The ceremonial pen was already on the table in the first act, when the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, explicitly gave the Israeli public an uncomplicated choice: either Israeli annexation in the West Bank or normalization.
At that point, it was already clear that all of the parties to President Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” climbed up too high the annexation tree, and that creative compromise was necessary that would help them climb down to safe ground. At least while everyone is preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s annexation plans in the West Bank are the least of their worries.
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also needed a plan that would get him down from the tall tree he had climbed on after his annexation plans sparked the harsh criticism of his own settler base. The Trump administration, which had been in a whirlwind with the Arab world and had much bigger problems to deal with than the Israeli-Palestinian issue, was also looking for a way out.
The way which for many in the international community looked most effective to solve this predicament was a scenario that Netanyahu had been eyeing for many years, and that would also permit Trump to relatively elegantly extract himself from the Middle East conundrum – an official agreement with one of the Gulf States. The UAE was the best option and the most reasonable one.
It’s no secret that the clandestine – and recently not so clandestine ties – between Israel and Gulf states, and of course not just the UAE, have existed for a considerable time. There was the backdrop of shared tensions with Iran as well as overt and covert economic and technological cooperation. The effort to make these ties public is also not new. But the plan to annex parts of the West Bank is what ultimately created this new opportunity to entice all the parties involved to move forward together to the next step. For the UAE, annexation presented the chance to reveal the ties with Israel in a process that would actually be greeted in the Arab world, or at least in parts of it, as an achievement.
And so, after several rounds of testing the waters to find a suitable way to disclose Israel-UAE realtions, Ambassador Al-Otaiba eventually put it openly on the table. The reactions were positive and from there, things progressed more quickly, and included meetings between the two parties and a large number of flights en route from Israel to the Persian Gulf.
Now Netanyahu can present a “historic agreement,” while annexation, as a practical matter, has been taken off the table – despite the prime minister's claims that it has only been “temporarily suspended.” The UAE is considered the party that put a halt to the annexation plan with the applause of the international community. And the Americans can boast that this time their “peace plan” really did lead to a kind of peace.
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The only ones to again be left out of the equation are the Palestinians. While some Palestinian Authority officials say that in any case the Gulf State has been nurturing tight relations with Israel and halting West Bank annexation is a worthy cause, the most common stance among many is that the UAE betrayed the Palestinians for removing a plan that existed only in theory off the table while the Israeli occupation continues. They say that Netanyahu's insistence that annexation will take place in the future only proves their claim.
In the meantime, Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan are observing from the sidelines, with the only thing left for them is to welcome this new development. When Haaretz inquired Kahol Lavan and Foreign Ministry officials about the possible signing of an agreement with the UAE prior to Trump's announcement that a deal has been finalized, it seemed they had no idea what they were being asked about. What is certain, however, whether they knew about the agreement or not, is that behind the scenes it was important for Kahol Lavan to point out that if they had not put the brakes on annexation, we never would have gotten to this diplomatic breakthrough.
Kahol Lavan's opposition to a unilateral annexation certainly influenced the chain of events. But it safe to assume that Netanyahu will get all the credit since he will be the one signing the agreement.
On one of his diplomatic trips, Netanyahu was asked why he was boasting so much about nurturing diplomatic relations with other countries, given the fact that the Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s already allowed Israeli leaders to visit these countries and maintain ties.
He surprisingly confirmed that "It's true that there was already diplomatic blossoming, but added that “Their approach was that it is needed to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians to reach an agreement with them, to make peace with the Arabs and to make peace with the world.
"I've said the exact opposite – first I go to the world, and from the world I go to the Muslim Arab world and from the Muslim and Arab world, we might go to the Palestinians. That is the only way – to become so strong to make them understand that they have no choice but to compromise with us,” Netanyahu said.
Now it is up to Netanyahu to prove that his statements are true and that in fact this approach will also bring peace with the Palestinians. At the moment at least, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Ask the Palestinians. Our neighbors are in this region, if anyone stills remembers. After all, Israel has not moved to the Persian Gulf yet.