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What Israel's Arab Allies Have to Lose From Its Deals With Gulf States

Egypt and Jordan enjoy their own share of benefits from the UAE, and playing all together may downgrade their power

Zvi Bar'el
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King Abdullah of Jordan at a conference with Egypt and Iraq in Amman, August 2020.
King Abdullah of Jordan at a conference with Egypt and Iraq in Amman, August 2020.Credit: AFP
Zvi Bar'el

Osama Saraya, a prominent Egyptian journalist, published an extraordinary article in Al-Ahram Wednesday in defense of the peace agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. “The new agreement is the strong back that will protect what is left of the Palestinian territories and Arab Jerusalem,” he writes.

The article develops into a forceful speech that perhaps reflects the spirit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi: "We were astounded by the unwise conduct of the Palestinians who hurled their hostility and turned to the Arab League, seeking a denouncement ... The Palestinians are positioning themselves against the Arab interests and in favor of the Iranian-Turkish axis, and they are trying to revive that which is dead and expired. The Palestinian Authority has become a collection of offices in Beirut and Damascus. It has forgotten the crimes of Hamas and the murder of Palestinians committed by the organization… It was quite the funny sight when the head of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, visited the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and surveyed their weapons, knowing full well that this was Iranian weaponry, while he threatened [war] and thereby infringed on the sovereignty of the country suffering from the tragedy of the Beirut port.”

Saraya, who was the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram when the protests of the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, often criticized the protesters and called them hooligans and rioters, but right after Mubarak was ousted, he was among the first to support the revolution with the headline “The people have overthrown the regime.” Toeing the regime’s line is not something new to him. Saraya’s latest piece reflects a dual dilemma: How are Egyptian intellectuals, and Arabs in general, supposed to relate to the peace agreements given their "betrayal"of Arab unity? And how should they relate from now on to the Palestinian issue?

In Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries, these two dilemmas are interwoven with the regime's relationship firstly to the media and secondly to Gulf states. Egypt is a powerful ally of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It has benefited from billions of dollars of investment and bank deposits since Sisi took power in 2013, after he ousted Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE has funded a large portion of New Cairo, the city that became a symbol of renewal and development but is increasingly looking like a white elephant. The UAE also helped to develop projects in northern Sinai as part of Egypt’s campaign against militant groups there. It is also involved in the Egyptian war against the Libyan government, and Egypt is part of the Saudi coalition fighting a war against the Houthi in Yemen.

In turn, the Egyptian regime must uphold the UAE’s reputation and suppress any criticism against it. Such economic and military interest take precedence over the pan-Arab value that calls for saving Palestine from the Israeli occupation.

)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House after they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani at the White House in Washington, D.C., September 15, 2020.Credit: SAUL LOEB - AFP

Jordan’s situation is similar. Last year, it received a $300 million grant from the UAE for education and health. It has received some $1.5 billion in support over the last few years, in addition to the $1 billion sent back annually by Jordanians who work in the UAE. In Jordan, as in Egypt, the agreements were given straightforward coverage without any critical commentary or analysis, as per the instructions of the Jordanian Minister of Information and Communications.

At the same time, the leaders of both these countries are apprehensive about the new peace agreements. Up to now, Egypt and Jordan were Washington’s “favorites” and received diplomatic backing as well as generous financial support. Egypt because of Camp David and Jordan because of its close security cooperation with Israel. More importantly, their special relationships with Israel gave them leverage concerning Jerusalem’s conduct in the West Bank and Gaza and the holy sites that are under Jordan’s official patronage.

Troubled waters

Egyptian analysts are now cautiously speculating that as more countries join Israel’s circle of friends, Egypt’s influence vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East as a whole will dwindle.

This fear was boosted by reports of the UAE pressuring Sudan to accelerate its normalization with Israel. According to Arab media reports, the UAE pledged to send the impoverished country hundreds of millions of dollars, while Israel has promised to aid Sudan with the development of agricultural infrastructure. Until now, Egypt oversaw the Arab-Sudan axis as part of its dispute with Ethiopia over construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the division of water in the three countries. Egypt fears that the UAE’s involvement in Sudan could lend it the status of mediator and force upon it a policy that could harm its interests.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at Hosni Mubarak's funeral in Cairo, February 2020.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at Hosni Mubarak's funeral in Cairo, February 2020.Credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

Since the agreements may not be criticized, the media turned instead to the sphere of “threats and dangers.” There, for example, they mention the memorandum of understandings signed between the Israeli company who owns the Eilat Port (owned by Shlomo Fogel) and the Emirati logistics company DP World of Dubai. The memo is about cooperation and the possibility of channeling merchandise from the Emirates via Eilat, and then the ports of Haifa and Ashdod. It also mentions that Emirati company’s plan to bid for Israel Shipyards, which is up for privatization.

In Egypt, these reports are already raising waves of alarm over the threat to business in the Suez Canal. A few years ago Egypt launched an expansion of the canal that cost billions of dollars. The Egyptian president had promised the expansion would increase the trade volume and that large commercial centers and industrial projects would be built on the canal’s banks. Since then, maritime transportation in the canal has decreased, income has plummeted and the grand projects have remained mostly on paper. What will happen to that income if the Emirates decides to bypass the Suez Canal? There are no concrete estimates yet, but there is certainly fear.

Jordan fears that the agreement with the Emirates and later with Saudi Arabia would exclude Jordan from its special status as sponsor of the holy sites in Jerusalem and turn Saudi Arabia into the landlord of all Islam’s holy sites.

But even before that, it will be interesting to see how the Palestinian worshippers treat the guests from the Gulf, and whether the latter are subjected to the same restrictions that Israel imposes on worshippers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Mixed signals

“The Arab world finds itself in a black hole, which will swallow the Arab states rushing to normalize relations with Israel,” said an article in Al-Khaleej Al-Jadeed site published in Qatar. Among the states listed in the article is Syria, “which has oppressed its citizens for decades under the flag of resistance and hostility to Zionism, but lately the regime sent signals indicating it hopes that boarding the Israeli train would absolve it from the awful crimes it committed against humanity, and that in exchange for normalization with Israel it would receive normalization with the world.”

It’s hard to find Syrian signals of normalization with Israel. The only official spokeswoman who referred to the issue was Bouthaina Shaaban, President Assad’s adviser, who said last month that “she didn’t understand what the UAE sees in the normalization with Israel,” as Israel has violated all the agreements that have been signed with it.

Syrian President BasharAssad gestures while speaking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their talks in Damascus, September 7, 2020.
Syrian President BasharAssad gestures while speaking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during their talks in Damascus, September 7, 2020.Credit: AP

Her words were interpreted as a feeble response, especially compared to the denunciation by the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Iran and other states. Assad himself was expected to issue much harsher condemnations, but the Syrian president kept mum. The reason is that the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and paved the way to resuming diplomatic relations between Syria and the Arab states and to bringing back Syria to the Arab League.

It is very unlikely that Assad would suddenly embark on a path of normalization with Israel. It is even more doubtful whether he’d find a partner in Israel, because unlike the UAE and Bahrain, peace with Syria has a price that Israel would never pay.

The agreements raise an important issue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. General clauses stipulate that the sides will act together to achieve an agreed upon solution to the conflict, one that would answer the “legitimate needs and aspirations of both nations,” a solution that is “just, comprehensive, realistic and viable.” It is not known if the detailed agreements include an agreed interpretation of these terms, and what a “realistic solution” means.

Do the Emirates and Bahrain accept the current reality of Israeli settlements? Do they plan on setting up a new forum that will include the Palestinians to bring about the implementation of Trump’s plan? Will the Emirates replace Qatar and Turkey as Hamas’ “protectors” and financers, to complete the move to block Iran?

The Israeli joy at the Palestinians’ “defeat” may yet again turn out to be premature. The Gulf states are giving Israel what Israel had agreed to give the Palestinians: economic peace. Eventually, Israel may be forced to pay in diplomatic-strategic currency as well.

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