Normalization Deal Between Israel and the UAE Signals a Shift in the Region

The agreement requires Israel to put West Bank annexation on hold, but Netanyahu says it’s temporary.

U.S. President Donald Trump announces an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel
Senior advisor Jared Kushner, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, and others listen as U.S. President Donald Trump announces an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties, at the White House on Aug. 13. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to begin normalizing relations in a deal brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump and hailed as a breakthrough between the two countries.

It is only the third such agreement between Israel and a regional Arab state, and the first by a Gulf kingdom. In return, Israel agreed to “suspend” plans to annex its West Bank settlements as had been initially slated for this summer—though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was still committed to annexation in the future.

The surprise agreement was first announced by Trump in the Oval Office, with a trilateral call held between him, Netanyahu, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the UAE. Despite growing covert ties in recent years, the two countries were officially foes.

Israeli and Emirati teams will be meeting soon to negotiate the details of the agreement on a host of issues including security, economic investment, reciprocal embassies, direct flights between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, and joint work on a coronavirus vaccine. Israeli media reported that a full signing ceremony would likely take place in Washington before November’s U.S. general election.

A beaming Netanyahu, speaking at a prime-time news conference, termed it a “historic evening” that “opened a new era in Israel’s relations with the Arab world.” Comparing the UAE favorably to Israel, Netanyahu described both states as growing world powers that had “turned the desert into blooming lands.”

In a paradigm shift from the old “land for peace” formula that has dictated decades of Middle East peace efforts, Netanyahu described the new deal as “peace for peace, and peace via strength. Here too we made a breakthrough.”

For his part, Mohammed bin Zayed was less effusive and chose to lead with the price Israel had paid, tweeting: “An agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

But the fact that the agreement required nothing of Israel on the Palestinian front underscored a shift underway in at least parts of the Arab world.

Emirati officials had expressed concern regarding the fallout from any such annexation push, with the foreign minister tonight calling it a “ticking bomb” that they had successfully defused. The Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, had earlier this summer taken the unprecedented step of publishing a front-page op-ed, in Hebrew, in a mass-circulation Israeli daily, hinting at the quid pro quo announced Thursday.

“We have conducted quiet diplomacy and sent very public signals to help shift the dynamics and promote the possible,” Otaiba wrote. Yet an Israeli annexation, he added, “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.”

The Israeli American businessman Haim Saban, speaking to Israel’s Channel 12 earlier Thursday, confirmed that Otaiba’s op-ed “started the snowball” of framing the diplomatic agenda as “non-annexation for normalization.”

The backtrack on annexation, which Netanyahu had promised repeatedly during successive election campaigns over the past year, met with harsh responses from his right-wing settler base. “I voted for Bibi, not [Shimon] Peres,” one prominent settler leader said in a television interview, alluding to the former left-wing Israeli prime minister.

To deflect concerns, Netanyahu in his press conference said that there had been no shift in his plans, but that it was Trump who had requested a “temporary halt” to annexation. Netanyahu added that he was still fully committed to moving ahead with annexation, but that it had to be done “in full coordination with the U.S. administration.” The official statement issued by the three sides did only call on Israel to “suspend” annexation, raising the possibility of a clash once Israeli and Emirati negotiators got into a room together.

Yet the prospect of Netanyahu actually moving forward on annexation had already diminished in recent weeks, in direct proportion to the upsurge in COVID-19 cases and unemployment numbers during a harsh second wave. One recent poll indicated that only 4 percent of the Israeli public viewed annexing West Bank settlements as a priority, in contrast to 69 percent who said the economy was most important.

With another Israeli election growing increasing likely and Netanyahu’s poll numbers declining, a peace deal with a neighboring Arab state is a significant achievement for the long-serving incumbent.

Annexation was viewed as an existential threat by Palestinian officials, yet there was no rejoicing in the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, apparently surprised by the announcement, called for an emergency meeting of the leadership to formulate an official response.

A statement by the Palestinian leadership described the agreement as a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and the Palestinian cause,” and criticized the UAE’s “disgraceful decision … bartering an illegal annexation suspension for Emirati normalization and using the Palestinian cause as a cover for this purpose.”

The response also called the UAE-Israel deal a violation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, one of whose main provisions is that no normalization could take place until Israel fully withdrew from the West Bank and a Palestinian state was established.

Earlier in the day, Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi wrote on Twitter that “the UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalization with Israel. Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”

The UAE and other Gulf states have been strengthening ties with Israel for years—in part based on the shared threats emanating from Iran and its regional proxies, and Sunni jihadi groups. Security and intelligence cooperation had become commonplace, Israeli firms have sold Gulf states advanced cyberweapons, and Israeli politicians and athletes even began making visits.

“We had been inching toward better relations with the Gulf, and credit also has to go to the Trump administration for developing very intimate ties on their part with most Gulf states too,” Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former senior Israeli diplomat, told Foreign Policy. Indeed, in 2015 Gold opened an official Israeli representative office in Abu Dhabi to an international renewable energy consortium; Israeli economic offices also exist in Qatar and Oman.

But full and official diplomatic ties were not believed to be in the offing so long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festered. “You won’t get someone on a soapbox to say the Palestinian issue is irrelevant,” Gold added. “But its profile has dropped significantly in the past 10 years.”

Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, signing a treaty in 1979 in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Jordan followed suit 15 years later, but only after the Israelis and Palestinians concluded their own interim agreement over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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