the Far East is already a done deal. But that doesn’t mean the United States will leave Israel on to fend for itself.