“We’d like to believe that Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see a huge potential in having warmer relations. A decision by Israel to annex will be an unmistakable sign indicating whether Israel views matters the same way,” wrote Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador in Washington in an article published by Yedioth Ahronoth.
This statement embodies the concept that guides not only the Emirates, but most Arab countries. On one hand, Israel is an established fact, a potential and even practical partner in the struggle against Iran’s influence in the region and against radical Islam. It is vital for affirming ties between Arab states and the U.S. On the other hand, the Palestinian issue is a problem that, if unresolved, will not allow this potential to be realized.
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Al Otaiba’s article unequivocally clarifies that reports as though the Arab states, particularly Gulf countries, are supportive of annexation plans, are completely baseless. Even if senior Arab officials have privately condemned the Palestinian position and their rejection of the Trump peace plan, their publicly declared position carries much more weight. It’s not just an ideological position or an uncompromising adherence to international law. Annexation could have grave political ramifications which will confront Arab regimes with antagonistic public opinion that will oblige them to take notice.
Such public opinion has already been sharply expressed on social media and in the words of Arab commentators responding to the very fact that Al Otaiba’s article was published in an Israeli newspaper, and his having presented Israel as an “opportunity.” Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were the first to condemn the article and its author, joined by Fatah and the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, which view this article as a flagrant violation of the policy of non-normalization of relations with Israel.
The reactions to this article are dwarfed by immediate concerns that annexation could be used as a pretext for tumultuous demonstrations in Jordan, which would pose a dilemma for King Abdullah regarding the future of the peace agreement with Israel. Demonstrations could easily spread from Jordan to other Arab states.
Annexation would shatter the core of the Arab peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which calls on Israel to withdraw from all occupied territory in exchange for normalization and the creation of an Arab buffer security zone. This initiative is considered a cornerstone of any diplomatic negotiations related to the conflict.
Israel claims that annexation is included in Trump’s peace plan, but ignores the fact that Washington views annexation as part of a holistic plan which ultimately leads to a Palestinian state. The plan is meant to build a framework for new and normal relations between Israel and the Arab world. The attempt to depict the support of some Arab countries for the Trump plan as consent for unilateral annexation is a deliberate deception which will harm not only the tightening of relations with Gulf states, but also U.S. standing in the Middle East.
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This underscores the importance of Al Otaiba’s article as a clear and precise message to both Israel’s government and the U.S. administration. Such articles, aimed at talking directly to the public over the head of governments, are usually published after diplomacy fails, whether covertly or overtly, between heads of state or their representatives.
The United Arab Emirates is not speaking for other Gulf states and does not represent other Arab leaders, but it is presenting an informal common denominator which clarifies a red line that if crossed would restrict the position of even the most moderate Arab countries in relation to Israel. Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of UAE, is talking not only about his country’s relations with Israel, as expressed by Israeli businesspeope visiting Dubai, or in the dispatch of planes carrying aid [to Palestinians] which have landed at Ben Gurion airport. He is working in concert with the Saudi crown prince in order to promote the Trump plan.
The UAE is considered the Arab state with the most clout in Washington, after Saudi Arabia’s standing declined following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi security officers, probably on direct orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman.
The 46-year-old Al Otaiba, who obtained a master’s degree in international relations in Washington, has been his country’s ambassador to the U.S. since 2008. At the age of 26 he was appointed as the head of international affairs in the bureau of his country’s crown prince and de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. He is one of the best-connected people in the U.S. and a close friend of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
Al Otaiba was the matchmaker who connected Kushner and Mohammed bin-Salman, serving as Kushner’s guide to Middle Eastern affairs. This relationship and the status he’s gained in Washington suggest that his article was seen by senior American officials, possibly by Kushner himself, before it was published. Kushner is known to oppose unilateral annexation, in contrast to the U.S. ambassador in Israel, David Friedman.
It would not be unreasonable to see this article as part of an internal struggle within the White House regarding annexation. If the article was an invited one or at least designed to assist Kushner in influencing father-in-law Trump, in an attempt to block Israel’s intention to annex, it may attest to the growing and powerful resistance to the idea, if not the anger felt by senior White House officials toward this plan.
Al Otaiba’s conduct is very reminiscent of that of the perennial Saudi ambassador in Washington, Bandar bin-Sultan, who for decades dictated U.S. policy towards Arab states on behalf of the Saudi kingdom.
The position of the UAE is well heard in Washington, not only with regard to the Palestinian issue. As a country actively involved in the fighting in Libya between separatist leader Khalifa Haftar and the forces of the recognized government, it is allied with Russia and Egypt, capable of promoting a peace agreement between the rival forces, a solution being pursued by Trump.
The UAE was also a Saudi ally in its war in Yemen. After it withdrew its forces under American pressure, Saudi Arabia was forced to start negotiating with the Houthis. Due to its huge investments in Middle Eastern countries, mainly in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan, and its decision to resume diplomatic relations with Syria, the UAE has changed from being a marginal player to one with great and important leverage on diplomatic moves in the region, including Iran, with which it has signed agreements to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Against this backdrop, Benjamin Netanyahu has to relate to Al Otaiba’s article as a diplomatic document disseminated for perusal by heads of state, not only for the eyes of the Israeli public. Al Otaiba is not a lobbyist trying to sell a bad policy to Israel, he represents a raft of interests, the fulfillment of which will serve Israel more than his own country. Netanyahu cannot refrain from responding.