The Israel-UAE deal and a two state outcome
Aug 21, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
Following up on the announcement last week of a US-mediated deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish full relations, with Israel promising to postpone any plans to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank as part of the agreement, this Update assembles some commentary on how this deal might affect long term hopes for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
First up is Washington Institute for Near East Policy expert on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations David Makovsky, explaining how transformative the UAE deal may be on Israeli-Palestinian relations. He says the Palestinians, who protested the deal so vigorously, appear to be wedded to an old paradigm which says any agreement between an Arab state and Israel is a loss for the Palestinians. In reality, he says, this paradigm has not been reasonable or successful for decades, and the UAE actually provides another bridge to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE.
A longer analysis of the Palestinian response to the UAE-Israel deal comes from Israeli columnist Haviv Rettig Gur. He argues that the Palestinian claim that the deal was a betrayal of their cause ignores the reality that Arab loyalty to the Palestinian cause was always largely symbolic and never helped Palestinians as people. The Arab states care about the Palestinians, but have moved on from making the Palestinian cause central to their identity in the face of the intractability of the conflict over decades, largely because of the Palestinian rejectionist worldview. Rettig Gur goes on to suggest how changing that worldview is necessary for any hope of a viable two-state peace. To read his full analysis, CLICK HERE.
Finally, we bring you an argument from a Palestinian scholar who sees the UAE-Israel deal as a potential win for the Palestinians as well. Gaith al-Omari, a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel, makes the case that, even beyond putting a stop to Israeli plans to apply sovereignty in the West Bank, this is a deal that also provides other potential benefits to the Palestinians. He argues that the Palestinian strategy of seeking to isolate Israel is outdated, and that history shows that Arab states with relations with Israel are more effective in advancing Palestinian interests. For all the details of what he has to say, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba, whose previous opinion piece in an Israeli newspaper helped pave the way for the UAE-Israel deal has penned another article welcoming the opportunities created between the two countries.
- Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh argues that, in their extreme reaction to the Israel-UAE deal, the Palestinian leadership is effectively joining the Iranian-led rejectionist axis. Abu Toameh also reported on the views of one Palestinian academic who argues the Palestinian leadership is overreacting.
- Some other good analysis of the Palestinian reaction to the UAE deal from Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz and British-Israeli academic Ori Wertman.
- Important looks at the significance of the UAE-Israel deal overall from Washington Institute head Robert Satloff, and former Israeli military intelligence head Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, writing together with a colleague, Assaf Orion.
- The US yesterday invoked the “snapback” provisions of the Iran nuclear deal at the UN Security Council, after a US-sponsored vote to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran failed last week. Some good analysis of what this means and what could happen next is here and here.
- An interview on SkyNews’ “Bolt Report” with American expert and frequent AIJAC guest Dr. Michael Rubin regarding both the Israel-UAE deal, and what to do about the Iranian imprisonment of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- AIJAC’s Sharyn Mittelman on what is unique about the UAE-Israel normalisation deal.
- AIJAC’s Allon Lee on the regional effects of the UAE deal, as well as the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, in the Australian Jewish News.
- Analysis of the UAE deal from Yuval Rotem, former Israeli Ambassador to Australia and former Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in this report on a webinar he did with AIJAC.
- Counterterrorism expert Matt Levitt also joined AIJAC this week for a webinar on “Mapping Hezbollah’s worldwide activities” (full video at the link). Also available are short excerpts in which Levitt discusses the UN tribunal findings earlier this week on the 2005 murder of former Lebanon PM Rafiq Hariri and why in countries like Australia where the whole of Hezbollah is not designated a terrorist organisation, law enforcement finds it difficult to convict Hezbollah-linked criminals.
- AIJAC’s upcoming webinar on Monday, August 24, with top Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh.
WHY THE ISRAEL-UAE AGREEMENT IS ACTUALLY A VERY BIG DEAL
by David Makovsky
New York Daily News, August 18, 2020
Palestinians have called the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel announced by President Trump on Thursday a “betrayal.” The Palestinian Authority immediately withdrew its ambassador from Abu Dhabi. Palestinians are wedded to the paradigm that has been a guiding principle for decades, leading them to see any agreement between any Arab state and Israel as coming at their expense.
In the past, they have insisted that they maintain a veto on progress of ties between Arab states and Israel. Either Israel accepted a deal on Palestinian terms, or Israel would remain in regional isolation. The Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2003 reinforced this view that the Palestinians long favored. Peace between Israel and the Arab states comes only at the end.
This old thinking was based on the idea that the Middle East is a static place without converging interests between the Arab states and Israel. At best, peace between Israel and the Arab states would be a consolation prize in return for Israel meeting all Palestinian demands, which have not modified in many years. Today, this approach has become utterly unrealistic.
This is because in the real world, countries have converging mutual interests, and third parties will find it difficult to thwart interests that bilateral parties want to pursue. In the case of Israel and Arab states, there were different moments over the last decade that accentuated those common ties.
Indeed, the old paradigm has actually not been effective for decades. It did not stop two Arab countries on Israel’s borders—Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994)—from making peace. One can say these countries have their own equities given the fact they shed blood on the battlefield with Israel. Now, Israel is making peace with an Arab country not on its borders that cannot make the same claim.
Indeed, much has changed in the Mideast since the API passed in 2003. Among the changes: the emergence of Iran as a potential nuclear power with its support of proxy forces that challenge Sunni governments was key. So was the emergence of ISIS and the belief that Israel could offer intelligence assets in dealing with the threat. Not to be ignored is the success of Israeli high-tech and a belief the Gulf states look to Israel to help them digitize their economies and reduce their dependence on oil in the face of the rise of alternative energy sources. Israel also quietly established some nascent security and economic ties with all of the Gulf states. The move last week takes what was in the shadows and brings it into the public. It is time for the Palestinians to let go and finally bury a failed paradigm.
The Palestinian paradigm failed not just due to a convergence of regional interests among the parties. It failed because it carried certain implicit assumptions that were incorrect.
First, it assumed if you demonize Israel in the region and impose regional isolation, it will force Israel’s hand. The Palestinians have felt demonized by the Trump administration, rightly or wrongly, but it has not forced them to accept a peace deal it feels is not in their interest.
Why should Israel be different? Demonization does not work.
The opposite is the case. The quiet, positive relationships Israeli and Emirati officials built over time were an important component in this peace accord.
Another implied assumption was that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal could only work if it was married to regional opening as a consequence. In fact, the deal has to be attractive enough to Israelis and Palestinians alike that it is worth doing in its own right.
Having said all this, the Palestinian assumption is too dour. Their belief that their cause is now buried in light of the UAE-Israel announcement is wrong. When Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, their tendency was to be more engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking than before.
Why? They were each politically exposed for making the move with Israel, leading them to want to widen the circle of peace. For example, Yasser Arafat never visited an Arab country without consulting with Cairo first. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak hosted many peace summits between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan’s King Hussein went to the Wye River peace conference straight from the Mayo Clinic in October 1998 shortly before he died, in an effort to coax Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions, which they did.
Once the shock subsides, the peace deal between the UAE and Israel should be used to revive ties between the Emiratis and Palestinians. The frostiness between Abu Dhabi and Ramallah is not because of the peace announcement, but predates it. There is personal enmity between Emirati Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, since the former invited the latter’s bitter rival Mohammad Dahlan to live in the UAE.
The Palestinians should also realize that, thanks to the Emiratis, this peace deal takes Israeli annexation off the table for now, and thereby preserves the option of a two-state solution. Senior Arab officials say the UAE did not move forward on peace with Israel without securing a commitment from the Trump White House not to recognize annexation in a second term, and Joe Biden is on record as being against annexation. Neither Israel nor the U.S. is going to want to jeopardize this peace with annexation.
It is time for the Palestinians to get over their shock and begin to see the Israeli-Emirati breakthrough as a potential bridge to restart talks with Israel; after all, Netanyahu and Abbas have not publicly met since 2010. The Emirates’ close ties with Israel can be helpful. The old paradigm is dead. It needs to be replaced with an approach by the Palestinians that turns a crisis into an opportunity.
David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute, creator of the podcast Decision Points, and coauthor with Dennis Ross of the book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. This article was originally published on the New York Daily News website.
The Palestinians weren’t betrayed by the UAE. They were simply left behind
There’s a lesson for the Palestinians in the normalization agreement: Israel can be pressured and swayed, but not by those champions of the Palestinian cause who seek to destroy it
By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
Times of Israel, 18 August 2020
Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah burn pictures of Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (top) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during a demonstration against the UAE-Israeli agreement to normalize diplomatic ties, August 15, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Palestinian leaders are hard at work considering a response to last week’s announcement of the normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
Their options are limited. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was reduced to announcing Palestine would now boycott the Dubai Expo scheduled for October 2021.
As Mahmoud Habbash, adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, complained on Monday, even the Arab League and multinational Muslim organizations seem to have been struck dumb by the agreement.
“Is this the Arab nation?” he demanded in an interview on Palestinian television, vowing that any Arab who visits Israel on a pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa will be met at the holy site with “the shoes and spit of the people of Jerusalem.” The Arab world’s “shameful” silence, he contended, “shows we face a conspiracy with many participants.”
Moments of profound frustration can spark anger and inspire conspiracy theories, but it’s not a conspiracy that has the Palestinians over a barrel. It is a long-delayed reckoning with one of the most bitter facts of their situation: that the Arab world has always been more concerned with Palestine as a symbol than with Palestinians as human beings.
The vision of “colonialist” Israelis stampeding over a weak, hapless Arab people was for many Arab thinkers and political leaders a stand-in for anxieties about the larger and older Arab weakness in the face of Turkish and European dominion and imperialism. Nowhere was Arab weakness in the modern age reified more viscerally than in the slow-moving but seemingly implacable failure of the Palestinian cause. It is that symbolism, what Palestine said about their own stories and identities, and not Palestinian suffering itself, that made anti-Semitism a majority doctrine even in places like Algeria, an Arab nation that hasn’t seen a Jew for nearly 60 years.
It should therefore come as no surprise, least of all to Palestinians, that the Arabs’ fervent declarations of loyalty to Palestine never translated into meaningful succor for Palestinians, whether in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or in the communities of refugees and their descendants scattered throughout the region and variously denied social services, citizenship and even the right to own land by the countries in which they have resided for seven long decades.
The Palestinian national movement is now at a crossroads. To be sure, the Arab world still cares about the Palestinians, sometimes deeply. But the Palestinian story has nevertheless shrunk from representing a broader Arab story to a tragedy that affects only the Palestinians, and in the process lost its grip on Arab policymaking. The oil-rich Gulf states are now respected global business hubs that view the West not as oppressor or competing civilization, but as a target for investment and a source of stability. The new threats that loom over the Arab world are regional — Iran, Turkey, Islamist factions of various sorts — or deeply local, from corruption to sectoral strife. The Arab world has changed, the Palestinian narrative has not.
Then, too, there is the sheer intractability of the conflict. One doesn’t need to like Israel to appreciate that Palestinian politics, from Hamas’s rejectionism to Fatah’s corruption, are a wrench in the works for the Palestinian cause.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, left, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, Turkey, January 3, 2012. (AP Photo, file)
In a July 26 interview with Qatar’s Lusail News, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh revealed something important about the interaction between Palestinian political factions and the broader Arab world.
“Parties, who we know are on the payroll of certain superpowers” — an apparent reference to wealthy Gulf states — “came to us, and offered to establish new projects in the Gaza Strip to the tune of perhaps $15 billion,” he said, according to a translation by MEMRI.
Those projects included a lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the beleaguered territory, an airport and a seaport.
“We said to them: ‘That’s great. We want an airport and a seaport, and we want to break the siege on the Gaza Strip. This is a Palestinian demand, but what are we supposed to give in return?’” The answer: “They want us to disband the military wings of the factions, and incorporate them into the police force.
“Naturally, we completely rejected that offer….We want these things because we are entitled to them and not in exchange for relinquishing our political principles, our resistance, or our weapons.”
The interviewer asked, “What are your political principles?”
Haniyeh’s reply: “We will not recognize Israel, Palestine must stretch from the river to the sea, the right of return [must be fulfilled], the prisoners must be set free, and a fully sovereign Palestinian state must be established with Jerusalem as its capital.”
Haniyeh did not seem to reflect seriously on what he was acknowledging. It makes sense that the wealthy parts of the Arab world would try to buy their way free of the Palestinian issue, since it no longer resonates as a question of identity. Those who now seek to ally with Israel against Iran or to partner with the Jewish state on commerce and technology are willing to shower the Palestinians with cash not for the Palestinians’ welfare, but to make the political problem they represent go away.
The Emirati decision to normalize relations with Israel is a kind of liberation from the Palestinian question. To the desperate frustration of the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t even seem embarrassed by itHaniyeh’s response to that desire was a simple demand for Israel’s complete disappearance, a response that probably sounded to his would-be benefactors like a demand that all the benefits that may accrue to Arab states from a relationship with Israel must be subordinated to a Palestinian narrative they no longer really identify with, and to the needs of Palestinian factions they no longer respect.
It is now mostly in Islamist religious politics that one still finds intense ideological anxieties about the Palestinian question. It’s no accident Hamas now finds its main patrons in Ankara and Tehran. To the present-day leaders of Turkey and Iran, the Palestinian condition symbolizes something important about the standing and trajectory of the Muslim world. Their support is thus assured for the time being, though only for the part of Palestinian politics raising that Islamist banner.
Hamas vs. the French
The Emirati decision to normalize relations with Israel is thus a kind of liberation from the Palestinian question. To the desperate frustration of the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t even seem embarrassed by it.
Yet in the normalization deal lies a lesson for the Palestinians. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who negotiated the agreement from the Emirati side, has demonstrated a key point about dealing with Israelis, a point the Palestinian factions, who spend surprisingly little time seriously studying how Israeli Jews think and feel, have yet to grasp. It is so simple it can seem cartoonish: To change Israeli Jews’ behavior, you must convince them they have something to lose.
A sentence like that is a dangerous thing to throw into the frenetic Israeli-Palestinian argument. Some will say that powerful, wealthy Israel has a very great deal to lose — and the sooner it starts losing it the sooner that will make a dent in its behavior. Others will say the need to end Israel’s military rule over another people is such an overwhelming moral imperative that all talk about finessing the Israeli psyche, including glib comments like “give them something to lose,” amounts to a monstrous abrogation of basic moral sense.
A better way to put it might be that Israelis must be made to believe they have something to gain that could compensate for all they might lose.
Israelis — forgive the generalization, there are many kinds of Israelis with all kinds of views, but the term serves for the moment to describe the very large majority of them — do not actually believe that Palestinian politics are capable of offering them peace. That’s not just a convenient conceit, it’s a real, driving assumption for most Israelis when they come to think about the conflict with the Palestinians.
And it’s rooted in long and painful experience. Israeli withdrawals in recent decades have nearly all ended in waves of terrorism and violence so intense that they fundamentally altered Israeli voting patterns. After the Second Intifada began in 2000, Israel experienced the lowest voter turnout in its history. The left hasn’t won an election since 1999 because of the hundreds of terror attacks that struck Israeli cities in that intifada. The debate overseas about Israelis and Palestinians tends to forget the bloodletting; Israelis have not forgotten.
The point here isn’t just that Palestinians seem to Israelis to reciprocate territorial withdrawals — whether those of the Oslo agreements in the 1990s or from Gaza in 2005 — with massive violence. It is that Israelis no longer believe a withdrawal could possibly produce any other outcome except massive violence.
While the world’s attention focuses on Mahmoud Abbas and his commitment to security cooperation with Israel, Israelis are more liable to notice that Abbas is in the 14th year of a four-year term — and won’t call elections because he knows he will lose them to Hamas. That is, while Abbas sounds his moderate tone, Hamas is the future. Any political vacuum Israel leaves behind in a new withdrawal will be filled by the terror group that has already transformed Gaza into the beleaguered battleground of its ideological war.
It hardly helps that Abbas’s Fatah movement has responded to the fading of the Palestinian cause by trying to cleave closer to Hamas. Fatah invited Hamas to a special leadership summit on Wednesday. That’s no accident. When the chips are down, Hamas is the only one of the two major Palestinian factions with a meaningful story to tell about the Palestinian condition.
Hamas views the conflict with Israel not as ethnic strife between two peoples, but as a version of the Algerian war against French colonialists in the 1950s and 60s. That was a bloody war, Hamas teaches in its sermons and schoolrooms, and the more the French bled, the faster they withdrew. It’s a powerful narrative that counsels patience and encourages especially cruel forms of terrorism against Israelis.
Palestinian members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
But it’s a blind narrative nonetheless. In clinging to the colonialist interpretation of the conflict, Hamas has ignored a few pertinent facts about Israeli Jews that should have made it question the wisdom of its policy of permanent belligerence. For example, unlike those French Algerians, Israeli Jews have nowhere to go. That’s not a minor point. When you kill the children of someone who believes they can leave, they tend to leave. The anti-colonial wars of the 20th century were by and large successful. But when you target the children of someone who believes they have nowhere to go, the response tends to be the opposite. They become ever more determined to suppress the violence, and less willing to offer concessions not backed up by force of arms.
Haniyeh turned down billions in aid for Gaza and rejected a lifting of the blockade, all in the service of a strategy that still insists — as he explained explicitly — that Israel can be dismantled, that Israeli Jews, as though they were French, have somewhere else to go. He does not stop to consider the possibility that his opponent is not French, has nowhere to go, and therefore that his strategy of permanent war is more likely to decimate Palestine than to hurt Israel.
The global campaign for the Palestinians likes to think it models itself on the campaign around South Africa or on the US civil rights movement. It’s a conceit that allows it, like Haniyeh, to carefully sidestep facts that don’t fit the narrative. But the sidestepping of facts rarely delivers the desired outcome.
Israelis are inoculated to the boycotts and howling moral indignation of foreigners not because they are braver or perhaps dumber than other peoples similarly chastised by foreign activists, but because no boycott, however ferociously pursued, can bring more psychological pressure to bear than the costs Hamas vows to extract from Israel after a withdrawal.
Whether Israelis are correct in the lessons they draw from the failures of past withdrawals is a valid question, but the point here is simpler: those lessons are what now stands in the way of Palestinian independence. The most stubborn obstacle to that independence lies in Israeli Jews’ certainty, justified or not, that they have only violence and pain to gain from more withdrawals, and so have little to lose, relatively speaking, from refusing to do so.
The UAE left the Palestinians behind
Then came the Emiratis. A fascinating Sunday poll conducted by Direct Polls for Channel 12 revealed the dramatic effect on Israeli opinion and politics that a sliver of hope could bring.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)
Asked explicitly whether they preferred the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promised annexation in the West Bank (the Emiratis conditioned the deal on stopping the annexation), fully 77% of Israelis preferred the peace agreement with the UAE. Just 16.5% favored the annexation.
Even among self-described right-wingers, Netanyahu’s constituency, the Emirati deal won handily, with a whopping 64% to 28%.
If a May poll found a plurality of Israelis — 45% — in support of annexation (with 32% opposed), the Sunday poll revealed how weak that support really was. Just 16.5% of Israelis continued to favor annexation when it meant losing a normalization deal, even if it was with a distant Arab state that has never threatened them.
Israelis did not resist Netanyahu’s push for annexation, but neither did they back it. It was a proposal born on the ideological right, but which managed to gain traction mainly because Israelis do not perceive any real hope on the Palestinian front.
Palestinians lost a great deal last week. They weren’t “betrayed,” as some PA leaders have complained, but simply left behind. They didn’t lose vital allies who cared deeply for their cause, but one-time supporters who still vaguely support them but are tired of the intractability of their cause.
Palestinian leaders and activists may gall at the prospect, but the Emirati initiative demonstrates one thing above all: if they wish to change Israeli policy and behavior, they must convincingly explain to Israelis that a withdrawal is not the catastrophe-in-waiting that so many expect. The Palestinians must give the Israelis something to lose, or rather something to gain that might justify the risk of abandoning some significant portion of the West Bank highlands to — not to belabor the point — a people that declares itself their bitter foes.
The Palestinians don’t have much to offer Israel, except the one thing they’ve always had and that Israelis have consistently wanted from them: an end to the self-destructive Algerian war.
If that happened, Israel’s newfound friends would likely be delighted to throw an airport, seaport and $15 billion into the bargain — out of sheer relief.
Israel-UAE Deal Achieves a Middle East Rarity: It’s Win-Win-Win, Palestinians Included
NBC News, August 13, 2020
Arab countries that have official relations with Israel are more effective at advancing Palestinian interests, and now Abu Dhabi has joined their ranks.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a meeting with the Palestinian leadership to discuss the United Arab Emirates’ deal with Israel to normalize relations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Mohamad Torokman/Pool Photo via AP)
The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates pulled off the rarest of feats on Thursday: a diplomatic win-win-win in the Middle East. President Donald Trump announced a historic breakthrough in which the UAE will normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israel dropping its plan to annex parts of the West Bank that Palestinians claim for a future state. The Palestinian leadership will inevitably denounce the development, but it would be wiser if they didn’t: This agreement could benefit them, too.
Until now, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a moribund process to trade land for peace after the initial euphoria of the early 1990s that followed the signing of the Oslo agreement between the Palestinians and Israel, and the Wadi Araba peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, gave way to repeated failures. Despair and conflict soon ensued, and the prospects for progress began to quickly fade. With this grim landscape as a backdrop, the announcement of Thursday’s deal holds the potential of breathing life into the peace process. (Of course, Oslo also stands as a painful reminder of how opportunities and hopes can be quickly dashed.)
The new agreement is rooted in the national interests of both the UAE and Israel, but its implications go far beyond that. Until now, Israel has enjoyed normal relations—i.e. recognition of its existence and the perks that entails, such as embassies, trade, travel and cooperation on security, water and more—from just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like every Israeli premier before him, has made normalizing relations with Arab and Muslim countries a key piece of his diplomatic agenda. This reflects a deeper, long-standing Israeli desire for a normal place in the region.
For Netanyahu, the agreement is a major diplomatic win. Plus it also gives him a way out of a politically tricky corner he had painted himself into, strengthening his tenuous hold on power. In the last two Israeli elections, he had promised his supporters on the right that Israel would annex parts of the West Bank—a move that the Palestinians and the overwhelming majority of the international community consider illegitimate. Due to international pressure and concerns within the Israeli security establishment over the security and diplomatic implications, Netanyahu has been unable to advance annexation. Now he can claim a political victory while extracting himself from the annexation bind.
But this is also a diplomatic boost for the UAE. The small Arab Gulf country is known for its fierce American-oriented posture and its willingness to be a trailblazer on a number of controversial issues despite criticism from some of its neighbors. Furthermore, like many Gulf and other Arab states, it views Iranian activities as the main threat to its national security, and is worried about the American trend—exhibited by both the Obama and Trump administrations—of reducing U.S. involvement in the Middle East. These concerns are also shared by Israel, creating a very strong convergence of interests between the two former enemies.
Palestinian scholar and former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team Gaith al-Omari
Still, this move will no doubt see the UAE come under severe criticism from its many foes. Its regional opponents will almost certainly portray the move as a betrayal of the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority’s own strategy relies on isolating Israel, and this will be seen as a severe blow to the decades-old approach. Additionally, some countries in the region, such as Syria, consider the very recognition of Israel as a betrayal.
Media in Qatar and Turkey, which the UAE opposes because of their support for the Muslim Brotherhood in contrast to its own policy of separating religion and politics, are already criticizing the UAE’s outreach to Israel. Iran will employ similar messaging and try to isolate the UAE within regional groupings such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Importantly, the UAE’s recognition of Israel also tests whether the Palestinian issue still resonates with the Arab street, especially the younger generation. While the UAE is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination, its leaders, as is true throughout the Arab world, are sensitive to public opinion. Though this move will not be as popular with Emiratis as with Israelis, there are indications that the Palestinian issue is no longer a high priority for the UAE public.
The historic willingness of Arab states to put the plight of the Palestinians in the center of their foreign policy has magnified the clout of the Palestinians and their struggle. But if the UAE can pull off this diplomatic 180, it will suggest that the Palestinian issue is losing its traditional resonance and is now incapable of mobilizing the masses. This could further weaken the Palestinians’ diplomatic hand.
The Palestinian leadership has understandably condemned the move, particularly since they were not party to an agreement that they see as bypassing their interests and undermining their diplomatic strategy. This has further amplified deep animosity between the two Palestinian and UAE leaderships—an animosity that led the Palestinian Authority to recently reject UAE COVID-19 aid when it sent a plane via an Israeli airport to deliver it. Yet such a reaction ignores the potential benefits of this breakthrough to the Palestinians themselves.
The most immediate plus is the removal of annexation from the agenda. Though Palestinian diplomacy (with help from Jordan, Egypt and other Arab and European countries) managed to create an international consensus against annexation, the threat remained palpable given that the Trump administration remained open to the idea and Netanyahu continued to see it as politically necessary. Now, Israel has committed to indefinitely freeze annexation—a commitment it made not only to the UAE but, more importantly, to Trump.
But beyond this near-term advantage for the Palestinians, history has shown that Arab countries that have relations with Israel—namely, Egypt and Jordan—are more effective in advancing Palestinian interests. Partly, that’s because they hold direct conversations with Israel, which doesn’t want to lose its ties to these two neighbors. But that’s also because in Washington and in the wider international community, their formal relations with Israel lend them more credibility than countries that do not have that status and are seen as automatically criticizing the Jewish state. The UAE will be a valuable and effective addition to this grouping, particularly as it extends the Israeli-Arab dialogue to the strategically important Gulf.
The Arab-Israeli peace process has been mired for many years. This vacuum has led to the hardening of positions among Palestinians and Israelis, and many international and regional actors have given up on the prospect of any progress between the two sides. Indeed, the two-state solution—the idea that the conflict can be resolved through dividing the Holy Land between Israel and a Palestinian state—has been fast losing support. Annexation would have put an end to any prospects for progress, as it would have made a future Palestine unviable. This new development can create a window to begin shifting these dynamics.
In a region that is accustomed to things only getting worse, this is a rare piece of good news. Israel and the UAE should be commended for this courageous act. The international community needs to capitalize on its momentum, and Arab and international friends of the Palestinians need to urge them to use this opening to explore ways of resuming Palestinian-Israeli talks within a wider regional context.
Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.