Aug. 20, 2020 – By DAVID ROYTENBERG
On Aug. 13, Israel and United Arab Emirates announced the signing of an agreement normalizing relations between the two countries. According to the text of the agreement, “Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.”
In return for the UAE’s pledge to normalize relations, the Israeli government agreed to “suspend” its plan, enshrined in the coalition agreement that established the current government, to proceed with unilateral annexation of territories allocated to Israel in Donald Trump’s Mideast peace plan, unveiled earlier this year.
With annexation already delayed because of opposition by the Americans and the Blue and White faction in the governing coalition, this facet of the deal appeared to turn a political liability into an advantage for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The reaction to the announcement is revealing, as it separates those who would welcome peace in spite of possible compromise, and from those who would rather pursue their maximal aims at the cost of continuing the conflict. The cries of betrayal from expansionists on the Israeli right were loud and indignant.
Samaria Regional Council leader Yossi Dagan accused Netanyahu of stabbing the settler movement in the back and threatened political consequences. He said that they had stood by Netanyahu until now, but that abandoning annexation was “a step too far.”
Spokespeople for the Palestinian Authority unanimously denounced the UAE pact. Although PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said earlier this year that the threat of annexation represented the death of the two-state solution, nobody in Ramallah seemed pleased that Israel had backed away from the annexation plan.
Palestinian politician Saeb Erekat told Agence France-Presse that the UAE deal with Israel represents the death of the two-state solution. In spite of the concession obtained by the UAE on annexation, he claimed that normalization with Israel would encourage Israeli intransigence.
Leadership in Iran and Turkey had no good words to say, with Iran threatening the UAE would “burn in Zionist fire.”
Support for the agreement came from both main factions within the Israeli government, although Blue and White was apparently kept in the dark until just before the deal was announced.
Supporters of Israel in the United States were broadly in support of the agreement. The Canadian Friends of Peace Now praised the move in a statement, emphasizing that stepping back from annexation was welcome.
Support also came from U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who indicated that working for better relations between Israel and the Gulf States had been a goal of the previous American administration in which he served as vice-president. He welcomed Israel’s decision to suspend its plan for annexation.
Commentators from across the Israeli political spectrum hailed the agreement as historic. The UAE is the first Gulf Arab State to officially end its hostility to Israel. While advocates of annexation were disappointed, the vast majority of Israelis appeared to prefer the UAE deal to the prospect of extending Israeli sovereignty over more territory.
Given the broadly welcoming mood in Israel, it is especially disheartening to see the unanimous rejection of the deal among the Palestinian leadership. One would hope that at least some among them would see the suspension of plans for annexation as a new window of opportunity to negotiate a peace agreement that would offer them more territory than that proposed in the Trump plan.
In the face of many potential risks to Israel had annexation proceeded, it may well be that Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for it was never as firm as his rhetoric suggested. With the UAE deal now achieved, it would be beneficial for both parties if it leads to a renewal of efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
David Roytenberg is a computer consultant living in Ottawa. He is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and chair of adult education at Kehillat Beth Israel congregation.