Analysis |

Trump Won on Israel-UAE Deal, but Defeat Over Iran Embargo Could Trigger Extreme Steps

Alongside a week of mixed results for the U.S.'s Mideast policy, Gaza simmers as Israel blocks Hamas from infrastructure projects and new funding from Qatar

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Last week ended with mixed results for American policy in the Middle East.

On one hand, Washington scored a major achievement when it released a joint statement on a normalization deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the fruit of a lengthy American mediation effort. On the other hand, the Trump administration suffered a failure at the UN Security Council, which rejected an American resolution to renew the arms embargo on Iran.

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The Gulf continues to produce good news. This has been a period of shake-ups, starting with the Arab Spring and continuing with the coronavirus crisis. Thus the region’s leaders no longer see themselves as completely bound by old commitments.

The UAE’s decision to embark on normalization with Israel broke a two-decade-old taboo and left the Palestinians behind. Ever since the Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David failed in 2000, no similar chance for progress has arisen.

Now that the UAE has done it, public breakthroughs in Israel’s relations with Bahrain and Oman may also be possible. The first minor evidence of the age of normalization appeared on Sunday – phone calls between Israel and the UAE are no longer blocked, and UAE residents can now surf Israeli websites.

For the UAE, the deal opens big opportunities to buy weapons and technology not just from Israel, but also from the United States. According to foreign media reports, Israeli companies have done deals with Gulf states before, but most of these deals remained under a veil of secrecy.

The Americans recently lifted restrictions on the sale of attack drones. The UAE may be equally interested in buying the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter plane, which Washington has previously refrained from selling to Arab states due to its commitment to preserving the Israel Defense Forces’ “qualitative edge.”

Yet even now, Israel probably won’t be enthusiastic about the prospect of America selling the plane to the UAE.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on Sunday in which he discussed the “historic peace agreement.” His basic argument was that he managed to break the previous rule for peace deals with Arab states by signing a “peace for peace” agreement “out of strength.”

Capitulating to Palestinian demands isn’t necessary to reach agreements with other Arab states either, he argued. Thus sovereignty, AKA annexation of parts of the West Bank, will reenter the picture in the future, in coordination with U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu said.

That last statement should be taken with a grain of salt. Granted, Trump isn’t a model of consistency, but he said the exact opposite last week – that annexation is off the table.

Will Netanyahu’s move produce any domestic political gains, aside from the media’s routine excitement over the magician’s surprises? The demonstrations against him, which have continued sporadically for more than a month, so far seem mainly to be exciting the already convinced. The protests aren’t likely to remove Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office, despite the initial panic that gripped him and his family.

On the other hand, the dramatic agreement with the UAE can’t replicate the prisoner exchange that brought back Gilad Shalit, which enabled Netanyahu to overcome a wave of protests in summer 2011. Freeing the kidnapped soldier was a burning issue about which millions of Israelis felt strongly. But the prospect of flights to Dubai won’t buy any groceries.

On Sunday, extremely worrying data on the second-quarter decline in gross domestic product were released. The full economic impact of the coronavirus crisis hasn’t yet been felt, because mortgage payments have been deferred and the National Insurance Institute is still paying unemployment benefits. But as time passes and the long-term economic damage suffered by masses of Israelis becomes clear, the protests may well attract new groups, including former Netanyahu voters.

White House adviser Jared Kushner and Brian Hook, former U.S. envoy to Iran, during a press briefing on the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates at the White House, August 13, 2020. Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

A defeat at the UN

A day after celebrating the agreement in the Gulf, Trump suffered a defeat at the United Nations. Most Security Council members rejected an American proposal to extend the arms embargo on Iran; only the Dominican Republic voted with Washington.

American officials had expected Russia and China to veto the resolution, but they also expected to win a kind of moral victory by mustering support from a majority of the council’s 15 members. Instead, though Russia and China cast the only votes against, 11 other members abstained.

This happened after a period of more than a year in which Iran launched a major attack on Saudi oil facilities, smuggled arms to Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, played an active role in Syria’s civil war and racked up more violations of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Aside from their desire to avoid confronting Iran, European states’ decision to abstain despite all this also shows two other things. First, they don’t trust Trump at all. Second, they continue to adhere to the nuclear deal concluded by former U.S. President Barack Obama, despite its flaws.

After losing the vote, the United States renewed its threat to activate that deal’s snapback provision, which would reinstate international sanctions on Iran. But Russia and China say America can’t do so, since Trump withdrew from the agreement in May 2018.

The international community will apparently remain divided over Iran in the coming months, and Trump will have trouble winning support for his positions. For both Trump and Netanyahu, this may sharpen the realization that they don’t have much time left to act and could even spur them to take more extreme steps prior to the U.S. presidential election in November.

Palestinian protesters from a group calling themselves the "Night Confusion Units" gather near the Gaza-Israel border in the central Gaza Strip, August 16, 2020. Credit: AFP

Gaza is simmering

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Gaza Strip is still simmering. Over the weekend, two rockets were fired at Sderot, an uncommon occurrence these days. Additionally, shrapnel from an Iron Dome interceptor missile landed in a courtyard in the city.

Hamas continues to launch incendiary balloons at fields near Gaza. And after a lull of several months, Palestinian cells have resumed nighttime confrontations with Israeli soldiers near the border fence.

Those cells don’t have much time left in which to operate. In the coming months, a new barrier along the border will be finished, and once it is, it will be hard for Palestinians to clash directly with the soldiers.

Behind all these recent events stands Gaza’s Hamas government. It seems to have two goals – obtaining a new deal for Qatari grants and spurring Israel to allow progress on major infrastructure projects that were slowed at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

Qatar had committed to six months of payments totaling $30 million each, but those payments end next month. Hamas wants another six months. And Israel is currently threatening not to let the Qatari envoy bring August’s payments into Gaza as long as the violence continues.

Hamas is reminding Israel of its existence in the usual way – through violent provocations. The organization’s leaders believe they can control the height of the flames and keep war from breaking out. And Israel, despite its aggressive rhetoric, has responded with comparative restraint. Nobody wants war in Gaza right now.

But an unresolved problem continues to impede the kind of progress both sides would like. As long as negotiations over Hamas’ return of two kidnapped Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers remain stalled, it will be hard to achieve long-term calm.

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