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How the UAE and Saudi Arabia Now Hold Israel Hostage

The UAE and Saudi Arabia now have significant leverage over Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. And Riyadh is Israel’s real prize

Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh
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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
Elie Podeh.
Elie Podeh

The Zionist movement’s foreign policy was "to dismiss the Arabs of the Land of Israel and bypass their leaders in the search for solutions with leaders in neighboring states." That was the considered opinion of Gad Frumkin, a judge on the Supreme Court of Mandatory Palestine and grandfather of 1990s Shin Bet Chief Carmi Gilon. 

Sounds familiar? Indeed, the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a prime example of this school of thought.

Since its founding, Israel has operated in two contradictory directions in its strategy towards other states in the Middle East. The first direction was focused on efforts to resolve the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict, i.e. the conflict with the Palestinians, based on the assumption that this would facilitate the participation of Arab states in the process. The other direction was to strive for agreements with Arab states in the hopes that removing them from the conflict would weaken the Palestinians and force them to the negotiating table. 

Throughout most of the conflict, Israel has opted for the first policy.

The clandestine ties between Israel and the UAE date to the early days of the 21st century and were conducted by representatives of Israel’s Mossad and other defense agencies. Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh was the first senior Israeli politician to visit Dubai secretly in 2001. The goal was to establish intelligence and security links to counter the Iranian threat. 

Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, on August 16, 2020.
Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, on August 16, 2020.Credit: AFP

A major change occurred following the 2004 death of UAE Federation President Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and the rise of a younger, more daring and pro-Western generation, especially of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known by his acronym, MBZ. Initial indications of change emerged in 2005 during Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, with the involvement of an Emirati tycoon in a scheme to purchase Jewish settlement greenhouses and sell them to Palestinians in Gaza. Media exposure jettisoned the deal. 

Tzipi Livni, who served as Foreign Minister (2006-2009) in the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also maintained good relations with MBZ. WikiLeaks documents cite a senior Israeli diplomat as saying that the Emiratis "believe Israel can work magic" in Washington. Indeed, belief in the influence of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. has always constituted an important motivation for Arab states in seeking relations with Israel, and the UAE is no exception.

In 2009, then-Mossad Director Meir Dagan suggested to incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel sell drones to the Emirates in return for its cooperation against Iran. Netanyahu approved the transaction, but it did not materialize due to concerns over the leak of advanced U.S./Israeli technology, as well as internal Israeli turf wars. 

Then Israel’s 2010 Dubai hotel assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas operative charged with smuggling weapons from Iran to Gaza, soured relations between the sides. It took two years of covert contacts between Israel and the UAE, facilitated by the US, to reach understandings on the rules of the game.

Relations grew closer following the 2011 Arab Spring and the growing instability it generated in the region, the strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood and increasing concern over Iran’s nuclear program in the wake of its 2015 deal with the Obama administration. Israel scored a major diplomatic achievement in 2015 when the Emirates agreed to Israeli representation at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) established in 2009. The Israeli representative provided an important "peephole" into developments in the Gulf.

Since his 2008 appointment as UAE Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba has played an important role in consolidating relations with the American Jewish community and Israel. In June 2020, he wrote a landmark op-ed piece in the Hebrew-language Yediot Ahronoth newspaper warning Israel about the potential repercussions of annexation in the West Bank. The headline, "Annexation or Normalization," served as the opening shot of secret negotiations that culminated in the agreement.

The agreement itself is a prime example of a win-win diplomatic achievement. For Israel, it is an official agreement with a third Arab state, following Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), at relatively little cost. 

Giving up the annexation plan, a concession Netanyahu claims is temporary, was in any case an admission that the ambition was dead in the water. President Donald Trump, for his part, hopes to capitalize on the deal to boost his election campaign, while the Emirates is portraying itself as the savior of the Palestinians from the annexation threat. The Palestinians, and others, are obviously not buying this claim. 

Palestinian protesters tear apart a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound at a protest against the Israel - UAE agreement, August 14, 2020.
Palestinian protesters tear apart a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound at a protest against the agreement, August 14, 2020. Credit: AFP

The Emirati interest lies in positioning itself as a key Middle Eastern and Arab player, as evidenced by its involvement in recent years in Yemen, and far-off Libya and Somalia. Agreement with Israel also positions the UAE as a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From now on, any Israeli measure potentially harmful to the Palestinians, such as annexation for example, could result in abrogation of the peace pact. To a certain extent, Israel will be "hostage" to its Arab affairs policy. 

Other Arab states are rumored to be waiting in the wings to follow the UAE, for example Bahrain that has also conducting broad clandestine ties with Israel over the past two decades, and Oman, which has been secretly dealing with Israel since the 1970s, and where Netanyahu visited in October 2018. However, Oman’s veteran leader Sultan Qaboos has since passed away, after 50 years in power, and his successor might not be as bold as Qaboos was. 

Observers of the Israel-Arab conflict have long argued that the glass ceiling of relations between Israel and the Arab world cannot be broken unless the Palestinian problem is resolved, or at least significant progress is made toward resolving it. The agreement with the Emirates, and possibly with others states, completely undermines this fundamental concept.

It is still too early to draw far-reaching conclusions, but several thoughts come to mind. 

First, the Emirati move was not without a quid-pro-quo in Palestinian currency.

Netanyahu was forced to renege on a pledge that was the foundation stone of his doctrine. While the concession stemmed from an admission that annexation was not truly feasible, and while it in no way advances a solution to the conflict, it is similar in importance to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from its Gaza Strip settlements by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. If Netanyahu cannot carry off West Bank annexation, no right-wing leader can. 

Second, the move by the UAE undoubtedly constitutes a crack in the glass ceiling, but not its break.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019.Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS

The clear and significant sign that it has been smashed will be given by Saudi Arabia, the heavy-weight of the Gulf players in terms of its influence and importance in the Arab and Muslim world, if and when it agrees to normalize relations without any progress on the Palestinian front. The Saudis undoubtedly back the Emirati decision, and they also officially recognize Israel within its 1967 borders, but they are unlikely to give up this card without a significant Israeli concession. 

Third, the glass ceiling with the Arab world is still intact as far as the public is concerned. Popular Arab opposition to Israel is alive and well, the result of various factors, including failure to resolve the Palestinian problem. Therefore, if Israel wants full recognition as a regional player it must address the core of the conflict.

Israel is wrong to seek agreement with Arab states while circumventing the Palestinians. Its attempt to isolate and weaken the Palestinians could end in the Palestinians being pushed towards violent struggle as a last resort. Israel will then claim that the Palestinians have reverted to violence once again, ignoring its own role in this deterioration. 

The agreement with the Emirates – significant as it is – must be accompanied by an Israeli initiative for resolving the Palestinian issue. It would be nice to visit Dubai, but Ramallah is more important.

Prof. Elie Podeh teaches at Hebrew University’s Islamic and Middle East Studies department, and is a Board Member of Mitvim. His latest book "From Mistress to Known Partner: Israel’s Secret Relations with States and Minorities in the Middle East," (in Hebrew) will be published by Am Oved

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