The UAE now joins Egypt and Jordan to make the third Arab state to recognise Israel.
This month’s announcement by President Donald Trump that diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will be normalised took the world by surprise, not least because it was a well-kept secret in a usually leaky White House. Horrified traditionalists in the Arab world suspect many of their forefathers will be turning in their graves on seeing this public flirtation with Israel. But for others this move is a perfect example of the ancient proverb “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. In this case the “common enemy” is Iran and in what appears to be a classic display of an unholy alliance, Israel and the UAE have buried their hatchets and old rivalries under a Persian carpet.
The UAE now joins Egypt and Jordan to make the third Arab state to recognise Israel. For the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, currently under the cloud of an imminent trial for bribery and fraud, the normalisation of diplomatic ties between the two countries, dubbed the “Abraham Accord”, is hugely symbolic, leaving him as one of only three Israeli leaders to have brokered a peace agreement with an Arab state. “A revolution is taking place in the Arab world that is quietly moving the Middle East’s tectonic plates in ways no one ever thought possible”, wrote the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, in the Arab News. “The old broadside attacks against Israelis by almost all Arab countries have quietly dissipated.”
On the Arab side, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, sought to quell fears in the Muslim world about the Abraham Accord, saying “With our Jewish brothers, we have concluded agreements and mutual cooperation, and we love them and respect them greatly.”
So that’s it then. Middle East problem solved? Well, not quite.
In the Abraham Accord, triumphantly announced by Donald Trump, the UAE agreed to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for Israel’s suspension of plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The UAE’s move goes a long way in dismantling the fiction of a united Arab front against Israel, one that started to crumble years ago, despite vows by Arab leaders not to make peace with Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state. Unnoticed over recent years Arab countries have developed elaborate, if secret, ties with Israel driven by shared security concerns about Iran, so the announcement simply revealed and legitimised what was already going on.
In all diplomatic deals there are winners and losers. In this case the Palestinians are the big losers, feeling they have been skewered by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. It was Kushner who spearheaded the administration’s attempt earlier this year to sell an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, heavily favouring the Israelis and therefore immediately dismissed by the Palestinians. All Kushner managed to achieve from the Israelis in this deal is that they won’t move forward with their planned annexation of Palestinian territory on the West Bank without Washington’s approval. “That’s good enough for us”, Kushner said with a shrug.
But hardly convincing or acceptable to the Palestinians, who reacted with shock and dismay when the Accord was announced, claiming that they had received no prior information. “The timing and speed of reaching this agreement were surprising, especially that it came at a critical moment in the Palestinian struggle”, said a Palestinian Authority spokesman. To many Palestinians, the Abraham Accord gives Israel the benefits of peace without requiring it to pay the price of relinquishing its grip over seized land.
A key player in the region, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to follow suit despite encouragement from the US.
The Saudi state derives a great deal of its legitimacy from being the protector of Muslims across the world and the Palestinian cause has occupied a central, if superficial, role in the kingdom’s regional activity since before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. This has not stopped Saudi Arabia from engaging with Israel in a clandestine manner, however, but any broader engagement is extremely unlikely until there is a peace accord with the Palestinians. Saudi leaders will also be conscious of the general feeling of the people in the region who, in a poll published in the Arab Barometer earlier this year, overwhelmingly expressed the view that Israel is the greatest threat to their country rather than Iran. Many rulers will be cautious about following the Emirati lead, out of fear that it might provoke unrest at home.
So what will the UAE get out of the agreement? Although trade between Israel and its neighbours Jordan and Egypt never boomed despite normalisation, it’s expected to be different with the UAE, a federation of seven emirates. Unlike Jordan and Egypt, the UAE never fought in any of the six Arab-Israeli wars. As soon as the deal was announced on 13 August, ministers from the UAE and Israel rushed to open phone lines and internet access, while companies in the two countries announced new trade pacts.
The agreement could also give the UAE access to previously off-limits US weaponry, such as advanced drones and the F-35 combat planes, just as Egypt was able to secure better US arms after its peace deal with Israel. It also helps the UAE clean up an image tarnished in the US by its role in the devastating Yemen war. The UAE will also have the opportunity to collaborate on technology and health care with Israel, a leader in both. It was noticeable that after the deal was announced, the UAE-based APEX National Investment said that it had agreed to conduct research on the coronavirus with Israel’s TeraGroup.
But already fault lines in the agreement are developing. Although the initial reaction in Israel was extremely positive for Netanyahu, with polls showing that nearly 80% of Israelis favouring normalisation with the UAE over annexation of the West Bank, this was not enough to solve his problems.
Polls also showed a sudden surge for the Yamina bloc, an alliance of ultranationalist parties who are livid with the agreement, calling it a betrayal of Netanyahu’s promise to formally bring the Biblical lands of Judea and Samara into Israel. Netanyahu depends on the support of Yamina to survive as Prime Minister and to lose this support would be a disaster for him, especially in the lead-up to his trial.
A second major fault line has arisen because of the Trump administration’s promise in the agreement to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the possibility of UAE acquiring the fighter jets as it would result in Israel’s loss of a qualitative military edge (QME) in the region. QME is specifically defined in US law to give Israel a guaranteed technological and military advantage over other Middle-Eastern states.
As the F-35 deal is a top priority for the UAE, which sees it as a key link in the normalisation process, there is an obvious conflict with the law unless the US gives Israel even further advanced weaponry. The Israeli media reported that Netanyahu signed off the sale of F-35s in the agreement, but he has since denied any knowledge of this, saying that he’d opposed it.
The UAE are furious with this sign of bad faith by Netanyahu and refused last week to participate in a ceremonial affair with photos and a joint statement to celebrate the agreement.
In a failed attempt to broaden a coalition against Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been touring the region this week.
On Thursday he returned home after stops in Bahrain, Oman, and Sudan apparently empty-handed, with none of the conservative Arab nations willing for now to follow Abu Dhabi in normalising relations with the Jewish state. All issued vague statements about “frameworks” and “strong relations”, but none were prepared to establish an accord with Israel without the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
For the foreseeable future the UAE is alone and even their Abraham Accord will flounder and unravel unless the US gives in to their demand for the F-35 against Israel’s wishes. Pompeo’s woes will please Iran’s Mullahs as they develop trade and defence relations with China, further enlarging the complex and dangerous multi-dimensional geopolitical chess board that is the Middle East.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat and worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.