The Israeli-UAE Deal
Amb K P Fabian

On 13th August 2020, President Trump announced that he had brokered a deal between Israel and the U.A.E to normalize relations. It is rather strange that a third country should be the first to announce a deal between two other countries. Obviously, Trump, facing hostile electoral winds, wanted the limelight all to himself.

This is the only instance of successful diplomacy by the Trump presidency to intervene and broker a deal of major importance. However, it should be borne in mind that the U.A.E., established in 1971, when seven emirates ( Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain) came together under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, has signalled for a while its willingness, nay eagerness, to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Similarly, Israel has been pursuing the goal of reaching out to Arab states individually for decades with an impressive tenacity of purpose. In short, it is not the case that Trump brought together two states that were about to go to war. He was knocking at an open door.

Effusive Trump & Netanyahu: a Defensive Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump were understandably effusive as they announced the deal, and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was less than effusive. Trump called it ‘historic’ and a breakthrough toward peace. Trump is right in saying it is ‘historic’ and not exactly right in his reference to peace. Egypt under Anwar Sadat was the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. It was signed in 1979 and Sadat was assassinated the next year. The next was Jordan in 1994. The third was Mauritania which signed in 1999 but abrogated the treaty in 2009 to protest Israeli military attack on Gaza. The reader will note that most media reports omit to mention Mauritania and say that the U.A.E. is the third Arab state to normalize relations with Israel.

Trump has more than hinted that other Arab states might follow U.A.E.’s example. There is reason to believe that Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia might be the next ones, not necessarily in that order. If that happens, Trump’s use of the word ‘historic’ will assume even more significance.

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the son of the founder of the U.A.E.) was less effusive. Obviously for the UAE the deal marked a change of policy that needed to be defended. The Crown Prince has said the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, for which Israel had been awaiting a green light from Washington.1 This is the main justification offered by Abu Dhabi. His tweet was a study in understatement: “The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” The impression being given is that establishment of diplomatic relations will follow the setting up of a roadmap. This impression might prove to be wrong as Trump intends to have a formal ceremony at the White House soon.

Netanyahu’s Gain

In marked contrast, Netanyahu has said that the annexation plans have only been ‘suspended’ and are ‘on the table’. He said in a TV interview, "There is no change in my plan to apply our sovereignty to Judea and Samaria [West Bank] in full co-ordination with the US. I'm committed to it. That hasn't changed. I remind you that I was the one who put the issue of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria on the table. This issue remains on the table."2

To find out what exactly Netanyahu has given as quid pro quo we need to parse the joint statement issued by Israel, U.A.E., and US. The operative sentence is, “As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty.”3

Why did UAE do it?

Obviously, the public position taken by the UAE is different from the text of the agreement. No student of the Middle East will find it likely that just to establish diplomatic relations with an Arab state; Netanyahu will abandon his long-term plans. Therefore, the question arises: Why did the UAE do it? The answer is in many parts. First, by this deal the U.A.E has pleased Trump. Second, Abu Dhabi might gain from economic and scientific cooperation with Israel. Third, Abu Dhabi is keen to project itself as a trend - setter in the region. Fourth, Abu Dhabi is strongly allergic to Muslim Brotherhood ideology and is not particularly keen to lend all out support to the Palestinians.

Another matter to be noted is that though some media reports have characterized the deal as a surprise development, observers knew for a while that some such deal was in the making. The timeline below explains:

November 2015

Israel opened a representative office to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi, Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold visited Abu Dhabi.

20th May 2020

The U.A.E. national carrier Etihad flew into the Ben Gurion airport ostensibly carrying medical supplies for the Palestinians in the context of Covid-19.

9th June

A second flight for the same purpose

(It is noteworthy that the Palestinian Authority refused to accept the gift.)

12th June

The U.A.E. Ambassador in Washington, Al Otaiba, wrote an article in a Hebrew paper (Yediot Ahronoth) warning Israel not to go ahead with its annexation. The Ambassador refuted Netanyahu’s claim that the planned annexation would not come in the way of reaching out to Arab states.4

8th July,

An Israeli state firm signed an agreement with a UAE state firm to work together in combating the Covid-19 contagion.

Netanyahu has played a clever game with weak cards. He has been moving heaven and earth to annex large parts of the West Bank as advocated in the Trump plan unveiled in January 2020, while Trump is still in office.5 Netanyahu’s coalition partner Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Coalition, stood in the way. He wanted the Covid-19 crisis to be over before undertaking any annexation. Trump also had second thoughts about the wisdom of immediate annexation. Finally, Netanyahu drew blank and cleverly decided to “suspend” the annexation plans, a minor concession for which he is getting a disproportionately large reward.

Netanyahu knew that Trump is desperately looking for a foreign policy success as the electoral winds are turning hostile, mainly because of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

External Reactions

The reactions have been on predictable lines. Egypt, Bahrain, and Oman have endorsed the deal. The latter two might even sign similar deals soon.

Saudi Arabia has not so far spoken out. Its taciturnity is understandable. King Abdullah came out with a peace plan in 2002 that was adopted by the Arab League. The plan provided for peace with and recognition of Israel by all Arab states provided Israel went back to its pre-1967 borders. When the Jared Kushner plan came out in January 2020, providing for Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank, Riyadh found itself on the horns of a dilemma. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wanted to endorse it, but his father, King Salman, did not agree.

Saudi Arabia considers itself as the natural leader of the Arabs and might not have been too pleased to see Abu Dhabi’s taking the lead in such an important matter. As against this, Bahrain would not have endorsed the deal without a green signal from Riyadh.

The Palestinians have denounced the deal. Hannan Ashrawi, a prominent leader of the PLO, refuted the UAE’s claims that the deal would stop Israel’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Maybe you didn't suffer for your country being looted, you may not feel living incarcerated under the occupation, you may haven't witnessed the demolition of your home or losing a beloved one or you may have not been sold by one of your friends," she said.6

There is no call for an Arab League meeting and that shows the division in the League. Iran has denounced the deal. Turkey’s President Erdogan has threatened to break off or downgrade diplomatic relations with U.A.E. Spain and France have welcomed the deal.

India’s Reaction

India’s reaction has been sober and balanced. The Minister of External Affairs was briefed by his UAE counterpart. The MEA spokesperson said, “India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalization of ties between UAE and Israel. Both nations are key strategic partners of India. India continues its traditional support for the Palestinian cause. We hope to see early resumption of direct negotiations to find an acceptable two-state solution.”7

What Next?

Trump will have a White House ceremony soon. Perhaps he is waiting for Bahrain and Oman too.

It is unlikely that such a ceremony will significantly boost Trump’s chances for re-election.

After a while, if he is still in power, Netanyahu will resume the “suspended” annexation plans. But he will not get much support from Biden if he is elected.

The prospects for an independent Palestinian state remain dim as of now.

  4. Arab Envoy Warns Israelis That Annexation Threatens Warming Ties, New York Times,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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