The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has been presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu primarily as the opening of a window on economic opportunities and markets to Israeli companies, and that will officially establish cooperation in research, medicine and high-tech between the two countries.
It is doubtless also a diplomatic agreement that holds potential for peace agreements with other Arab countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said this week that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a matter of “inevitability,” and although no date was mentioned, neither did the Saudis issue a denial.
PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAE
This is not only a bilateral agreement. It brings Israel into an axis of countries that are involved militarily and diplomatically in wars and moves in the Middle East, and as such it also makes Israel a target. It is an axis that is usually described as anti-Iranian, but this is a limited and not entirely precise definition.
The UAE has over the past five years become a mini-regional power, which has taken part in the war in Yemen and worked in Libya together with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia against Turkey and Qatar. It has renewed diplomatic ties with President Bashar Assad’s Syria, and has planned with Israel, Egypt and Lebanon construction of a gas pipeline from Israeli, Egyptian, Cypriot and Lebanese fields to Italy.
Meanwhile, the latter project has been suspended because of the drop in gas prices and the coronavirus crisis, but it has not been canceled. It is intended to compete with and even hurt the Turkish project to pipe oil and gas from Libya to Europe after the signing of a strategic alliance between Turkey and Libya. The tension between Turkey and the UAE is not new.
Turkey and the UAE, which until a decade ago had close ties, with trade between them estimated at about $7 billion a year, have become so mutually hostile that the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, described Turkey as the most dangerous enemy in the region to Arab countries. When Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE imposed an economic embargo on Qatar three years ago, it was Turkey that came to Qatar’s aid with an urgent airlift of food and other essentials, establishing a military base at Doha and condemning the UAE for its actions against Qatar.
Turkey, which has taken the Muslim Brotherhood under its wing, as opposed to the UAE, which considers it an enemy and a terror organization, is now trying to involve itself in the rehabilitation of Lebanon. It has raised suspicions in the UAE that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to pull the rug out from under Saudi Arabia, which so far has been the patron of the Sunnis in Lebanon.
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It should come as no surprise that Erdogan’s response to the agreement between the UAE and Israel was even harsher than Iran’s. He said last week that he was considering cutting ties with Abu Dhabi, while Iran has condemned the move but not gone as far as to threaten cutting ties. The reason is that Iran needs the UAE as a country of passage for merchandise and the UAE hosts some 3,000 Iranian companies, many of which are under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. Interestingly, Erdogan wants to punish the UAE, when Turkey itself has a diplomatic mission in Israel.
The Palestinians, who seem now to be the big losers in this agreement, can’t claim that they were surprised or betrayed. The cold shoulder they have gotten from Arab countries, the Arab League’s disregard of its pledge to give the Palestinian Authority about $100 million a month, the cessation of diplomatic pressure on Israel by leading Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Arabs’ relative silence in the face of the American move of its embassy to Jerusalem and its recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights, are not an outcome of the past year. The Arab peace initiative, which was approved in 2002 at the Arab League summit in Beirut, had become irrelevant, and now, in light of the step taken by the UAE, it has passed away.
According to the Arab peace initiative, normalization with Israel was to happen only if Israel withdrew from all of the occupied territories, including the Golan Heights. The suspension of annexation certainly can’t be a prerequisite for implementation of the Arab initiative, and it seems that Saudi Arabia has already released itself from the bonds of the initiative that bears its name. The Palestinian Authority, which rejected shipments of medical aid from the UAE by planes that landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport “so as not to serve as a bridge of normalization with Israel,” finds itself watching a glittering normalization show.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas did recall the Palestinian ambassador in Abu Dhabi and call for a special meeting of the Arab League, but he knows he can’t go too far, because some 150,000 Palestinians work and live in the UAE, most of them in Dubai, and the money they send back to the West Bank is an important component of the West Bank’s economy. But the Israeli satisfaction over the isolation of the Palestinians can’t conceal the elephant in the living room of the West Bank and Gaza. When the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan could not prevent the outbreak of the intifadas in the territories or calm the Gaza Strip, neither can an agreement with the UAE absolve Israel of responsibility for life in the occupied territories.