Barely hours had passed from the official announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates were to embark on open diplomatic relations until PR flacks for Israeli companies were filling up the inboxes of reporters with pitches for stories on how they were already active in the Emirati market. Forty-eight hours later, the first public business deal had already been signed between Israel’s Tera Group and UAE’s APEX investment fund on joint research into Covid-19 treatments, a deal which had obviously been in the works, if not agreed upon, long before the diplomatic breakthrough.
The eagerness of the business communities in both countries to come out was rivaled only by that of government ministers on both sides to call up their counterparts, on lines which were suddenly opened to direct phone-calls, and then rush to tell the press they had spoken. Online, Israelis and Emiratis competed in posting greetings in broken Arabic and Hebrew, and just over the weekend, seven thousand Emirati accounts began to follow the Israeli Foreign Ministry on Twitter
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This is very different than the peace agreements Israel signed in the past with Egypt and Jordan, which were not followed-up by this kind of open love-fest. After long decades of peace along the Egyptian and Jordanian borders, Israel’s relationships with the two neighbors it has diplomatic ties with are still based mainly on secret security relations and are almost totally lacking in warmth or openness.
While the exact terms and timetable have yet to be determined, there is something very different to this engagement with the UAE. At least on the surface, it seems more natural and easy-going, as if this is not an entirely new agreement, but rather, the consummation of a relationship both sides have been working on for a while and a realization of joint interests.
With Egypt, Israel had fought five terrible wars in a quarter of a century. Peace, even a cold one, meant for Israel the removal of the largest Arab nation from the enemies column, with major security and economic implications. For Egypt, the agreement with Israel, ever unpopular at home, meant the return of its Sinai peninsula and a strategic relationship with the United States.
Peace with Jordan, the country with which Israel has its longest border, came in 1994 after over quarter of a century (the last major clash was the Battle of Karameh in 1968) in which not only had the countries not fought each other, they had been in a quiet security alliance. The main significance was that Jordan, the country with one of the largest Palestinian communities in the world (according to controversial data, perhaps the largest) was now a partner to Israel’s rapprochement with the Palestinians.
Last week’s announcement of normalization of ties with the UAE is a very different story. As some have pointed out, is it a bit strange calling it a “peace” agreement, since the two countries have never actually been at war with each other. But it goes way beyond that. Unlike the relations with Egypt and Jordan, not only does the Israel-UAE engagement hold the prospect of being a warm one, it is also part of a much wider geopolitical realignment.
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The engagement between Israel and the Gulf states began in earnest two and a half decades ago in the wake of the Oslo Accords and would almost have certainly intensified and come out into the open had the peace process with the Palestinians not foundered. The ties behind the scenes, however, remained strong, and grew even stronger over the past decade as the Iranian threat provided a common cause. While President Donald Trump was the one who announced the agreement between the countries last week, ironically, it was his predecessor Barack Obama’s overtures to Tehran that drew the skeptics in Jerusalem and the Gulf closer together.
The main change in the dynamic between Israel and the Arab Gulf states, perhaps with the exception of Qatar, is that these states no longer have any real connection with the Palestinian issue. That issue pales in comparison to their concerns from Iran, but the Iranian threat is far from the only incentive for improving ties with Israel. For the leaders of the Gulf nations which are trying to diversify and wean their economies off their dependency on oil and are facing acute challenges of water supply and desertification, a close working relationship with Israel offers a potential solution to multiple, urgent problems.
For decades the Israel-Arab World conflict and the Israel-Palestine conflict were very much the same thing. Peace with Egypt began the decoupling of the two conflicts, though President Anwar Sadat insisted that the Camp David agreement include also an Israeli commitment to holding “autonomy” talks with the Palestinians. It never happened, but more than a decade later, when Jordan made peace with Israel, it was fully in the Palestinian context.
The Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 was the first clear proposal of full normalization between Israel and the majority of Arab countries, and the condition was Israeli retreat from all the occupied territories. And while the Arab League has twice reaffirmed its support for the initiative, behind the scenes, many of its members have been quietly normalizing ties with Israel, irrespective of the Palestinian issue, which has gone nowhere in the past eighteen years.
Effectively, what the leader of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed, has done by making the relationship with Israel open and public, is to announce the decoupling of the Israel-Arab conflict from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Even if for appearances sake Emirati propaganda has insisted that the deal with Israel was in return for Benjamin Netanyahu relinquishing annexation of the West Bank (he already had given up on that anyway), MBZ didn’t give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas any advance warning.
MBZ is the second Arab leader, after Sadat, to reject the Palestinian cause, paying it little more than lip-service, for an open relationship with Israel, but he is now going much further than the Egyptian leader. The Emiratis are quite clearly expecting not to be alone in this and are encouraging behind the scenes other Arab and Muslim nations, including their neighbors in the Gulf, but also countries as far away as Sudan and Morocco, to follow suit. Together with Netanyahu, MBZ has formed a club, under the auspices of Donald Trump, a man who is totally ignorant of diplomacy and the Middle East but knows a thing or two about country clubs.
Ultimately, just like any other club, the success of “Club M-BB-Z” will be in its attractiveness to new members. Will other nations in the region ask to join under the same terms - Alignment with the United States, open normalization with Israel, only empty gestures towards the Palestinians and fierce opposition to Iran and its proxies in the region, as well as other rivals such as Turkey? That remains to be seen, but it’s already clear that Netanyahu and Bin Zayed are hoping to achieve much more than just a mutually beneficial relationship between their two countries.
The Israeli-Emirati deal is an attempt to establish a group of like-minded nations in the Middle East and achieve a regional geopolitical reshuffle in which confronting Iran, promoting tech and establishing trade relations, trump any real notion of solidarity with the Palestinians.