The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, with American mediation, is a strategic and historic turning point in Israel’s relations with both the Arab world and Palestinians.
For the first time, there is a “warm peace” between Israel and an Arab state, where both sides see the mutual advantage of scientific, economic, cultural and strategic cooperation. In contrast, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians maintained “cold relations” with Israel that were meant to extract the maximum concessions from Israel while minimizing normalization with it.
With this diplomatic achievement, Israel is taking a huge step towards one of its long-term strategic goals—integration into the region. Although Israel’s ties with the pragmatic Arab camp have been known for some time, this normalization agreement reflects how vital it is for the members of this camp to have a relationship with Israel.
Furthermore, the positive reactions to the agreement by most of the countries of the pragmatic camp indicate that this is not a controversial move for them. This dramatic change was possible due to the threat that the pragmatic camp members feel from the various elements in the radical camp—from Iran and its satellites, from Sunni extremists and, in particular, from the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by Erdoğan’s Turkey.
The pragmatic camp members feel that the radicals are weaker, which allows them to break through barriers in their relationship with Israel. They also believe that they cannot rely on American support if Democrats win the November 2020 elections. All this sharpens their need to ally with Israel, which is perceived as a powerful country in the region that dares to act against the extremists and will not change its position.
The UAE was encouraged to make this dramatic move in normalizing relations with Israel by the Trump administration, which deferred the declaration of Israeli sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria as proposed in the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” vision and offered to sell advanced weapons to the Emirates. The Emirates seized the opportunity as long as Trump is president, and as a way to improve his chances of being re-elected.
The ‘glass ceiling’ has been shattered
The imaginary barrier that allegedly prevented the normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel as long as Israel does not surrender to the Palestinian demands has been shattered. This demand was formulated by an Arab dictate to Israel, better known as the “Arab Peace Initiative.” It turned out that this was an unfounded threat that served the Palestinians and the advocates of Israeli concessions.
Against this background, there is a possibility that the success of this process will convince other countries in the pragmatic camp to normalize their relations with Israel fully or partially during the current U.S. administration. Saudi Arabia’s agreement to permit direct flights between Israel and the Emirates over its territory could be an example of a partial normalization of relations.
Impact on the Palestinians
In the Palestinian context, the move has brought about a significant and multidimensional change. It is no wonder that the Palestinians are furious at the latest development, although they will now not face the significant threat of Israel declaring sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and other parts of Judea and Samaria, at least for a long time.
The significant changes brought about by the new development in the Palestinian context are:
• It critically damaged the Palestinians’ ability to exert pressure on Israel within the terms of a peace agreement to return to the pre-1967 lines with minor modifications and to demand the establishment of a Palestinian state that will not recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
• Before the presentation of the U.S. peace initiative, there were two main options on the table in the Palestinian context. The first was the adoption of the two-state paradigm in its Palestinian version, backed by the Democrats in the United States, Europe and the Israeli left. The second was the continuation of the status quo.
• The agreement with the Emirates enables two options—either to continue the status quo or to implement Trump’s peace initiative, including the application of Israeli sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria. At this point, the status quo may continue for a long time, especially if the Democrats win the elections. However, the possibility of applying sovereignty remains a future alternative, and its status may be strengthened if the Emirates change their position regarding the agreement.
• The Palestinians have actually lost one of their main levers of influence—the ability to prevent normalization between Israel and the Arab states. In recent years, this Palestinian lever had already been weakened, but with the new development, it nearly evaporated. The other Palestinian lever—the ability to impose a veto and prevent changes on the ground without Palestinian consent—eroded as well, it but still exists.
• As a result, the Palestinians now face Israel from a position of greater weakness. They still have several tools left, such as the support of growing groups in the U.S. Democratic Party, blind European support, and the support of the radical camp (Iran and its satellites, Turkey and Qatar). The Palestinians also have the ability to use force and to leverage their presence on the ground, which forces Israel, which does not want to rule over them, and the international system to deal with their cause.
The pragmatic Muslim camp no longer considers itself dependent on the Palestinians, while it takes care of its own vital interests. The Palestinian cause is a low priority for members of this camp, and they are fed up with the Palestinian leadership. The severity of this development is heightened in light of the tremendous effort that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has invested in recent years in preventing such Arab-Israeli normalization. He recognizes that the chances of the realization of normalization are increasing. This is the background for the great frustration and fury of the Palestinians. If more countries follow the UAE path, the Palestinians will completely lose their ability to veto normalization.
In this situation, the Palestinians might feel increasing pressure to re-examine the path they have chosen so far and their adherence to the problematic and false narrative they continue to adopt, according to which there is no Jewish people and Jews do not have a history of sovereignty in the Land of Israel. The need for such a re-examination will increase if Trump wins the upcoming election. Adherence to this narrative has already cost the Palestinians the loss of American aid as well as the imposing of Israeli and international sanctions.
Up until now, the Palestinians responded by increasing their adherence to this narrative, for example, by strengthening the commitment to pay salaries to terrorists, adopting a policy of Palestinian anti-normalization with Israel, severing ties with Israel in security and civilian matters and refusing to receive tax money collected for them by Israel. It is likely that they will continue to act this way, but there is still a chance that other voices will be heard among them as well. Self-examination might also influence the nature of the leadership that directs the Palestinians in this path. This self-examination might lead to two opposite directions—either establishing a more radical leadership that favors a violent struggle without the sophistication that characterizes Abbas, or a more moderate one.
The alternative rationale for the current Palestinian way of thinking may emerge precisely from the agreement by setting the goals of economic well-being and a democratic regime as more urgent and essential than liberating all of Palestine in stages. The United States and the UAE may present new options to the Palestinians as a tempting alternative to the current failure. It is highly doubtful whether the conditions for such a change are ripe; however, they may be ready to at least raise the idea and open discussions on the matter.
Israel is joining the regional pragmatic camp
One of the significant results of the UAE-Israel understanding is the strengthening of the regional pragmatic camp, with Israel openly joining its ranks. There is no doubt that Israel sees this as a very desirable change, which will improve the ability of this camp to curb the hostile radical camp. This change is part of a general trend empowering the pragmatic camp and weakening the radicals during the Trump era, through sanctions on Iran and its allies, the growing threat to the regimes that rely on Iran in the region, Israeli activity against Iran’s penetration into Syria, and more.
The question is how this change will be leveraged by the pragmatists and what commitments will be demanded of Israel. It is already clear that the pragmatists will try to leverage this normalization to obtain advanced weapons from the United States. They will expect Israel to suppress excessive opposition to the arms deals, despite Israel’s fundamental and well-known opposition to arms sales that could jeopardize its qualitative military edge.
It is likely that some countries will also expect to receive “soft” Israeli assistance, for example, in intelligence, consulting and military technology, to improve their performance in their confrontation with their radical rivals. If this Israeli assistance proved helpful, it would be the best proof of the benefits for these countries to maintain normal relations with Israel. This goes beyond the benefits the pragmatists will derive from civilian cooperation with Israel in science, economics, medicine, tourism and the like.
However, where the pragmatists have the most expectations from cooperation with Israel is in curbing Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony and the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The pragmatists expect Israel to persuade the United States to adhere to its policy of restraining Iran. At the same time, they expect Israel to continue to act on its own to ensure that these goals are achieved. Israel is willing to do so in any case and has already proven its importance in this regard. However, the pragmatists will value Israel’s activities even more if Biden wins the elections.
Israel suspends sovereignty initiative
An interesting question is whether the strategic benefits of the agreement, as detailed so far, justify the price Israel allegedly paid to achieve it, that is, its agreement to suspend declaring sovereignty in parts of Judea and Samaria as well as the Jordan Valley.
It appears that Israel did not really have the opportunity to extend its sovereignty to these areas. Already in the second half of May, during his visit to Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo learned from his talks with Defense Minister Benny Ganz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about their reservations regarding this step. In addition, the U.S. administration decided not to support the implementation of the plan since it received adverse reactions from Arab and international players. Moreover, the administration feared that the implementation of the plan could damage Israeli and American interests, as well as Trump’s chances of being re-elected.
Obviously, it was not logical or possible for Israel to apply sovereignty without American support. Therefore, the move was postponed and, in effect, became irrelevant. As I wrote then, one of the ways to persuade Israel to abandon the idea of declaring sovereignty was to promote normalization. This way, by giving up on the impractical option, Israel had an excuse, which allowed all parties to take this important step and even present it as an achievement for the Palestinians. In other words, this is a considerable strategic achievement for Israel in return for an imaginary price.
The realization of the sovereignty initiative could have been an even more significant strategic achievement. However, Israel would have had to pay an exorbitant price for it. In any case, as stated, it could not have been realized without American support. The normalization is a win-win-win situation because the other partners to the agreement—the Emirates and the United States—also achieved important goals without paying a heavy price. The common interest for all the parties to the agreement is strengthening the pragmatic camp in the region against its radical enemies. This common interest brought about this agreement at this time.
In conclusion, the agreement is a historic achievement for Israel, the UAE, the United States and the pragmatic camp. It creates a potential for further achievements at the regional level and in the Palestinian context. To realize this potential, it is vital to continue progress in the normalization process, with a significant commitment to success and meaningful investment in the process.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.