Sept. 24, 2020 – By JON ALLEN
The recent UAE-Israel-U.S.A. agreement takes the immediate prospects of Israel’s illegal annexation of part of the West Bank off the table in exchange for full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain has followed suit, and others – Oman, Sudan and Morocco – could soon. These accords have been variously described as breakthrough peace agreements, an arms deal, and a stab in the back of the Palestinian people.
Clearly, where one stands on this agreement depends on where one sits. For the UAE, the U.S. and Israel, this is a good deal, with multiple benefits. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Palestinians it’s either unwelcome or very bad news.
For the UAE, the accords bring into the open a relationship with Israel that, until now, has flown under the radar. The deal will allow the transfer of strategic defence and intelligence equipment, technology and training that could reinforce its credibility as a leading Gulf state, and help defend itself against its existential enemy, Iran.
The accord also puts the UAE in the good books of the U.S. Congress, the Trump Administration, and Joe Biden. In return for helping Donald Trump dig himself out of his failed Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and depending on the will of the next Congress, the agreement could pave the way for the sale to the UAE of F-35 stealth fighter jets, radar scrambling aircraft, and other American defence equipment.
For the U.S., the agreements are also a plus. By diverting attention from Trump’s “deal of the century” that was going nowhere, and by helping Israel obtain two breakthrough recognition agreements, Trump solidifies his support among the right wing of the U.S. Jewish community and among American evangelicals. The billions that the UAE may spend on F-35s and other materiel are bonuses.
Finally, by taking annexation off the table, the deal removes potential acrimony between the Netanyahu government and the Biden campaign, and between Biden and the right wing of the Jewish community.
That said, foreign policy issues rarely play a major role in U.S. elections, and these accords are unlikely to give Trump much of a bump in the polls or a fast track to the Nobel Peace Prize that he so desperately seeks.
For Israel, establishment of full relations with important Gulf states – and the legitimacy that confers – and the hope that more could follow, is huge. If the accords lead to a strategic relationship centred on confronting Iran, that development could signal an even greater shift in the region. And that could come without Israel having to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians – the previous sine qua non to any recognition by Arab states.
Finally, the deal was a personal victory for Netanyahu and a brief respite at a time when he is being criticized at home for his failure to manage the economy and the COVID crisis.
Possible downsides of the agreement for Bibi include incurring the wrath of the pro-annexation settler movement. For Israel, a concern is the possible shifting of the strategic balance in the region as a result of the sale of sophisticated equipment to the UAE and other Gulf states that could potentially challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge.
In the medium term, if the agreement convinces Israelis that they can now somehow ignore the Palestinian question, such a notion could pose an existential threat to the nation’s future as a democratic state and the home of the Jewish people.
As mentioned, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia lost ground as a result of the accords. Turkey, which has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949, attacked the UAE for its act of recognition. Turkey also is in conflict with the UAE in both Libya and Yemen, and finds common cause with Iran on various issues, including support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. The deal clearly poses challenges on all these fronts.
Of course, Iran is Israel’s strongest and most vocal enemy. By boosting Israel’s legitimacy, breaking ranks among Arab and Muslim nations, and allowing the UAE to enhance its defence capabilities, the deal poses a direct threat to Iran’s credibility in the region at a time when U.S. sanctions, COVID, and a failing economy are already weakening Iranian leadership.
Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, also lost some ground. The Saudis’ disastrous forays into Yemen and Libya, coupled with the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, had already put the prince in the U.S. Congress’ bad books. The UAE departed Yemen last year in part to disassociate itself from the Saudis. By offering recognition to Israel without meeting the Arab Peace Initiative’s preconditions, the UAE further disassociated itself from the Saudis. Finally, if Congress does approve the sale of weapons and planes, the UAE will have an enhanced strategic relationship with both the U.S. and Israel that could leave the Saudis playing second fiddle for a time.
As suggested, however, this agreement bodes the worst for the Palestinians. To this point, the quid pro quo for any Arab recognition of Israel was a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative. The Abraham Accords instead trade removing the threat of annexation – an illegal act that was heavily criticized by the international community – for full diplomatic relations.
To add insult to injury, all efforts by the Palestinians to bring the issue before the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council failed miserably. No consensus on criticizing the agreements could be achieved. Palestinian hopes that the Arab street in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia might react strongly also were dashed. The only notable protests occurred in the Territories themselves.
Indeed, the only two positive elements of the accords for the Palestinians are that they united Palestinians (Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad) in their opposition to them, and that they staved off legislated annexation, at least for now.
The accords’ long-term prospects are harder to predict when it comes to the Palestinians. The UAE and Bahrain claim that they have not forgotten the Palestinians. Will they and others now pressure Israel to begin negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on realistic terms? Will they oppose further settlement expansion? What role will Mohammed Dachlan, a pretender to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ throne and an important adviser to the UAE, play in the future?
I agree with some who say it is crucial for the Palestinian Authority to replace its sclerotic leadership with new blood through open and transparent elections, to bring forward its own proposals for a two-state solution, and to dispel the notion that the Palestinians are only able to say no.
I disagree, however, with those who suggest that the time is now ripe for such a move. No legitimate proposal for a two-state solution that requires compromises on both sides will be negotiated as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister. He has made clear more than once that Palestinian statehood will not happen on his watch. Moreover, the blatantly pro-Israel terms of Trump’s so-called peace plan belies any hope that his Administration might act as an honest broker in such a negotiation.
Rather, the Palestinians should reform their political class, develop a serious draft peace proposal, consult with key Arab states and American allies on the substance and the process going forward, and act boldly once both Trump and Bibi have left the scene.
Jon Allen is a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2006 to 2010.