Are Israel and the UAE Friends Now?

 /  Aug. 21, 2020, 4:34 p.m.


Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE and President Trump, who played a key role in the UAE-Israel deal.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE and President Trump, who announced the UAE-Israel deal on August 13.

At the beginning of the past decade, the prospect of an official and extensive partnership between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seemed implausible. The countries did not have diplomatic relations, and like all but two members of the Arab League, the UAE did not recognize Israel. In 2010, relations further soured between the two nations when the UAE accused Israel of sending a secret Mossad intelligence hit squad to the UAE that assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. He was responsible for the killing of two Israeli soldiers and was the chief weapons negotiator for the Palestinian militant/terrorist group, Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip.

Yet on August 13, in a historic announcement, President Donald Trump released a joint declaration that said that he, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, the de facto leader of the UAE, “spoke today and agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.” Normalization is the formalization of public relations, with each party mutually recognizing each other’s legitimate existence. As part of the normalization process, the declaration announced that “in the coming weeks,” Israel and the UAE will meet to “sign bilateral agreements” to formalize their diplomatic relations and increase “cooperation.” In order to normalize relations, Israel agreed to “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President's Vision of Peace,” these areas being the major Israeli settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The agreement flouts the existing framework that a Palestinian state is a prerequisite for the opening of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab world. Opposing normalization has been a rallying cry for the Arab world and Palestinian leaders and rights activists. Palestinians and the Arab states feared that normalization with Israel would legitimize Israel and its policies towards Palestinians, particularly its occupation of the West Bank and annexation of East Jerusalem. But the UAE has agreed to it, and other Arab states are likely to follow.

What changed? 

Iran. 

A Common Foe: Iran

The adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ typifies this situation. Both Israel and the UAE view Iran as a grave threat. Iran has repeatedly vowed to obliterate Israel, and the UAE is part of a Gulf State axis that is currently engaged in a proxy war against Iran. Both countries see Iranian nuclear weapons development as detrimental to their security.

As the UAE likely sees it, strengthening itself against Iran is worth making a deal with Israel. Iran has recently grown more aggressive by supporting militias that have fired rockets at the Saudi Arabian capital, the UAE’s neighbor and close ally, and reportedly attacking the UAE and other nations’ oil tankers. Iran is also in a territorial dispute with the UAE and is backing proxy militias in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Israel has a highly capable army that has had success in slowing Iran’s nuclear development. In the face of an Iranian threat, these two US allies have chosen to work together.

Turkey Too, But to a Lesser Extent

Turkey is Israel and the UAE's other main mutual rival. While both Israel and the UAE have formal diplomatic and substantial economic ties with Turkey, Turkey’s relations with both countries have weakened in recent years. The UAE opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, an influencial Islamist political movement, while Turkey supports it. The UAE and Turkey also back opposing sides in the ongoing Libyan Civil War.

Israeli-Turkish relations have deteriorated since Israel raided the Gaza flotilla, a Turkish aid ship trying to penetrate Israel’s military no-go zone surrounding Gaza in 2010, killing ten Turkish citizens. Israel and Turkey have also had tensions over Mediterranean natural gas development.

In reaction to the UAE-Israel agreement, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to “either suspend diplomatic ties or recall our ambassador” to the UAE. The Israel-UAE deal certainly worsens relations between the agreeing nations and Turkey, but the deal’s target is mainly Iran.

How UAE-Israel Ties Developed

The unintentional repercussions of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly called the Iran nuclear deal, seems to have set the normalization of UAE-Israel relations into motion. At the deal's core, the world's major powers, including the United States, agreed with Iran to largely suspend their sanctions on Iran; in exchange, Iran would largely suspend its nuclear development program. Many signatories of the Iran deal hoped it would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. However, Israel, the UAE, and other Gulf states highly opposed the Iran nuclear deal, believing it was inadequate to stop Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile development. Israel and the Gulf states commended Trump for withdrawing from the deal in 2018.

Faced with an Iranian threat that they viewed the United States as being too soft on, Israel and the UAE began a complicated diplomatic dance to normalize relations. While the two countries made secret cybersecurity deals before, these were far from formal and open diplomatic relations. The Iran nuclear deal accelerated the development of these secret trades into more extensive ties. In 2014, Israel opened a diplomatic mission in the UAE, officially only representing Israel at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. In 2018, Israeli Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev traveled to the UAE to attend an international Judo tournament. At it, the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” played, a first in the history of the UAE, which had previously banned outward symbols of Israel and Zionism. In 2019, the UAE named New York University chaplain Rabbi Yehuda Sarna as the first chief rabbi of the UAE and Abu Dhabi announced plans to construct an interfaith complex housing a mosque, church, and the UAE’s first widely publicized and prominent synagogue. Relations with Israel and Jews often go hand and hand in the Arab world. It also invited Israel to participate in the 2020 World Expo in Abu Dhabi and said it would allow Israeli tourists into the UAE to attend it.

In January, Trump released his Vision for Peace, a proposed peace plan between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It notably appeared to give Israel the green light to annex about 30 percent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. While the UAE did not formally endorse the plan, its attendance at the plan’s announcement ceremony suggested their tacit support. A decade ago, there would have been outrage at such a plan. 

On June 12, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States, wrote a landmark article published in Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot, a first for a Gulf state diplomat. He wrote that Israel faces a choice between either “normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states” or annexing Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The article was a response to Netanyahu's announcement and electoral campaign promise that he intended to annex certain areas of the West Bank starting in July. But as July came to a close, there was no annexation; it appeared to be a bluff. And with no annexation, the UAE and Israel could open relations.

While these public moves occurred, US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook and Trump’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner led secret talks between the UAE and Israel on normalizing relations.

Finally, on August 13, Trump announced that the UAE and Israel were opening diplomatic relations and said, “I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.” The perception by Gulf States that support from the United States may be unreliable may compel them to do just that. With Trump saying that “the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country: going into the Middle East, by George Bush,” the UAE and the Gulf States are likely hesitant to rely solely on the United States. Better to have a second option, partnering with Israel, which is forced by geography to be engaged in Middle Eastern affairs.

With the stakes so high for even opening basic diplomatic relations with Israel, the UAE-Israel agreement will likely sprout into more than simply recognition of Israel. The deal will likely be the start of a substantive partnership between Israel and the UAE against Iran, and one that will extend to other issues and trade.

What About the Palestinians?

The status of the Palestinians has historically been the reason why there was no normalization of relations. Palestinian leadership and activists, along with Arab governments, have long viewed opening diplomatic ties with Israel as conceding Israel's right to exist and legitimizing Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, occupation of the West Bank, and policies towards Palestinians. As the Arab League’s peace initiative outlines, there must be a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank before there can be “normal relations.” 

However, when Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, supporting Israel’s claim to Jerusalem in a break from previous policy, the anticipated harsh blowback from the Arab world never came. Security from Iran turned out to be a higher priority than solidarity with the Palestinians. There is no mention of the two-state solution in the UAE-Israel declaration, only the suspension of annexation plans; in other words, preserving the status quo. By partnering with Israel, the UAE has made the calculation that it can sacrifice promises made to Palestinians as a price for safeguarding its homeland and interests from Iran. 

The opening of Israel-UAE relations likely weakens the Palestinians’ negotiating position. Preserving the status quo has replaced the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which has long been the primary Palestinian national goal, as the threshold for Israeli-Arab peace. Arab League support has been critical in helping the Palestinians achieve their goal. However, as evident by the Israel-UAE agreement, the Palestinians’ historical backers, the Arab League, have grown tired of the stalled peace process; they fear Iran more than they care about the Palestinians. Or perhaps the monarchies and authoritarian governments of the Arab world never truly cared about Palestinian rights. They just used the Palestinian cause as a way to get international and popular support in balancing against a perceived Israeli threat.

Ending Annexation is Likely a Cover; the Deal is Really About Iran 

The UAE has been trying to shift the focus of the agreement away from Iran and towards stopping annexation. The UAE’s foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, told a Bloomberg News interviewer that the Israel-UAE agreement “is in no way meant to create some sort of grouping against Iran,” that instead it is for increasing cooperation and preventing the annexation of the West Bank. Before the deal, the UAE had been working to improve ties with Iran, specifically in the humanitarian realm.

Contrary to Gargash’s comments to the press, the UAE-Israel agreement probably did not end Israel’s annexation plans; annexation seemed unworkable for factors independent of the agreement. PNetanyahu has repeatedly used the promise of annexation to drum up support from his base of voters over the past few elections, yet never followed through with it. Before the announcement of the deal, annexation, as one columnist for the Middle Eastern news media site Al-Monitor writes, was mostly “dead in the water.” The Trump administration no longer supported Israel’s unilateral annexation plans, Netanyahu’s coalition partners, which he relies on to stay in power, opposed unilateral annexation, and lastly, Netanyahu was no longer in an election. In short, Netanyahu was not in the right position for annexation and the UAE likely realized that.

Gargash’s comments about Iran are largely misleading. The UAE’s security actions contradict Gargash’s statements and hurt the chances of a UAE-Iran thaw. The UAE attended the Warsaw Middle East security conference in February, which was a gathering of NATO members and Middle East allies, specifically both Israel and Gulf states, in what many saw as an effort to form a coalition and strategy to thwart Iran’s aggression. The Wall Street Journal reported that the conference “paved the way for the U.S. to broker secret talks between the U.A.E. and Israel, mostly focused on Iran.” Opening ties with Israel is one of the moves that would anger Iran the most. The UAE-Iran de-escalation may have been a way to reduce tensions before, to paraphrase the Iranian foreign ministry, the UAE's backstab. 

Reports came out this week that as part of the Israel-UAE agreement, Israel gave the United States approval to sell advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE (US law requires that American arms sales ensure that Israel have a qualitative military edge over its Middle Eastern neighbors). Netanyahu sharply denied this, but in a way that one correspondent for the Times of Israel called a “non-denial.” Trump said that the sale was “under review.” If these reports are true and the F-35 sale comes into fruition, it supports the analysis that the UAE made a deal with Israel largely for support in response to a threat from Iran.

Grash’s public statements are likely an attempt to rhetorically place the UAE-Israel agreement within the existing framework of Israel-Arab normalization, and soften pushback and retaliation to the deal. The UAE may also be trying to take credit for its apparent non-concession of the suspension of annexation that it received from Israel.

More Arab States Will Follow

The UAE is only the first Gulf state to normalize relations with Israel. In the face of a hostile Iran, and the United States keen on reducing its presence in the Middle East, more Gulf and Arab states will likely follow. Trump has made his intention to leave the Middle East clear. Joe Biden, former vice president of the administration that created the Iran deal, has campaigned that he is open to return to the Iran deal. Whatever the result of the 2020 US Presidential election is, Israel and the Gulf states are evidently less confident that the United States will ensure their security. Faced with the common enemy of Iran, they are banding together. 

Bahrain and Oman are the next states expected to open relations. Both attended Trump’s unveiling of his peace plan, which signalled willingness to open relations with Israel. In 2018, Netanyahu visited Oman and met with its sultan, Qaboos bin Said. After the agreement’s announcement, Oman praised the Israel-UAE deal. Bahrain hosted the main workshop for Trump's peace plan. At it, the foreign minister of Bahrain told a Times of Israel reporter, “we do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it.” Bahrain praised the agreement between the UAE and Israel, and Israeli media reported shortly after the deal’s announcement that Bahrain and Israel were in talks regarding opening formal ties. Normalization of Israel-Bahrain and Israel-Oman relations could soon follow. 

Saudi Arabia may follow, or at least increase unofficial cooperation with Israel. While the Saudi Arabian ambassador did not attend the announcement of Trump's peace plan, ties with Israel are improving. In May, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder wrote the front-page article “A Quiet Revolution is Changing the Middle East” in Arab News, a prominent Saudi Arabian English newspaper that has close links with the Saudi Arabian government. He highlighted steps that Saudi Arabia has taken to improve relations with Israel and the Jewish people, including the premiere of the Saudi Arabian TV series Um Haroun on a state-run channel, a rare positive depiction of Jews in Saudi Arabian popular media. He also praised a delegation led by Mohammed Al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Saudi Arabian government-funded Muslim World League, to Auschwitz.

Seeing itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and home of the holy cities Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia may not formalize public relations, but informal ones will likely increase. Shortly after the announcement of the UAE-Israel agreement, another Jewish leader, the well-connected Rabbi Marc Schneier, wrote an article on the front page of Arab News titled “The UAE-Israel Agreement is Only the Tip of the Iceberg.” A list of praise of the UAE-Israel agreement by foreign leaders appeared above the article. If Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Israel, it will be of an even greater significance than UAE-Israel normalization. Still, full official relations do not seem imminent.

By suspending annexation, Israel improves relations with Jordan, which along with Egypt is one of the two Arab countries Israel currently has ties with. Plans to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank had been a source of tension between Israel and Jordan. Because of the Israel-UAE agreement, annexation appears to be officially off the table for now.

With the UAE normalizing normalization, other Arab states that were hesitant to open ties due to potential backlash may now open official relations with Israel. Morocco already has extensive informal and cultural links with Israel and King Mohammed VI of Morocco has worked to preserve Jewish heritage in his country. Sudan’s leader, General Abdel Fattah-Burhan, met with Netanyahu in February, in a meeting arranged by the UAE. On Tuesday, a Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman announced that Sudan is opening peace talks with Israel. The Sudanese acting Foreign Minister Omar Qamar al-Din denied this and the spokesman was fired a day later. Sudan is currently listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, and may view an agreement with Israel as a way to push the United States to remove this designation and associated sanctions. Mauritania may reopen relations with Israel and reconsider its ties with Iran. It previously opened them in 1999, but severed them in 2010. On Saturday, Mauritania’s foreign affairs ministry issued a statement supporting the UAE’s decision and the Palestinian cause. 

The Long View

The Middle East is realigning, with a new Gulf State-Israel bloc trying to balance against Iran. Iran will likely strengthen itself against this bloc by increasing nuclear development and deepening its relationships with China and Russia

The Iranian threat appears to have eclipsed the Israeli one in the eyes of the Gulf states. To face that threat, a new Israeli-Gulf axis has been coming together. With the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, it is now becoming official. 

Large-scale conflicts and tensions are brewing in an already chaotic Middle East, as new partnerships and blocs are made. The Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be waning, while the Arab-Iranian one grows, and solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian one seem ever distant.

The image used in this article was taken by the White House and is in the public domain. The original image can be found here.



Sam Levy


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