Analysis

Israel's Deal With the UAE Spells New Conditions for Ties With Arab States

The agreement links Israeli annexation of the West Bank to negotiations with Palestinians. It also gives the green light to Bahrain, Oman and Qatar to advance their own private deals with Israel

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man reads a copy of UAE-based The National newspaper near the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure and building in the world since 2009, in the gulf emirate of Dubai, August 14, 2020
A man reads a copy of UAE-based The National newspaper near the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure and building in the world since 2009, in the gulf emirate of Dubai, August 14, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The extent and substance of the agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is still unclear. It should be clarified whether the two countries will have full diplomatic relations (as Israel has with Jordan and Egypt), or modest representative offices (as in Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar) along with formalization of existing ties and trade.

But no matter the scope of the agreement, it redefines the equation of ties between Israel and the Arab world.

Jordan had warned Israel that annexation of the West Bank would undermine its own peace treaty, but this threat did not make a major impression on Israel. Instead, Israel made concessions on annexation to the UAE, which even without a formal agreement does not pose a security threat to it. And as a side note - although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adamantly denies that another election is on the horizon in Israel, the timing of this diplomatic development says otherwise.

The UAE is purportedly offering Israel a different approach to negotiations. Rather than threats, boycotts or sanctions, it is offering formal ties in exchange for a diplomatic commitment. It's a handshake that will transform the UAE into another partner in the peace process with the Palestinians, when and if such talks resume.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha'loob Al Derai, the President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation in Abu Dhabi, Oct. 27, 2018.
Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha'loob Al Derai, the President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation in Abu Dhabi, Oct. 27, 2018.Credit: Kamran Jebreili,AP

The UAE can chalk up an initial achievement not only in taking annexation off the table for Palestinians, but in checking the dispute at the White House between Jared Kushner, who opposes annexation, and U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who wants it immediately.

Annexation of portions of the West Bank is part of U.S. President Donald Trump's peace plan, but only if carried out as part of the entire package. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, both hold this position. They warned Netanyahu against unilateral annexation that is not coordinated with the United States, and Netanyahu acceded. If Trump wins the elections and keeps to his plan, he will be bound to the political condition that the Israel-UAE deal creates, as will Netanyahu.

Netanyahu may claim, justifiably, that the new agreement with the UAE doesn’t preclude annexation. However, he will be unable to advance annexation without addressing negotiations with the Palestinians, and annexation without negotiations would threaten the deal. Thus, the UAE created a link between the Trump plan, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and unilateral annexation.

But while the agreement stops the Israeli march toward annexation, it does not bear good tidings for the Palestinians. Israel’s shaky relations with the Palestinians will persist long after the agreement and for as long as Netanyahu is prime minister. Mahmoud Abbas, who called the said the agreement is betrayal, received additional proof of the disintegration of the Arab consensus.

Palestinians take part in a protest against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Nablus, August 14, 2020.
Palestinians take part in a protest against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Nablus, August 14, 2020.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS

Netanyahu can perhaps be satisfied with the profound collapse of the relevance of the “Palestinian problem,” whose place has been filled by more threatening conflicts and bloody wars. That being said, the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere, and the opening of Israeli offices in Abu Dhabi will do nothing for its clashes with Gaza and crisis in the West Bank.

The trivial question that arose Thursday is what does Israel have to gain from this agreement, and what are its advantages over the status quo. Besides opening one of the most important Arab nations to Israeli trade, through which it could find paths to other Arab and Muslim countries, the UAE is involved in almost every diplomatic and military conflict in the region, including with Iran.

The UAE opened a diplomatic office in Syria this year, is militarily involved in the war in Libya, has been Saudi Arabia’s partner in Yemen and is a big supporter of the Sudanese regime. But most significantly, over 3,000 Iranian businesses operate in the UAE, and Iran and the UAE have a joint defense agreement. Israel and Abu Dhabi see eye-to-eye on putting the brakes on Iranian influence in the region. While the UAE prefers quiet diplomacy, Israel works on political and military opposition. Iran has already expressed anger over the agreement, but it can live peacefully with many countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel without demanding that they cut those ties.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba in Abu Dhabi, January 13, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba in Abu Dhabi, January 13, 2019.Credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL

The de facto UAE ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, has managed to raise his country to a standing that overshadows Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman became persona non grata in Washington – and recently triggered fears because of his close relations with China and Russia and his ambition to develop a nuclear program.

The UAE’s position and influence allows it to run an independent foreign policy, not needing the nod of its sister states in the Gulf. At the same time, the deal gives Oman, Bahrain and Qatar the green light to advance their own private deals with Israel. These countries – which have hosted Israeli representatives and mediated between Israel and Hamas – are likely next in line for a diplomatic agreement.

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