The UAE-Israel Agreement Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
The deal defers the idea of annexation rather than burying it, and could exacerbate tensions between Iran and the Gulf States.
According to conventional wisdom, including several articles in Foreign Policy, the recently announced United Arab Emirates-Israel agreement—also known as the Abraham Accords—is an unambiguous win for Israel and the Trump administration.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government challenged the long-held premises of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s vision of a “New Middle East,” because it did not have to make any significant concessions to obtain recognition from an Arab state (in other words, it did not have to give up its right to annex portions of the West Bank, only delay them).
Trump can use this agreement in his own reelection campaign to strengthen his deal-making and foreign policy bona fides, allowing him to say that he is the first president to usher in a peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state since 1994.
It is certainly a good thing that more than 25 years after its peace agreement with Jordan, Israel has made peace and obtained recognition from another Arab state. However, after the champagne corks have popped in Jerusalem, it is important to recognize the potential downsides of this deal.
First, Israeli annexation of the West Bank has been suspended, but it has not been abandoned—and the next U.S. administration will have to deal with it. Netanyahu hailed the beginning of a “new era with the Arab world,” and claimed, using a euphemism for annexation, that “Extending sovereignty will only be done alongside the United States.”
Some observers argue that this agreement provides Netanyahu with the political space he needs to climb down from his promises on annexation with minimal consequences. Others posit that this has brought a sigh of relief to countries like Jordan because it has removed the possibility of a major upheaval that could have brought down the monarchy.
But instead of backing down from the extension of sovereignty, Netanyahu and Trump have simply kicked the can down the road.
Netanyahu cannot politically afford to ignore annexation forever. He has tied his hands as well as those of the next U.S. administration because of his commitment to working with Washington on the issue, while unable to afford abandoning one of his own key constituencies: West Bank settlers.
Netanyahu is likely to face a backlash among his supporters in the settlements who favor total annexation of the West Bank. For these settlers, partial annexation (say, of the Jordan Valley alone) was never sufficient; in their view, only the extension of total Israeli sovereignty would provide for their security.
Abandoning annexation altogether would be seen as the ultimate flip-flop, and Netanyahu does not have any available substitutes to satisfy these supporters. This could lead them to abandon his Likud party and throw their support behind other parties on the right, such as Yamina or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu.
Alternatively, they could simply stay home and not vote at all. Netanyahu is unlikely to pick up support from many centrist, center-left, or left-of-center supporters for the Abraham Accords, which means his support among settlers is vital.
It is unclear how either a second Trump or Biden administration would deal with annexation. Joe Biden has repeatedly stressed his pro-Israel credentials, his opposition to annexation, and his unwillingness to impose sanctions upon Israel (to the consternation of progressives in the Democratic Party such as Senator Bernie Sanders).
Once the issue returns—and it will—the next administration will have to decide how much pressure to apply on Israel and which policies might either compel Netanyahu to back down or manage the negative consequences of annexation in the future.
While some countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, have welcomed the agreement, it is likely to worsen the security dilemma between the UAE and Iran. Although the UAE’s leadership was highly critical of the 2015 nuclear deal, over the past year, the UAE has altered its posture toward Iran, signaling that is interested in moving from confrontation toward détente.
Once news arrived of the Abraham Accords, Iran called it a “dagger that was unjustly struck by the UAE in the back of the Palestinian people and all Muslims.” That means the Iran crisis of the past year will worsen. After all, presidential elections are scheduled for next year in Iran and this agreement could allow a hardline conservative candidate to run on a platform that argues Iran is isolated and surrounded by hostile powers.
Such rhetoric has the potential to increase domestic opposition to a renewal or extension of the nuclear deal and could perpetuate the ongoing nuclear crisis set in motion by the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal.
Turkey has also condemned the agreement, adding it to the series of ongoing disputes it already has with the UAE, from Libya to the blockade of Qatar, and drilling for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has now threatened to cut off ties completely with the UAE—further complicating diplomacy in the region as Turkey aligns itself more clearly in opposition to Israel and other U.S. allies.
Rather than seeing how the UAE-Israel deal could antagonize Iran and drive Turkey, a NATO ally, further into the embrace of anti-American forces, U.S. and Israeli decision-makers have employed domino imagery as they celebrate the agreement. In official remarks, Trump said, “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries to follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.” Netanyahu repeated the theme, declaring “There will be other Arab and Muslim states that will join the circle of peace with us.”
It is not uncommon for decision-makers to invoke the image of falling dominoes when examining the consequences of their actions or selling their policies. However, it’s unclear whether other Arab states will actually follow the UAE’s lead in fully recognizing Israel. This would be a welcome outcome, but there is room for caution.
For example, former Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s Camp David peace treaty with Israel resulted in more than a decade’s worth of isolation for Egypt—and his assassination in 1981; Jordan’s peace treaty forced King Hussein to crack down on one-time supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The UAE will be treated as a test case for other Arab leaders. Saudi Arabia, for instance, may find it difficult to fully normalize relations with Israel because of the disputed status of Jerusalem. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Arab leaders will think twice before pursuing public normalization with Israel.
The Abraham Accords may be the most significant foreign-policy accomplishment of the Trump administration; it is no small achievement that Israel has been recognized by a non-neighboring Arab country.
However, there are many potential consequences that cannot be ignored: Annexation has been delayed rather than taken off the table; the security dilemma between the UAE and Iran could get worse; and the Israeli fantasy of falling dominoes could prove short-lived if the new deal isn’t as popular in Abu Dhabi as it is in Jerusalem.