POWER PLOY

Israel and the United Arab Emirates — a match made in Donald Trump’s hopes and dreams

By J Brooks Spector 17 August 2020

Leader of the United Arab Emirates, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, and Israeli Prime minister N Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photos: EPA / Berthhold Stadler | EPA-EFE / Filip Singer)

The recently announced opening of full diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel took place in the US president’s office. Is it a major diplomatic accomplishment or more like an election-year gasp?

On 13 August, with the clearly ebullient US President Donald Trump presiding as the emcee, and smiling rather too much like Walt Disney’s Cheshire Cat in the animated feature film Alice in Wonderland, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made public their agreement to establish full diplomatic relations between the two nations. As part of this deal, the Israelis have agreed to suspend any further moves towards annexing West Bank territories.

The United Arab Emirates has significant oil (6th largest proven reserves globally) and natural gas reserves (7th largest proven reserves globally). But it is probably best known, now, for its pole position as an international air transport and trans-shipment hub and as a vast shopping mecca, as well as its growing financial prowess and heft for the Gulf region and beyond.

This has grown, especially as the older financial and entrepot centre of Beirut has increasingly faded into irrelevance after years of civil war, foreign interventions and domestic political conflict.

The various separate sheikhdoms and emirates that now comprise UAE came together in 1971 into a single political entity forged out of a group of British protectorates (partially in response to British decisions to withdraw from strategic positions east of Suez). These sheikdoms had initially come fully into the British orbit by the late 19th century.

While Trump positioned this announcement as a spectacular diplomatic triumph, in actuality it builds on a relationship between the two states that for some years has been just below the radar internationally. Nevertheless, this decision does mean the UAE now joins Egypt and Jordan in having full (if sometimes frosty) diplomatic relations with Israel, although several other Arab nations such as Sudan and Oman have been nibbling at the edges as well. Further, Turkey and Israel have had ties for years – based in part on their demographic and strategic circumstances as non-Arab islands in an Arab sea. Following the UAE-Israel announcement, Turkey thoroughly criticised the UAE, but not the Israelis.

The really big, really key question, of course, is: who will be the winners and losers out of this announcement?

By most measures, the Palestinian cause and its current leadership (and thus its population) may be the biggest losers. The UAE’s decision means its rulers have decided their country’s geopolitical and high-tech economic progress are more important than a more abstract conception of pan-Arabic solidarity. Palestinians have not been appreciative of this development, as it draws attention to their increasing irrelevance, despite protests by groups like BDS for ever more pressure on Israel. Residents of the West Bank and Gaza now face the possibility the train really is leaving the station and they now must find a way to make a deal as best they can with their neighbour and semi-occupier.

Iran, Syria, and those Hezbollah militias in Syria and elsewhere similarly may have lost a step – or more – by this development as well. The UAE is generally viewed as deploying one of the most capable militaries in the region (and it has gained some significant combat experience through participation in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen) and it is now clearly positioned against Israel’s enemies, even if it is not lined up directly with the Israeli military. What it means for Iran is its policymakers, its military, and its Revolutionary Guard/Quds Force must now take into further consideration the level of military co-operation and the possibilities of intelligence sharing between these two states. Meanwhile, the door has now been opened just a bit wider – potentially at least – for more than a tacit Israeli relationship with Saudi Arabia and/or Oman as well. Should that occur, it would represent a serious shift in the power balance in the Middle East and especially against Iran.  

The circumstances for the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians, meanwhile, may have been marginally enhanced, even if they do not say much publicly about this development. For one thing, it makes the club of Arab states tied diplomatically to Israel that much bigger. But, for the Saudis, it makes informal military co-ordination with Israel against common antagonists that much easier.

Then, for the Israelis, or at the very least for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, this new relationship can be read as a personal plus. On the face of it, Netanyahu’s willingness to give up (at least temporarily) the chimera of West Bank annexation in exchange for a real agreement on diplomatic relations is a win he needs, especially since Netanyahu continues to face political and judicial/criminal pressures that may eventually end, at a minimum, his active political life.

For Israelis more generally, the agreement may provide a reassuring sense their regional isolation is now firmly coming to an end after all those years since 1947 (and the blunting of BDS’s efforts as well). And perhaps, too, it constituted a bit of good news in the midst of the country’s ongoing struggles with Covid-19 and its economic effects and the country’s ongoing political instability. As one veteran Israeli commentator and former official argued of the agreement, “This is good news. Israel steps away from a terrible idea which even Trump knew was bad [the West Bank annexation plan]. Messianic right in Israel blocked. UAE & Israel have lots to do together. I hope others follow. Good for Palestinians [to] see they need to use own agency constructively for selves & coexistence.”

But it may also feed the false idea for Israelis that their Palestinian dilemma is increasingly less important. Instead, that view says Israel’s real strategic future is in building ties with potential or tacit regional allies against their putatively existential foe – Iran – rather than figuring out how to come to a resolution with the people who constitute their nearest neighbours. In an exercise of mixed metaphors, this could easily be termed “kicking the can” of the Palestinians’ cause further down the road, in exchange for the easier picking of that lower hanging diplomatic fruit.

In any case, the creation of formal diplomatic relations is largely a recognition there already are significant connections between Israel and the UAE. This announcement will largely make it easier to travel between the two lands, to make a direct phone call between the two, and to construct bilateral economic relationships. The security conversation, the quiet intelligence sharing and defence planning will go forward – but more thoroughly. 

But attention must also focus on its impact on the United States, its president, and the US’s Jewish community. Arguably, anything that helps create a larger pool of diplomatic co-operation in the region comprises a net benefit and contributor towards regional peace. The president’s son-in-law and senior aide, Jared Kushner (the same man behind the stillborn, comprehensive peace plan to be imposed on the Palestinians that was mooted recently that had largely accepted most of the Netanyahu government’s maximalist plans), has put the best possible face on the benefits of the agreement. Writing in The Washington Post over the weekend, he argued:

“On Thursday, President Trump closed a historic peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Under the agreement, the nations will normalize diplomatic relations and forge co-operation agreements across a range of areas, including security, health care and energy. A Middle East peace agreement of this significance has eluded American presidents since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994.

“The agreement is a breakthrough for Muslims who wish to come in peace to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam. Direct flights between the two countries will facilitate pilgrimages to al-Aqsa – a victory for religious pluralism and a repudiation of the false narrative, used by extremists to bolster their ranks, that the mosque is under attack.

“This deal came together as a result of negotiations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, facilitated and led by the United States. But it was the strategic policy shift undertaken by President Trump 3½ years ago that laid the foundation for the breakthrough the world witnessed this week. The agreement would not have been possible without the leadership of a president who refuses to do things the same old way just because ‘that’s how it has always been done.’ ”

For Kushner, this agreement represents a culmination of adroit, aggressive diplomacy by the Trump administration, beginning with the embrace of that Saudi magic glowing orb during his first foreign visit, as part of a recognition “to tap this potential, the region required a strategic realignment”.

“…Three-and-a-half years later, this strategic realignment continues to pay off. The Islamic State caliphate has been destroyed, its brutal leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed. Iran remains a pariah state but is more constrained than ever before. And thanks to the courageous leaders of Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East this week took a great step toward a future in which people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds can live together in the spirit of co-operation and peace.”

But this still leaves questions about the US domestic political impact from this announcement. And that goes to what may have been at the heart of the rationale for the White House announcement on the 13th.

A progressive American Jewish religious leader I correspond with for contemporary insights about thinking within the American Jewish community, wrote to offer a possible evaluation of impact on the American Jewish community. He noted that in all the major Jewish prayers, “We Jews conclude all of our major prayers, be it our Grace After Meals, our silent devotional Amidah, even our Mourner’s Kaddish with the prayer: ‘May God who Makes Peace on High, make peace unto us, unto all Israel’ (and progressive Jews add: ‘and over all who dwell on earth’) ‘and let us say, amen.’ All we have ever wanted for Israel is that she live in peace with her Arab neighbors. Do we mean it or do we not mean it?  If we truly mean it, then how can we not be joyful for this news….

“And of course we pray for peace with the Palestinians, no matter how elusive that may seem. Perhaps if all of Israel’s Arab neighbors are at peace with Israel, it will create an incentive for the Palestinians to join this growing majority of Arab neighbors who see peace with Israel being in their mutual self interest.”

But, he added, “Israel and the UAE have had commercial and strategic relations for YEARS, especially as the Iranian threat of hegemony has grown in the Middle East. Trump did not begin this process, rather Israel and the UAE did it on their own. And Trump coming in now to take credit and just expose this relationship to the light of day is simply pandering to the American Jews with less than eighty days to go until the November election.

“Trump knows that Jews vote, and that Jews will be voting in the swing states that he must win in order to gain another four years. If he can take Jews who put Israel first on their list of concerns, if he can take Jews who are on the fence, and just bring a few percentage points over to him in Florida, then Trump will have maximized this Israel-UAE deal to his political advantage.”

But perhaps both of these realities can be true simultaneously: “The two hands which I have presented represent the two camps of American Jewish thinking on the brink of our November election. I would think that about 25-30% hold the first position – gratitude to Trump and the need to put Israel’s security above all other interests and the willingness to forgive Trump his day-to-day behaviour because after all, he moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“And I would say about 70% of American Jews rank Israel 5th, 7th or lower in their level of importance, with the environment, education, health care, and the demand for basic decency in their president besting Israel as their most important issues [a judgment that largely comports with the data from opinion polling].  And this 70% of Jews see Trump as antithetical to every basic value Jews hold dear.  And so, alas, they will also lessen the importance of the UAE-Israel accords-in-the-making.”

In essence, then, the preliminary impact of this accord – short and long term – must be judged on several fronts. While it builds on the longer evolution of some elements of the Middle East political and security landscape, and offers possibilities of a more stable environment, it also runs the risk of adding to the frustrations of the Palestinians – and thus their responses to that. 

Concurrently, seeing this agreement in terms of US politics means that the Oval Office treatment is a symptom of late-stage politicking by the incumbent president, eager to milk the last fractional advantage – in an otherwise nationally minor voting population – in states now in play like Florida in the 2020 election. DM

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