In a surprising and very significant step, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Aug. 13 that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had “agreed to the full normalization of relations,” confirmed by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in statements of their own and in a joint statement.
The joint statement said that “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 [my emphasis] and other areas of mutual benefit.”
In exchange, “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.” The statement about the agreement, to be called the “Abraham Accord,” also said that “all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque, and Jerusalem’s other holy sites should remain open for peaceful worshipers of all faiths.”
Relations between Israel and the UAE have known steady and quiet improvement in the security and business fields for the past two decades. The two countries both view Iran as a powerful, hostile entity striving to achieve strategic superiority in the region through its nuclear program, as well as expanding its regional influence and destabilizing conservative governments in the region. This shared threat perception has enabled significant strategic, diplomatic and security cooperation to develop.
Also, although less important, is the fact that in the wake of the Arab Uprising of 2010-11 and its daunting legacy in Syria, Yemen and Libya, including the rise of ISIS, most countries in the region became more concerned with internal and systemic stability, and more interested in security and intelligence cooperation, including with Israel. The UAE took the lead together with Saudi Arabia in combating the wave of political Islam (personified by the Muslim Brotherhood) and popular disaffection in the Arab world. In Israel, they found a willing ally, able to provide advanced internal security technologies and more.
The UAE has also made great and successful efforts in the past two decades to diversify its economy and build a position as a world economic entrepot and technological hub. In this, it has much in common with Israel’s “startup nation.” Israeli firms, including security and cyber firms, have long been developing discreet but important ties with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For years, there has been a steady and quiet stream of Israeli businessmen (especially those with dual citizenship), athletes, diplomats and officials—even government ministers—to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, more or less openly. Since November 2015, Israel has maintained an official office to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi (which Israel stresses is not a bilateral diplomatic mission). Cabinet ministers from Israel have participated in IRENA’s meetings openly in 2010, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
In recent years, these ties have been given greater prominence, especially by the Israeli side. As Israel entered its unending election season in the summer of 2018, one of the key messages of Netanyahu has been that he is “in a different league” from his opponents; a foreign-policy savant able to match world leaders and win unprecedented achievements for Israel. A key exhibit in the evidence for this claim has been the improvements in relationships with the Sunni Arab world, which were presented as being independent of and not linked to the Palestinian issue.
Since its inception, the Trump administration has been encouraging these dynamics; both cooperation between the moderate Sunni states and Israel in facing the Iranian threat, and the “outside-in approach” to solving the Palestinian issue. Both the UAE and the Netanyahu administration are among Trump’s closest allies in the international arena and those most supportive of (and dependent on) his re-election.
However, the big step of diplomatic normalization has always been blocked to an extent by the Palestinian issue, and over the past year, also by the Israeli government’s declared policy of annexation in the West Bank. The UAE was not interested in breaking the Arab consensus on this issue. It certainly did not want to place itself in opposition to the Jordanian position against annexation. In this context, UAE ambassador to the United States Youssef al-Otaiba published an op-ed in June in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot urging Netanyahu to refrain from annexation, and warning that annexation and “talk of normalization” are a contradiction that “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE.”
The agreement has advantages for each of the parties involved.
The UAE can take credit for taking annexation off the table and thus to a degree inoculate itself to criticism, which is sure to come, from the Palestinians and the Emirates’ rivals in the Muslim world. It also has proved again its utility to the United States, which will be an asset in Washington no matter what happens in November.
As for Trump, he now has a creative, unexpected and basically undisputed diplomatic success (i.e., it enjoys broad bipartisan support) going into the final stretch of his election campaign. He also has breathed life into a version of his January “Peace for Prosperity” vision, which seemed to be destined for the special dustbin reserved for American presidents’ Middle East peace initiatives.
Netanyahu gets a face-saving, significant reward for not doing something (annexation) he was not going to be able to do anyway in the current political/diplomatic context. This provides him with a strong tailwind going into elections—if, indeed, he decides to go to early elections yet again. (But note: The claim that this is Israel’s first agreement without a “land for peace” component is somewhat disingenuous.) Despite that fact that Netanyahu sidelined his coalition partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, those to Netanyahu’s political left have no choice but to praise this achievement. Netanyahu also can claim domestically that only his ostensible determination to annex in the West Bank—much criticized in Israel and abroad—brought the UAE to the table. (In other words, Netanyahu pulled out of the fire the chestnuts that he himself had put in play.)
An interesting question is whether the UAE’s move will lead to an “opening of the floodgates” of normalization with Israel by other countries in the Sunni Arab camp. Netanyahu and the Trump administration are hinting at more to come. Bahrain (an Emirati-Saudi client state) may follow suit sooner rather than later. Oman may do so as well. Saudi Arabia, with more complex and wider internal and regional considerations, will probably not join the Emiratis in the near-to-medium future.
While justified to an extent, euphoria about the UAE-Israel agreement nevertheless should be tempered. There are quite a few unclear issues, and even possible threats, at this early stage.
While the U.S. statement speaks of “full normalization,” the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi tweeted that “an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” (This is a formulation notably similar to that used after the meeting by Netanyahu with the chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council in February). The UAE stressed that “the agreement does not change the UAE’s view of the peace process and it remains committed to the Arab peace plan of a negotiated two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.” The New York Times reports that the Emiratis insisted that the concrete steps towards normalization, including the opening of embassies, will be dependent on the continued halt of any annexation proposals. Those Emirati conditions, however, remain nonpublic and subject to potential revision.
Israeli sources close to Netanyahu hurried to note that annexation was only temporarily suspended and not taken off the table, with Netanyahu himself saying “I did not and will not remove sovereignty from the agenda. Just as I brought peace with an Arab state, I will bring sovereignty. I won’t give up on our right to our land.” These clarifications, aimed at pacifying Netanyahu’s right-wing and settler constituencies, may impact on Emirati willingness to progress rapidly towards full normalization of relations with Israel.
Joshua Krasna is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. He was chief of an Israeli government research department responsible for strategic, political and economic analysis of the Arab Middle East, and served in the Israeli embassies in Jordan and Canada. He lectures at New York University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.