The Israel-UAE Deal Won’t Bring Peace, but It Will Prolong the War in Libya
The much-touted agreement cements the regional divide between traditionalist monarchies and their rivals, while their respective proxies fight over the spoils from Libya to Yemen.
For decades, the Arab-Israeli conflict was the Middle East’s primary geopolitical fault line. But in recent years that has ceased to be the case as Gulf states fearful of Iran’s growing regional power quietly aligned with Israel, without fully normalizing ties. The recent deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates merely made that shift official. And although the deal might not have much impact on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it largely sidesteps, it will have profound impacts elsewhere, hardening the contemporary cold war that has gripped the region since the Arab Spring.
It is these regional tensions that make solving proxy wars so difficult, especially in Libya, where on Aug. 21, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) announced a unilateral ceasefire. Despite the announcement, in the absence of a true détente between the Middle East’s two rival blocs, there is no hope of eliminating the genuine drivers of the region’s many proxy conflicts. The GNA is simply trying to regain the upper hand when it comes to media optics by casting themselves as victorious and magnanimous peacemakers.
Although the fundamental drivers of regional conflict remain unaltered, pundits across the political spectrum are correct to note the regional significance of the UAE-Israel deal sealed last week. It is likely to shape the region’s future by formalizing its division into two competing blocs, with Israel’s integration into the region firmly on the side of a traditionalist, pro-monarchy, anti-Muslim Brotherhood bloc consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, Oman, Sudan, and Kuwait. Despite having most of the economic power, this bloc is currently on the backfoot regionally to an ascendant group of governments that oppose the status quo and that support political Islam of one stripe or another. This rival insurgent bloc is led by Turkey, Iran, and Qatar.
Despite being hailed as a “peace deal,” the UAE-Israel agreement will more likely prolong ongoing regional wars. It will intensify conflict in those contested zones of the Middle East where the two blocs back rival actors—primarily Yemen, Libya, and Syria. The insurgent bloc is winning in all three conflicts.
The UAE has proved that its main strategy in these conflicts is to control the policymaking of its allies. Emirati leaders have leveraged their relationships in Riyadh and Washington over the last three years to give them or their proxies a free hand to fight in these contested zones. Yet at the moment of their great diplomatic success, the UAE is currently stumbling militarily in all three theaters.
The UAE and Israel are the United States’ two biggest regional allies, and for good reason. They possess cutting-edge economies and share certain values with the West such as religious tolerance, intelligence-sharing in the global fight against terrorism, and rigorous protections of private property. Nonetheless, both have exhibited an authoritarian turn over the last decade. Unfortunately, instead of providing the Emiratis with tough love—which might have reoriented their regional ambitions toward consensus-building—the Trump administration has acquiesced to their dreams of regional domination.
It has taken a similar approach toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, abandoning the traditional U.S. role of mediator between Israel and its adversaries, and instead condoning all of Netanyahu’s excesses when it comes to settlement expansion, the increasing militarization of Israeli foreign policy, and corrupt, discriminatory, and undemocratic domestic practices.
Over the past nine years, Libya has served as a key battleground between the region’s two blocs. Foreign support to competing internal groups has largely come in the form of weapons, despite a United Nations resolution forbidding such arms transfers. Leaders of the traditionalist bloc, along with Russia, send support to the rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar, who commands the so-called Libyan National Army based in the east.
The local communities and militias opposed to Haftar support the U.N.-backed GNA. This group receives tangible diplomatic assistance from Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and occasionally the United States. However, those countries refused to offer the requisite military assistance when Tripoli was under attack in 2019.
So, from early 2020, the Turkish government has stepped in on behalf of the insurgent regional bloc, funneling drones and Syrian mercenaries to Libya’s shores to protect Tripoli and defeat Haftar. Both sides have committed atrocities, and the Turks have pushed for a maritime exclusive zone, which clearly violates international law—and Greek, Cypriot, and Egyptian maritime rights—in an attempt to turn Turkey into the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas exploration and export hub. Despite Turkey’s aggressive regional posture, it is Russian and Emirati maximalism that is keeping Haftar in place and making it more difficult to reach a compromise and end Libya’s civil war.
The time for Haftar to exit the stage is increasingly acknowledged even by his supporters. After he definitively lost the battle for Tripoli this spring, both Cairo and Moscow have started cultivating Speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives Aguila Saleh as an alternative powerbroker for the country’s east. In response, Haftar has been preparing a golden parachute for his family. On April 24, Haftar’s private jet was tracked on its way to Caracas. It then departed for Switzerland three days later, landing in Dubai in early May. The purpose of the trip was allegedly to exchange U.S. dollars for Venezuelan gold.
This incident immediately appeared to change the primary dynamics at play in U.S. Libya policy. Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, U.S. policymaking on Libya has been bifurcated—used by top administration grandees as a way to appease the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, while it has been seen by professional civil servants as a key arena to combat Russian influence and coordinate with NATO allies and the U.N.
When Haftar double-crossed the Trump administration by violating the U.S. Treasury’s Venezuelan sanctions, this long-standing split in U.S. Libya policy seemed to momentarily disappear. During a brief period of about three months, the U.S. government spearheaded negotiations to lift Libya’s oil blockade (imposed by the UAE, Russia, and Haftar’s tribal allies, who demand a greater share of oil revenue), coordinated with Turkey to cement the GNA’s territorial gains, called out Haftar’s forces for human rights violations, and engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two main factions.
However, last week’s agreement between the UAE and Israel will likely bring an abrupt end to this gradual and beneficial convergence of White House and State Department-Pentagon views on Libya, and, with it, Washington’s potentially stabilizing role.
Sadly, the United States appears to be returning to the bad old days where the White House’s engagement in Libya (with senior advisor Jared Kushner in the lead) was at the beck and call of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Key administration figures, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, remain incensed at Haftar’s helping their enemy in Caracas, yet appeasing the UAE is now overriding those emotions.
At a time when their popularity was tanking due to poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic and myriad scandals, the UAE-Israel deal helps Netanyahu and Trump with their domestic electoral problems. It does no such thing for the rulers of the UAE, however; in fact, it marginally hurts their domestic popularity. Nonetheless, the Emiratis handed Netanyahu and Trump the top foreign-policy achievements of their current terms—clearly in exchange for geopolitical gains elsewhere.
The UAE-Israel agreement is extremely controversial in the Arab world because it can be understood as an abandonment of the Palestinians—hence the recent decisions of the UAE’s allies in Sudan and Saudi Arabia to distance themselves. This increases the extent to which Trump and Kushner are beholden to the Emirati leadership for helping deliver them a much-needed media boost. As a result, the White House will now be unlikely to criticize the UAE’s role in Libya—let alone in Syria, Egypt, East Africa, or Yemen.
Even under a new U.S. administration if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins in November, the overly optimistic view that the agreement may eventually encourage other Arab countries to restore relations with Israel and prevent annexation of parts of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories will mitigate any potential criticism of the UAE’s otherwise aggressive and polarizing regional role. In Libya, the UAE will likely continue to block oil production—damaging Libya’s economy—and continue to support the ongoing military intervention by Egypt or Russia.
In short, the deal will implicitly force the United States to pull back from its mediating role in Libya, further hardening the region’s division into two blocs. Trump and Kushner appear to have finally sold the Libya file to Abu Dhabi in exchange for a domestic victory.
Given that presidential engagement is likely off the table until at least January 2021, when a new U.S. presidential term begins, one avenue for the U.S. government to continue pushing for peace in Libya is via the Libya Stabilization Act. The bipartisan legislation mandates that the administration impose sanctions on countries interfering in the Libyan crisis, as well as smugglers and violators of human rights. It would likely not be able to be used for sanctions against the Emiratis, as Washington think tanks and Congress itself are teeming with the UAE’s supporters.
In its current form, the act names only Russia and Turkey and would potentially allow for sanctions against Egypt, which has recently threatened direct military action in Libya. Nonetheless, it would be a stark reminder of Congress’s role in pushing back against a Trump foreign policy that elevates its relationship with the UAE over international law.
If a new administration that is more amenable to imposing sanctions takes office, such a move could help stem Libya’s proxy war and bring relief to those suffering in Libya. U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders must wake up to the hardening regional divisions in the Middle East that have replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and seek to prevent—rather than exacerbate—the suffering those divisions are causing in Libya and elsewhere.