The recent normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE adds a new layer of complexity to the ongoing geopolitical conflict between Israel and the Arab world. The decision has been met with both praise and criticism. Whether this normalization deal is enough to stabilize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as many pundits seem to think – remains to be seen. If anything, the deal itself is evidence of a political shift throughout the region, a shift that will no doubt have long lasting repercussions for peace in the Middle East.
The deal makes the UAE the third country in the Middle East to recognize Israel and the first gulf state to establish diplomatic relations. Prior to this agreement, only two other countries in the Middle East formally recognized Israel – Egypt and Jordan. This should be cause for optimism in its own right, indicating that Israel’s relationship with the Middle East need not be hostile forever. What it means for the separate, but not unrelated Palestinian question could be quite different.
The relationship between Israel and the UAE has been tentative for decades and the relationship only started to warm when the Iranian Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) was established in 2015. With both nations having a strong opposition to Iran enriching uranium for any purpose, it was only a matter of time until Israel and the UAE would form a cooperative relationship through normalizing their diplomatic ties. It is clear that this agreement will form the start of more than just a normalization in their relations, with Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen visiting the UAE within one week of the establishment of the agreement.
The ongoing threat of Iranian-funded militias like Hezbollah and Hamas, an increasingly sporadic approach to the Middle East by the U.S.A. and the economic implications of COVID-19, mean that the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE is more than just a diplomatic signalling exercise. Ultimately, it is evidence of Israel taking an assertive approach to its relationship with Arab nations and could well be the beginning of a new chapter in Israel’s relationship with the U.S.A. as well.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the normalization deal “a huge mistake.” The comments did not go unnoticed with the UAE summoning the Iranian ambassador to explain Iran’s position. It is clear from this instance that the UAE are taking the deal quite seriously, an indication that the UAE won’t shy away from upholding their end of the bargain. Given that many Arab nations are under threat from militias funded by Iran, the response to Rouhani’s comments from the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council indicate that this landmark agreement has broader support throughout the Arab world. While the Arab world may be split on the question of Israel, it’s united on the question of Iran.
Trump and Kushner can rightly claim credit for this normalization deal. However, the success of it will really depend upon the actions of other Arab nations that are either sympathetic to Israel’s predicament or threatened by Iran. Obama’s approach to the Iranian Nuclear Deal was praised by many in the international community, but its unpopularity may well have fostered attitudes of indifference towards the United States’ role in the region for the next few years.
Central to the landmark accord was the cessation of Netanyahu’s planned annexation of the West Bank. In stopping the cessation, or at least postponing it, the UAE have angered Hamas as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (a representative of Fatah). Whether or not the UAE actually intended to prevent the annexation of Palestine is a subject of debate. With a significant proportion of Palestinians living in the UAE after a Palestinian diaspora in the 1940s/50s, perhaps the course of action the UAE took was well intended.
Given that Netanyahu holds power in coalition with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, upsetting this coalition balance can trigger a new election. If Gantz’s claim that the annexation plan was never discussed in cabinet is true, then the UAE’s actions may have actually prevented a worsening in Israel’s relationship with its neighbors.
The response by Palestinian leaders and advocates around the world to the cessation of the planned annexation is indicative of how fraught the relationships between Arab nations really are. To the outsider it would seem that the UAE have acted in Palestine’s interests and the fact that Palestine doesn’t support this move beggars belief. However, the Palestinians feel betrayed by this deal given that Palestinians wanted independence before other Arab nations formed relations with Israel. The precondition that Arab nations don’t recognize Israel until Palestine gains its independence may be something that Palestine needs to revisit. The fact that the Hamas charter once called for the destruction of Israel (up until 2017) and that Fatah have increasingly gained traction politically with a more moderate approach to Israel – ruling out attacks and armed uprisings – suggests that revisiting Palestinian advocacy can lead to success for the cause itself.
Within Israel, there is some divide over the deal too. However, most of this does come from the conservative forces in Israel who want to annex the territory. To them, the cessation is seen as a betrayal of the Zionist cause. Given the ancient roots of the geopolitical conflict, a two state solution for Israel and Palestine is conditional on both sides compromising.
The cause for peace in the Middle East is solidified with this deal. The condition for the cessation of the West Bank annexation will no doubt help. However, the next three months will be crucial in the wake of the U.S. election and what each candidate’s view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may mean for peace throughout the Middle East. Furthermore, the rotation of the office of Prime Minister in November 2021 will see Benny Gantz take office and this may mean some level of renewal with Israel’s relationship with its neighbors.