The United Arab Emirates and Israel Just Came Clean on Their Extra-Marital Affair


By Gilead Sher, Yoel Guzansky

 

On Aug. 13, a deal was struck that marks a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East. It is not a “historic peace treaty,” as officials in Jerusalem and Washington described, since peace treaties are made between enemies. No state of war, nor conflict of any kind, exists between the United Arab Emirates and Israel — certainly since 1994. Rather, their relationship has been one of concealed friendship rooted in the post-Oslo Accords 1990s that has become open and institutionalized.

But what underlies the deal? What trade-offs are involved? First, and above all else, it is a political deal. The annexation of West Bank territories by Israel will be halted and taken off the table, whether temporarily (if President Donald Trump is re-elected) or permanently (if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the opportunity and was aware of two trends. First, for the past quarter century, the Gulf states have furthered their own interests at the expense of collective Arab interests, including the Palestinian cause. The solidarity and intractability that was characteristic of the Arab states during the third quarter of the 20th century have dissolved, and the Arab League has gradually lost its influence in the last decade and a half. In this context, Abu Dhabi remained a confident and independent actor. Secondly, the Trump administration has placed great emphasis on working “from the outside in” — meaning a regional process that incorporates a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as opposed to “from the inside out” — meaning work beginning bilaterally with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and subsequently progressing toward normalization with the Arab states. Thus, Trump has reorganized the linear process that characterized all of the peace initiatives. The policies and actions of Iran and Turkey provided incentives for Israel to explore new political and security alliances. And lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the necessity of cross-border economic, technological, and medical cooperation.

The timing of the announcement was somewhat surprising, even though the measure itself is consistent with significant evidence of increasingly close relations between Israel and the Gulf states — especially with the United Arab Emirates — in recent years. It should be remembered that it was Mohammed bin Zayed, the de-facto ruler, who stood beside King Abdullah of Jordan at the head of the Arab camp that came out publicly and resolutely against the application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. It may be the case that had the Israeli government not proclaimed its intention to annex large parts of the West Bank (with the backing of the Trump administration), the normalization of relations might not have taken place.

Since the rollout of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Arab states have advocated the plan and have consistently reiterated their adherence to it. Some, like Kuwait, still view it as a precondition to the normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel upon having first established a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, too, announced that it is still committed to peace on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative but avoided direct reaction to the evolving Emirati-Israeli pact. Israel, for its part, has worked in recent years to improve its relations with Arab countries while abandoning any and all dialogue with the Palestinians. In light of this trend, the Palestinian Authority has done its best to thwart signs of normalization between Israel and the Arab states in general (and the Gulf states in particular) in order to retain chips for negotiating with Israel. However, the Gulf states’ approach to Israel underwent changes over the years, contemporaneous with the erosion of the preconditions of the Arab Peace Initiative.

 

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