Opinion

UAE’s Unique Leverage Over Israel Buried Annexation to Enable Normalization

The UAE-Israel deal is great news for the United States. This is how the Emiratis, and Jared Kushner, helped Netanyahu climb down from his annexation talk – and how Israel won an outsized diplomatic payoff

Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro
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Left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right: Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right: Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.Credit: AFP
Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro

When the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, decided to publish an op-ed in Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot in mid-June, his intent was to influence the Israeli debate on West Bank annexation.

The op-ed hit its mark. Al-Otaiba’s unprecedented, unmediated address got Israelis’ attention and dominated political conversations for days. But he did more than that. He also opened the door to a major step forward in breaking down barriers in Israeli-Arab ties, realized this week with the surprise announcement that Israel and the UAE had reached agreement to normalize relations

Prior to the article’s publication, such an announcement was not a realistic near-term prospect. Al-Otaiba attended the unveiling of President Trump’s Vision for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in January. But the UAE and other Arab states had quickly cooled to the suggestion that Israel would immediately and unilaterally annex the territories designated for it in the Trump plan, before any negotiations had taken place.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a coalition agreement that allowed him to bring annexation to a Knesset or government vote on his own after July 1, a wide array of forces aligned to express opposition: the Palestinians, Jordan, the Arab League, European nations, U.S. Democrats, other Israeli political leaders, and even some West Bank settlers who viewed the territories to be annexed as insufficient and unacceptable if accompanied by a Palestinian state. All of these voices contributed to annexation’s stall.

But the UAE had unique leverage. As the Arab state that has gone furthest in establishing a wide range of unofficial contacts with Israel, quietly nurtured and encouraged through several U.S. administrations and increasingly acknowledged openly, the UAE’s goodwill could not be doubted. What al-Otaiba placed before Israel, in straightforward, respectful language, was a stark choice: annexation or normalization. 

Yousef al Otaiba addresses Israelis on annexation in a video made for The National.
Yousef al Otaiba addresses Israelis on annexation in a video made for The National.Credit: Screenshot / Twitter / The National

While the article extolled in detail the ongoing, and even greater potential, cooperation between Israel and the UAE in water, technology, health, security, business, and many other fields, the core message was in its opening lines: "Recently, Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction."

You must choose, al-Otaiba told Israelis.

The article created an opportunity, explored in conversations between al-Otaiba and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. Among Trump’s team, Kushner was known to be unenthusiastic about precipitous annexation, and was more focused on the potential regional benefits of Trump’s initiative. He and al-Otaiba discussed the possibility of a non-belligerency agreement between the UAE and Israel as an off-ramp to annexation. 

As the Israelis were brought into the discussions, they sought a higher diplomatic payoff. Over the course of the next six weeks, they decided, in effect, to take al-Otaiba’s deal: normalization instead of annexation. The UAE, which saw its own benefits in cementing ties with a regional partner it is aligned with against Iran, was able to achieve an outcome they believe serves their interests anyway, while preventing Israel from making a damaging mistake.

Senior Advisor Jared Kushner listens while President Donald Trump announces an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, the White House, August 13, 2020.
Senior Advisor Jared Kushner listens while President Donald Trump announces an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, the White House, August 13, 2020.Credit: AFP

Al-Otaiba is today reaping bipartisan plaudits in Washington. It has been a long-term strategic goal of Democratic and Republican administrations to pursue normalization between Israel and Arab states. This breakthrough is good news for the United States, and it was warmly welcomed by both the Trump administration and former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign.

But it brought additional benefits to the United States, by burying any chance of unilateral annexation in the West Bank. That is also good news.

Some question how solid the Israeli commitment to withhold annexation is. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israelis following the announcement that he still intends to proceed with annexation "in full coordination with the United States." But officials involved in the discussions tell me that there is a much more specific, longer-term Israeli commitment. 

That only makes sense. After making the stark choice al-Otaiba presented and reaping normalization, it is impossible to imagine Israel publicly humiliating the UAE’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), by reviving annexation. (An earlier crisis between the two countries, following Israel’s presumed 2010 assassination of a Hamas operative in Dubai, which infuriated MBZ, took two years and intensive American diplomatic efforts to overcome.) 

Besides, Trump himself said annexation is "off the table," and Biden has repeatedly stated his strong opposition. So annexation in full coordination with the United States is a dead letter.

Tel Aviv city hall is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag to mark the dramatic announcement regarding bilateral relations and normalization, August 13, 2020.
Tel Aviv city hall is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag to mark the dramatic announcement regarding bilateral relations and normalization, August 13, 2020.Credit: AFP

Unilateral annexation should never have been floated in connection with the Trump Mideast plan, as even Trump seems to have belatedly realized. Besides putting any remaining chance for a two-state outcome to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at grave risk, it placed the Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan in jeopardy. Its removal from the table is a welcome reprieve, and also an opportunity.

Now, other parts of the Trump plan that represent a distortion of a realistic two-state outcome should be shelved. The United States, instead, should build on the Israel-UAE announcement to restore U.S. leadership toward a credible two-state outcome that ensures Israel’s security and its Jewish and democratic future, and fulfills Palestinians rights to dignity and self-determination in a viable state of their own.

Expanding Israeli-Arab ties can be mobilized in the service of this critical goal. Palestinians will have to play their part, recognizing that trends in the region can create opportunities for them, but not if they stay on the sidelines.

Some see an abandonment of the Palestinian cause, but that is illogical and at odds with a proper understanding of U.S. interests.

The United States did not withhold its support for the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties with Israel because the Palestinian issue remained unresolved. It welcomed the progress those agreements represented and their positive effect on U.S. interests, and tried to use them to generate progress toward a two-state solution, which remains a critical U.S. interest as well. It should do so once again.

With strong American diplomatic leadership, there is no reason that fulfilling the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians through negotiations, eliciting productive steps and preventing harmful unilateral actions by both sides, advancing Israeli-Arab ties, and enhancing Arab support for the Palestinians should be considered incompatible goals.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

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