Opinion |

Israel-UAE Deal Is Peace Through Personality – and Political Opportunism

National interests and shared security priorities alone do not explain this extraordinary breakthrough, which also reflects the increasing role of strong personalities in shaping foreign policy

Abe Silberstein
Alex Leopold
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Palestinians burn cutouts depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest in Nablus against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalize relations, on August 14, 2020.
Palestinians burn cutouts depicting U.S. President Donald Trump and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest in Nablus.Credit: Raneen Sawafta / Reuters
Abe Silberstein
Alex Leopold

The normalization agreement reached last week between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, brokered by the Trump administration, is a diplomatic achievement for all the parties involved. The U.S. has brought two of its close allies in the region together; Israel has garnered diplomatic recognition from a third Arab state without making territorial concessions to the Palestinians; and the UAE has strengthened its own regional position and enhanced its reputation in Washington on both sides of the aisle. All three oppose Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

Yet national interests and shared security priorities alone do not explain this extraordinary breakthrough. The deal also reflects the increasing role of strong personalities in shaping foreign policy, often in reaction to domestic political concerns, as well as the marginalization of the Palestinian predicament in service of an outside-in approach that promises to accelerate official Arab political recognition of Israel.

PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAE

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It is hard to conceive of this deal, which saw Israel indefinitely “suspend” its annexation plans for parts of the West Bank, coming together if the three leaders involved were not Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mohammed bin Zayed. Each of these actors is a singular figure in their countries’ respective histories. All three lead governments in thrall to their whims, generally unencumbered by the old dictums which their predecessors followed.

It should come as no surprise that Trump sought to make a grand show of the agreement. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on his approval ratings; a recent poll showed that Joe Biden leads him by a double-digit margin with less than three months before the election.

While it seems unlikely that this agreement will reverse the Trump campaign’s fortunes, any good news for the president that distracts from the pandemic and the attendant political crisis is most welcome at the White House. That the campaign of his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, was forced to acknowledge the magnitude of the agreement, is an indication of how politically valuable this agreement is to the Trump team. Trump is no tactician; he never envisioned his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan being traded in for an agreement between Israel and the UAE. More likely, he saw it was in his political interests to jettison the work of his Middle East team in favor of a more modest and achievable diplomatic win.

While neither Netanyahu nor MbZ have hollowed out their governing institutions to the extent Trump has done to, say, the State Department or the United States Postal Service, they have each assumed almost total command of their nations’ foreign policies – so much so that their very image is part of the package. In the three recent election campaigns, Netanyahu’s Likud Party placed billboards overlooking the country’s highways showing the prime minister standing with different world leaders (Trump and Vladimir Putin, for example) with the slogan “Netanyahu, In A Different League.” Underscoring this prime minister’s exceptional role in Israel, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, the defense and foreign ministers, respectively, were reportedly not told about the agreement until minutes before it was announced.

Unlike the U.S. and Israel, the UAE has never been a democracy. Still, MbZ’s style of governance and overarching leadership persona are unprecedented for the country. The chances of anyone successfully taking advantage of the UAE’s relationship with Israel to damage MbZ are close to zero. The same cannot be said yet for Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who must still contend with his father, the King Salman.

This deal was also the product of domestic political considerations for Netanyahu and MbZ, both of whom could benefit from a major move to paper over recent missteps and enhance their reputations at home.

In Israel, the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has cemented a sea change in the priorities of the Israeli voter. With only 4 percent of Israelis valuing annexation above all else – and his party Likud losing 10 projected Knesset seats since May – Netanyahu has now skillfully taken back control of the public agenda. He may even succeed in convincing some of his base that annexation is not off the table, despite clear signals from Washington and Abu Dhabi that it most definitely is.

Similarly, with a stalemate in Libya, where the UAE supports Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which has experienced recent battlefield defeats to Turkish-backed forces supporting the Government of National Accord, MbZ needed a boost ahead of more campaigns against his regional foes – a group which includes not only Iran but Turkey, Qatar, and Islamists who pose a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Arab monarchies. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears MbZ’s move has not hurt him at home but reinforced his standing as an irreplaceable statesman.

The power of these individual leaders, motivated by their domestic concerns, also managed to finally dislodge the Palestinian issue from a place of prominence in all three capitals. The Arab consensus, represented by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, whereby Israel was expected to make peace with the Palestinians before it received recognition from the Arab world, is now shattered. Any belief in Washington and Israel that the Palestinian issue must necessarily come before Israel could enter alliances with Arab states is likewise undermined.

The tripartite deal clearly advances the interests of the U.S., Israel, and the UAE, but it is the result of political opportunism and not farsighted statecraft. Still, the deal may be more significant in what it reveals about the peculiar decision-making process in Washington, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem. The Palestinian cause, once so potent in the Arab world and a major concern in Washington, appears to be one of the first victims. The world waits with bated breath to see which sacred cow will be run down next.

Abe Silberstein's work on Israel and U.S.-Israel relations has previously appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Haaretz, and The Forward.

Alex Leopold, a student at Binghamton University, is a former intern at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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