Israel’s warming relations with its Gulf Arab neighbours have often been a “secret affair”. In recent weeks, however, the Jewish state’s growing ties with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have increasingly come out into the public spotlight.
Despite the UAE having no formal diplomatic relationship with Israel, on both May 19 and June 9 the UAE sent medical supplies to the Palestinians to help battle coronavirus via Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, the second of which arrived in Israel in a clearly marked Etihad Airways plane. The Palestinian Authority refused to accept the medical supplies – because the arrangement was coordinated between the UAE and Israel, the PA condemned it as an act of “normalisation”.
Meanwhile, on June 12, an Emirati diplomat published an opinion article, in Hebrew, in a major Israeli daily – something once unthinkable for representatives of Arab governments with no formal ties to the Jewish state.
There have been many other public acts to indicate a thawing in the relationship. The UAE is allowing Israel to participate in the Expo 2020 in Dubai (now postponed to 2021), and in February an Israeli cycling team took part in the UAE Tour racing through Dubai.
In November 2015, the UAE allowed Israel to establish a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, and there have been a number of visits to the UAE by Israeli politicians including by Israel’s ambassador to the UN Danny Danon in 2016.
In 2018, Israel’s then Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev heard and saw the Israeli anthem played in Abu Dhabi after Israeli Sagi Muki won a gold medal in an international judo tournament there.
Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara also visited the UAE in 2018.
The warming relationship has been influenced by shared interests, particularly concern about Iran – its destabilising activities across the region through its proxies and its nuclear ambitions. On Dec. 17, 2019, the US Administration reportedly convened a secret trilateral meeting with Israel and the UAE to coordinate their policies in dealing with the Iranian threat.
According to reports, Israel and the UAE also discussed a potential non-aggression pact as an interim step toward full diplomatic relations. Days after the meeting, the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed tweeted an article headlined: “Islam’s reformation, an Arab-Israeli alliance is taking shape in the Middle East,” apparently indicating approval.
A UAE diplomat attended the launch of the Trump Administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in January, along with diplomats from Oman and Bahrain, lending the proposal implicit support.
However, UAE officials do appear to be warning Israel that the progress achieved over many years of backroom meetings may be set back by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plans to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, as part of the Trump Administration’s peace plan.
Indeed, this was the background to the UAE’s Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba’s unprecedented June 12 op-ed for Israel’s largest Hebrew-language newspaper Yediot Ahronot titled, “It’s Either Annexation or Normalisation.”
A translation of the article stated, “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE.”
Al Otaiba wrote, “Our shared interests around climate change, water and food security, technology and advanced science could spur greater innovation and collaboration,” but he warned, “Annexation will also harden Arab views of Israel just when Emirati initiatives have been opening the space for cultural exchange and broader understanding of Israel and Judaism.”
He concluded, “In the UAE and across much of the Arab world, we would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way.”
Al Otaiba also made a video in English in which he said: “We wanted to speak directly to the Israelis. The message was ‘All the progress you have seen and the attitudes that have been changing towards Israel. People becoming more accepting of Israel, less hostile to Israel, all of that could be undermined by a decision to annex… I wanted to make sure people understood how we saw this possibility and the risks associated with it.”
However, the article appeared to contrast with comments made by the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Anwar Gargash, on June 16, at the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) virtual Global Forum. Dr. Gargash said, “The UAE is clearly against any annexation as is being proposed by the current Israeli government. Having said that, that is the political domain. Do I have to really look at all the other domains and make them almost static because of the political domain?”
Gargash went on, “I think we can come to a point where we come to a given Israeli government… and say, we disagree with you on this [annexation], we don’t think it’s a good idea, but at the same time there are areas, such as COVID, technology and other things, where we can actually work together.”
It may be that Gargash and Al Otaiba are not actually saying contradictory things but rather it is part of the same message – the UAE would like to move towards normalisation with Israel given their common interests but that would be made difficult if Israel moves ahead with extension of sovereignty in the West Bank because of the reaction in the “Arab street” – both in the UAE and in neighbouring Gulf states. Therefore, if such a legal change in the West Bank were to occur, the relationship could be put on ice and limited to “non-political” collaboration on shared interests.
Indeed, Israeli analysts noted that even Al Otaiba’s statements emphasised the carrot of improved relations rather than making threats or issuing harsh warnings. Seth Frantzman of the Jerusalem Post pointed out that Otaiba’s comments:
“…were not overly harsh. They appeared more like a warning from a colleague than from an adversary. They were tempered as well, without threats. This is important because it leaves some room for manoeuvre within this context of annexation and discussions of ‘normalisation.’ They did not appear to draw a red-line, but rather a warning in the kind of soft chiding terms the Gulf is used to. This means that annexation might not totally derail relations.”
However, the UAE may wish to consider that it could have greater influence on Israel if it were to privately offer a timeline for full normalisation in the near term in exchange for “no annexation”, rather than a theoretical hope of normalisation at some future date. It would also be helpful if UAE diplomats considered writing an op-ed in the Palestinian press telling them the time to negotiate with Israel on a two-state peace is now.