The consequences of the Israel–UAE peace deal
15 Sep 2020|

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hailed the agreement normalising relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates—which the two countries will sign at a White House ceremony today—as a historic step that equals Israel’s previous peace deals with Egypt and Jordan. The Israeli leader also boasted that the agreement with the UAE vindicated his ‘Netanyahu doctrine’ of peace for peace, rather than land for peace.

But even peace with a country with which Israel doesn’t share a border and has never fought a war required Netanyahu to give up his plans to annex large parts of the West Bank. So, there was a ‘land for peace’ aspect to the deal after all.

More important, Netanyahu’s ‘doctrine’ practically buries the concept underlying the 2002 Arab peace initiative: that an Israeli–Palestinian peace should be the precondition for normalisation of Arab states’ relations with Israel. The Arab League itself has rejected the Palestinians’ request to condemn the Israel–UAE deal, and the pact also signals the defeat of the Israeli left’s vision of Palestine as the key to peace with the Arab world.

Throughout the many decades of Arab–Israeli antagonism, Arab states have betrayed the Palestinians no less than Israel has. In his 1979 peace agreement with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made far-reaching commitments on the Palestinian question. But both leaders knew that theirs was a separate peace driven by vital strategic needs—as shown by its survival despite Israel’s ever deepening occupation and settlement of Palestinian lands.

Why, then, has Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s ruler, invited the rage of the betrayed Palestinians by normalising relations with the Jewish state? First, he proved to be a man with the courage to call things by their name. Gulf states including the UAE and Saudi Arabia have had discreet security relations with Israel for years. As a major military and technological power in the Middle East, Israel has become a necessary ally for conservative regimes shaken by the 2011 Arab Spring, the threat of Islamist radicalism and Iran’s growing regional clout.

But it is mainly the fear of a withdrawal from the region by the United States that is bringing Arab states closer to Israel. They saw how US President Donald Trump refrained from any direct military response to Iran’s devastating September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations. Moreover, Trump didn’t even respond to Iran’s downing a few months earlier of a sophisticated US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

The idea that peace with Israel also means peace with America had always been a fundamental motive behind the Arabs’ decision to consider reconciliation with the Jewish state. Sadat signed the 1979 peace agreement because he wanted to shift Egypt’s strategic orientation from the Soviet Union to the US. The US$2 billion in annual military aid that Egypt still receives from the US is a direct product of that peace. And Syria, Israel’s staunchest Arab enemy, became interested in peace only after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Emiratis don’t need America’s money, but they do need its continuous involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. Israel is the guarantee that America will always be around, and offers the UAE a path into the US Congress, where arms deals and financial packages are approved.

The Trump administration’s apparent decision to sell F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE has been an important objective in the Emirati peace strategy towards Israel. These advanced warplanes—which only the US and Israel currently possess—will secure America’s engagement with the UAE, and add muscle to a small country that has global ambitions and many enemies.

Chief among these foes are Qatar and Turkey. Both countries support the Muslim Brotherhood, a UAE nemesis, which explains Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s virulent reaction to the normalisation deal. In Libya, the UAE is fighting together with Egypt and Russia in support of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar are backing the internationally recognised government in Tripoli. The UAE has also sought to check Turkey’s punitive incursions against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Framing the Israel–UAE agreement as part of the continuous effort to contain Iran, as Netanyahu and the Trump administration are doing, is a convenient way to make the F-35 arms deal palatable to increasingly isolationist US public opinion. The truth is that the UAE has been pursuing a prudent strategy vis-à-vis Iran. It recently abandoned the Saudi-led coalition in the war against Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen, and has even disengaged from Trump’s sanctions regime against Iran.

Be that as it may, Netanyahu is right to say that the Palestinians are losing their most important strategic asset: their veto power over an all-Arab peace with Israel. Bahrain has already announced that it will follow in the UAE’s footsteps, and more Arab countries are likely to do so as well. The region is changing, and the Arabs are accepting that Israel is a legitimate strategic player. Palestine, the supposed epicentre of the region’s worries, has become a disposable cause.

The Palestinians must recognise that they have brought this situation on themselves by their serial rejection of peace offers in the past. How could they assume that the Arab states would forever mortgage their national interests in a changing region to fulfil Palestine’s implausible expectations? Should they not now shift strategy, stop their ‘boycott’ of the US and engage Israel in the search for a realistic peace plan?