On 13 August, the Trump administration announced a deal between Israel and the UAE to establish diplomatic relations. The UAE added that there will be no embassy in Jerusalem before the conflict is resolved. The deal was presented by Abu Dhabi as an upgrade of longstanding ties with Israel as a way of encouraging peace efforts by taking the planned annexation of 30 per cent of the West Bank off the table. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, insisted that annexation was postponed, not cancelled altogether.
The new agreement turns on its head the principle underpinning the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that there will be no normalisation between the Arab countries and Israel before the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. The UAE-Israel deal could prompt other countries in the region, such as Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and Morocco, to follow suit. It follows Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s suspension of all contacts with the US after it recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017. In addition, in May, in response to the threat of annexation, the Palestinian Authority cut vital ties with Israel, especially security coordination, and said that it would no longer abide by any past agreements with Israel or the US.
The Israeli-Emirati agreement and the decision to halt annexation were welcomed by several Arab counties, including Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf nations of Bahrain and Oman. Bahrain has signalled that it too is open to formalise ties with Israel. Other Arab governments mostly stayed silent. Many foreign countries, including Germany, France, Italy, China and India, expressed hope that the agreement would help revive the peace process. However, Iran and Turkey lashed out at the UAE, a regional rival, accusing it of betraying the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.
There was also a lot of anger among Palestinians. The PA was scathing in response to the move, calling it a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause.” The Palestinian factions were united in condemning the UAE’s decision. Hamas called the agreement “cowardly” and “a blatant assault on our religious, national and historical rights in Palestine.” The Palestinians say that the new agreement puts a just resolution of the Middle East conflict even further beyond reach.
President Donald Trump has presented the US-brokered agreement as a major diplomatic achievement. For him, it was especially important after the Palestinians rejected his so-called “Deal of the Century”, which was not supported by the Arab countries.
In Israel, the agreement with the UAE has renewed longstanding hopes for normal relations with Arab countries, especially without any concessions to the Palestinians. Benny Gantz, the country’s Alternate Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition wing in the Knesset, all supported the deal. The idea of annexation has faded amid the threat of international sanctions and domestic political disputes. The deal with Abu Dhabi opens the door for Israel to adjust its relations with its European allies.
Israel’s intention to normalise its relations with Arab countries requires it to delay its annexation plan. Netanyahu explained that he was freezing the plan in response to a request by Washington, and said that he would not proceed without US approval. Opening new Arab markets would create a growth engine that would allow Israel to increase production per capita by 25 to 33 per cent. An increase in growth of this magnitude could be expected to bring Israel into the ranks of the 15 richest countries in the world within ten years.
The UAE has worked hard in the past decade to play a major political role in the region. This explains its policies and intervention in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya and has driven the country to embrace a number of strategies which would explain its normalisation with Israel.
Since 2011, the UAE has sought to buy an advanced military arsenal including F-35 aircraft from the US that could change the military equation in the region. In general, Washington could not normally sell this kind of military hardware to the UAE because of America’s obligation to provide Israel with a “qualitative military edge” over all the Arab countries. Although Congress has made this commitment to Israel since 2008, it has existed in practice since 1967. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were barred by Congress from purchasing US weapons costing billions of dollars due to the humanitarian toll of their war in Yemen; Trump vetoed the decision.
In 1994, the UAE bought F-16 aircraft from the US, which were the most advanced fighter planes of the day. At that time, Israel agreed to withdraw its opposition to the sale if the UAE agreed to security cooperation. This was not a new idea; Egypt was able to have an advanced military arsenal after signing the Camp David agreement with Israel in 1978, and so was Jordan after signing the Wadi Araba Treaty in 1994.
Because of America’s current economic downturn, Trump wants a major development to improve the US economy and boost his re-election hopes. This is why his administration signalled to the UAE that signing a peace agreement with Israel would be a good way for it to obtain advanced military hardware. When Israel objected to the deal, the Emiratis refused to join a trilateral meeting to coordinate the signing of the peace agreement.
The Saudis and Emiratis want to build up their military strength in the region and want the US to give them more room to manoeuvre in the face of Iranian influence in the Middle East. It is especially important to both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to have Washington involved heavily in the region as their primary ally to counter Iranian power and influence. However, because of America’s stated intention to withdraw from the region, it has become necessary for the Saudis and Emiratis to cooperate with Israel. The UAE Ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba, held his first meeting with an Israeli official in 2008 and has maintained a diplomatic channel to focus on Iran.
Although the Saudis, Omanis, Yemenis and Moroccans have said that they are not going to normalise relations with Israel, this is likely happen sooner rather than later. There are several factors which explain why this is the case, not least the fact that Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, which has facilitated the acceptance of Israeli-Arab relationships all over the Arab world.
Moreover, the 2011 “Arab spring” revolutions divided and weakened the Arab consensus, which opened the door for Israel to deal with each Arab country individually. There is also the idea of Arab hostility to Iran that has been promoted by the US and Israel leading to military and security cooperation between Israel and the Arabs, especially over the past decade. In addition, any progress on the political track between Israelis and Palestinians is bound to make any future normalisation between Israel and one or more Arab states easier.
Finely, it is obvious that the Israel-UAE normalisation agreement was orchestrated under pressure by Donald Trump. His administration pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. If Trump fails to be re-elected, Joe Biden is likely to rejoin that agreement, which was signed during the administration of fellow Democrat Barack Obama. This is bound to reduce tension in the Middle East, and consequently reduce Arab security reliance on Israel. In this eventuality, these Arab Gulf states may not find it necessary to normalise with Israel at any cost, given that public opposition is very evident.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.