The United Arab Emirates and Israel Just Came Clean on Their Extra-Marital Affair
On Aug. 13, a deal was struck that marks a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East. It is not a “historic peace treaty,” as officials in Jerusalem and Washington described, since peace treaties are made between enemies. No state of war, nor conflict of any kind, exists between the United Arab Emirates and Israel — certainly since 1994. Rather, their relationship has been one of concealed friendship rooted in the post-Oslo Accords 1990s that has become open and institutionalized.
But what underlies the deal? What trade-offs are involved? First, and above all else, it is a political deal. The annexation of West Bank territories by Israel will be halted and taken off the table, whether temporarily (if President Donald Trump is re-elected) or permanently (if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the opportunity and was aware of two trends. First, for the past quarter century, the Gulf states have furthered their own interests at the expense of collective Arab interests, including the Palestinian cause. The solidarity and intractability that was characteristic of the Arab states during the third quarter of the 20th century have dissolved, and the Arab League has gradually lost its influence in the last decade and a half. In this context, Abu Dhabi remained a confident and independent actor. Secondly, the Trump administration has placed great emphasis on working “from the outside in” — meaning a regional process that incorporates a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as opposed to “from the inside out” — meaning work beginning bilaterally with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem and subsequently progressing toward normalization with the Arab states. Thus, Trump has reorganized the linear process that characterized all of the peace initiatives. The policies and actions of Iran and Turkey provided incentives for Israel to explore new political and security alliances. And lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the necessity of cross-border economic, technological, and medical cooperation.
The timing of the announcement was somewhat surprising, even though the measure itself is consistent with significant evidence of increasingly close relations between Israel and the Gulf states — especially with the United Arab Emirates — in recent years. It should be remembered that it was Mohammed bin Zayed, the de-facto ruler, who stood beside King Abdullah of Jordan at the head of the Arab camp that came out publicly and resolutely against the application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. It may be the case that had the Israeli government not proclaimed its intention to annex large parts of the West Bank (with the backing of the Trump administration), the normalization of relations might not have taken place.
Since the rollout of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, the Arab states have advocated the plan and have consistently reiterated their adherence to it. Some, like Kuwait, still view it as a precondition to the normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel upon having first established a comprehensive peace settlement with the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia, too, announced that it is still committed to peace on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative but avoided direct reaction to the evolving Emirati-Israeli pact. Israel, for its part, has worked in recent years to improve its relations with Arab countries while abandoning any and all dialogue with the Palestinians. In light of this trend, the Palestinian Authority has done its best to thwart signs of normalization between Israel and the Arab states in general (and the Gulf states in particular) in order to retain chips for negotiating with Israel. However, the Gulf states’ approach to Israel underwent changes over the years, contemporaneous with the erosion of the preconditions of the Arab Peace Initiative.
In early May, the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University published an article that emphasizes the importance of the Arab track in restructuring a viable process that would lead to the “two-state for two-people” solution. In it, we argue that “[n]ot only can Arab states provide important infrastructure and encouragement to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but Israeli-Arab normalization is a key component of any roadmap to regional peace.” We also noted that “Encouraging Arab states to engage in the process is a necessary step in multilateral conflict resolution … Arab states can still encourage a negotiation process as a basis for reaching many stated objectives of the Arab Peace Initiative.”
In the United Arab Emirates, the agreement is being presented as a diplomatic victory aimed at benefiting the Palestinians and as a necessary cost of stopping Israeli annexation in the West Bank. In this way, they claim that they are not only helping to maintain the relevance of the two-state solution, but also contributing to stability in the Middle East. Within the domestic sphere — which still exhibits little amity towards Israel — the price Bin Zayed believes he will pay for normalizing relations is less than the potential benefits. Polls conducted in the United Arab Emirates in recent years indicate that public opinion is concerned primarily with the threat posed by Iran and rank the Palestinian issue at the bottom of the agenda. With regard to the regional sphere, opposition to the measure is being led by Iran and Turkey, who have positioned themselves as rivals of both Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
For the Emirates, the benefits stemming from the deal do not end with the halting of Israeli annexation in the West Bank or the dividends that may accrue from their relations with Israel (which were strong in any event). Bin Zayed also hopes that the agreement will improve the image of the United Arab Emirates, which has sustained damage primarily from its military involvement in Yemen and bin Zayed’s cooperation with Mohammed bin Salman — the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s ruler in practice — who, through a number of actions, has overseen the diminution of Saudi status and influence.
More importantly, bin Zayed is hopeful that his determined act will strengthen Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Washington, particularly in the security realm, and will provide Trump with a success of sorts. It seems that bin Zayed is hoping to gain access to sophisticated, state-of-the-art U.S. offensive weaponry that so far Washington has not provided to Arab countries in order to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge. Since the announcement of the agreement to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, several official sources previously involved in talks between the two countries raised concerns that as part of the new agreement, Netanyahu may have abandoned Israel’s traditionally vehement opposition to the sale of sensitive military equipment and technology to the United Arab Emirates, particularly the F-35 advanced fighter jet. A plan for such a sale was blocked by the U.S. Congress in the past, under pressure from Israel and its advocates in Washington.
It is here that the question of timing comes into the picture. Biden, if elected, is liable to adopt a much stricter policy than that of his predecessor regarding the issue of human rights and a softer approach toward Iran. In addition, doubts have also increased within the United Arab Emirates regarding the continuation of America’s commitment to its security.
The courageous act of bin Zayed will not hurt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which in any event has been stalled for many years. A process of gradual regional normalization could, paradoxically, help the chances of reaching a long-term settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Abu Dhabi’s breaking of the Arab consensus may put pressure on the Palestinians to demonstrate, for once, resourcefulness and flexibility. They might agree to a negotiated political compromise, if only out of concern that other countries will precede them in hopping on the “peace train” without them. At this stage, the Emirati leadership has preferred to use levers of influence to delay or possibly stop Israeli annexation and to maintain the comfortable (though vulnerable) Israeli-Palestinian status quo.
Some may regard the United Arab Emirates as the country currently influencing the direction of regional development perhaps more than any other Arab state, and justifiably so. However, one should remember that some of its regional actions in recent years — such as the embargo of Qatar, the war in Yemen, and intervention in Libya — have not been entirely successful. It is therefore apparent that Emirati leadership sought a meaningful success to solidify its leading regional status.
Israel’s political statement, which is not being voiced domestically due to coalition and election-related considerations, is clear: Netanyahu has stepped in line with the principle he has fought against his entire life — land for peace. In this case, no annexation of West Bank land — for peace. By taking annexation off the table, he has aligned himself with the path demarcated by U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), which have constituted the basis of all political negotiations (both successful and unsuccessful) between Israel and its neighbors. From this perspective, Netanyahu, who has zigzagged time and again between “two states for two peoples” and “no establishment of a Palestinian state” over the past decade, is actually walking in the footsteps of his predecessors in the prime minister’s office: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert. All of them understood, internalized, and took action to shape Israel’s borders around a Jewish majority and democracy, while relinquishing territorial aspirations.
Israel’s economic stability and the financial and economic power of the United Arab Emirates also played a central role in the agreement, which has the ability to actualize immense economic and business potential for all those involved. The value of Israel’s current exports to the United Arab Emirates is only around $300,000 per year. Expert assessments estimate the scope of future Israeli exports to be a skyrocketing $300–350 million per year, but even that figure probably underestimates the true value of the deals between the two countries. Israeli imports are liable to grow at a comparable rate. Among other things, this will probably involve cooperation and investments in fields such as cyber technology, medical equipment, communications, financial technology, agriculture, defense, and intelligence.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, have not recognized the changes within the Arab states that prioritize their own progress and interests over adherence to an Arab strategy of supporting the Palestinians against Israel, which has waned in practice over the past two decades. Official Palestine — the Palestinian Authority and its spokespersons — were offended by the Emirati measure, with Palestinian leaders likening the agreement to a “stab in the back.” However, the Palestinian public in the West Bank does not appear to be party to this sense of insult and victimization, and the Israeli-Emirati normalization agreement has actually given hope for change toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement under Gulf-Arab sponsorship. Critics on the home front, including former establishment figures such as Sufian Abu Zaida, have voiced fundamental criticism of the Palestinian Authority’s leadership, which failed to take the opportunity that fell into its lap and use the agreement to resume dialogue via a broader and more committed track.
Besmirched above all others has been Muhammad Dahlan, arch-nemesis of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his associates. This, of course, is nothing new. However, reports of Dahlan — a protégé of bin Zayed — as the agreement’s groomsman are driving the Fatah establishment out of its mind. Published reports call him a traitor and characterize the Israeli-Emirati “despicable agreement” as one chapter in a line of conspiracies and collaborations between Dahlan — the “darling of the Emirates” — and the Israeli security apparatus.
Gaza — which, with the encouragement of Hamas and the other factions, is marching toward a controlled escalation — has ignored the normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In recent weeks, Israel and Hamas have traded violent blows, and the assessment there and in Jerusalem is that a high-intensity clash can again be expected.
In conclusion, the agreement is undoubtedly an important milestone in Israel’s relations with the Arab states and in U.S. relations with the Gulf states. However, if efforts are not made to begin a dialogue within the region and elsewhere in order to achieve a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all that will remain of it are economic, military and political payoffs to the different parties of the deal. Israel would be wise to help the Palestinians come down from their ledge of wrath and perpetual refusal, through a gradual resumption of security coordination and the beginning of political dialogue with an eye toward a long-term settlement. This could be done using a revised and updated Arab Peace Initiative as a framework.
Along with the temporary or permanent relinquishment of Israel’s unilateral annexation of territory in the West Bank, it would make sense for the Israeli government to invest in an effort to demarcate — albeit provisionally — the border between Israel and the Palestinians. This would be a first step on a path to separation into two nation states, even if a full-fledged peace agreement has not yet been reached. The aim should be to achieve a defensible border that encompasses a democratic nation state of the Jewish people, based on the values and ethics of the quasi-constitutional 1948 Declaration of Independence. Today, following the Israeli-Emirati breakthrough, it appears that Israel is more likely to achieve broader agreement among the Arab states regarding the following major principles, which are consistent with its national interests:
First, a resolution of the historic conflict between the Palestinian people, the Jewish people, and Israel. Second, a re-partition of the former territory of British Mandatory Palestine between a sovereign Palestinian state on 22 percent of the land and the state of Israel on 78 percent, based on June 4, 1967, lines with agreed-upon changes, including the incorporation of most of the Jewish settlers in the main settlement blocks that will be annexed to Israel, and compensation for this through land swaps.
Third, a definition of the Palestinian state as the national home of the Palestinian Arab people, and definition of the state of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
Fourth, no recognition, under any circumstances, of a right of return to Israel for refugees. The Palestinian refugees will be rehabilitated within their current states of residence, the Palestinian state, and other states that express a willingness to absorb them. International mechanisms will be set up to rehabilitate the refugees and assist the Arab states that absorb them into their territory.
Fifth, the Jerusalem area will serve two capitals: Jewish Yerushalaim and Arab al-Quds, which will be separated by a clear and defined line of sovereignty. The historic basin surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem will be administered by a special and perhaps international regime that will ensure freedom of access to worship for all religions. Moreover, security arrangements shall be based on Palestine being a demilitarized state, as well as on long-term international guarantees to ensure regional stability.
Lastly, the beginning of education toward peace and coexistence between the two peoples should be encouraged.
All political initiatives ultimately lead to the same basic principles for a settlement. Now is the time to take action based on the trends reflected in the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as in the agreements that are likely to follow.
Gilead Sher is the Isaac and Mildred Brochstein Fellow in Middle East Peace and Security in Honor of Yitzhak Rabin at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He served as chief of staff to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and as a senior peace negotiator. Currently, he is a senior fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies, has served on Israel’s National Security Council, in the prime minister’s office, and as a consultant to several ministries. His most recent book, Fraternal Enemies: Israel and the Gulf Monarchies, co-authored with Clive Jones, was published by Oxford University Press in 2020.