Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbours in the Mediterranean and the extended Gulf has always been a contentious issue. While a handful of its neighbouring states extended an olive branch vis-à-vis frustration from prolonged conflict, other Arab nations decided to serve the Palestine cause ideologically, and logistically. Therefore, a substantial amount of Israel’s policy towards its other Arab neighbours, and vice-versa, is dictated by its behaviour in the Israel-Palestine conflict, leading to either animosity or isolation.
However, Israel scripted history on August 13, when they normalised full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. What is also important is that the accord was mediated by their common ally, and a long-term Middle Eastern enthusiast – United States. In a joint statement outlining the future of the dubbed “Abraham Peace Accord”, leaders of the three nations came together to announce bilateral agreements between Israel and UAE on several fronts, highlighting bold diplomacy, and closer people to people relations in the future. On top of that, Israel promised to suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the POTUS’ Vision for Peace, with a confidence that this will help save Muslim, Jewish, and Christian lives throughout the region.
How did the world react to the normalisation?
As straightforward as the statement goes, the reaction to it, however, was mixed. The usual Western allies of the U.S. and Israel, including the European Union, hailed the agreement as momentous. India, however, was diplomatically neutral in reacting to the accord, where they congratulated the parties while upholding their support for the Palestine cause. As expected, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian people were quick to decry the union and called upon the UAE as traitors to the Palestinian cause. Other non-state Palestinian factions i.e. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also reverberated PA’s concern and found a voice in the Mediterranean and Persian heavyweights – Turkey and Iran, who either threatened to call off ties with UAE or called upon their strategic stupidity. However, not falling in line with the usual anti-Israel Arab legionnaire, Sudan, Oman, and Bahrain unilaterally supported the prospect, signalling that they might be next to follow suit soon.
What do the three parties yearn to achieve from this urgent union?
Nevertheless, beyond the notion of strategic success in a tumultuous region, several questions still linger unanswered. The most important of them is that beyond the accuracy of its objective, what does it strategically aim at? The Emirate has been in clandestine, back door diplomacy with Israel for a long time, all this while being an intimate and vocal supporter of Palestinian statehood. However, it seems that the influence of Israel and the U.S. has now turned that Emirati intimacy upside down, where it most evidently took more than prospects of peace and expected agreements. It is important to note that the timing of the accord would not have been any more perfect, aimed at benefitting all the three parties, but Israel and the U.S. more so.
The role of UAE is secondary in this union, mostly at the receiver’s end. The U.S. has sold its latest Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to almost all their allies. However, except Israel, none of the other Middle Eastern countries has been successful in receiving those, UAE being one of them. This is apropos to the U.S.’ policy for Israel to remain the military hegemon in the region. Nonetheless, with UAE formally ending their belligerency with Israel on paper, the delivery of a batch of newly minted F-35 seems imminent for UAE. Unsurprisingly, there are rumours of UAE and Israel forging this alliance to keep their mutual enemy – Iran at bay. However, both Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi have strictly dismissed that theory. Moreover, UAE has also been trying to forge a closer alliance with Tehran, flying in and out of it over undisclosed missions since late 2019. Iranian businessmen have formed a major chunk of investments and operations in the drowning real estate industry of Dubai, and the overall shipping industry of UAE, due to the sanctions back home. Thus, looking deeper one can observe Iran’s moderate repudiation of this union, contrasting their image as the Islamic Republic, with Turkey filling up the seat as a rising Islamic Caliphate.
In the USA, much to the chagrin of his political opponents, President Trump reinvented himself as a self-proclaimed peacemaker. From pulling troops out of the Middle East to drafting a peace plan for Israel and Palestine, Trump aspires to be one of the most influential strategists in the region, after George Bush Jr. However, a near prospective war with Iran, staunch civilian opposition in Iraq, an unchecked Turkey, and the devastating effects of Covid-19 back at home has left Trump’s progression stagnant. Therefore, the peace accord comes as a breeze to him, which will not only boost his sketchy foreign policy credentials but also portrays him as a messiah during his run-up to the 2020 Presidential Election. Moreover, any agreement that supports Israel, in the long run, is a boon to Trump’s vital voter base, a group of pro-Israel Evangelicals, who are influenced by Israel’s status to exist as a biblical covenant. Going further, like UAE, U.S.’ role in the peace accord has less to do with Iran, than it has to do with China. In a post-COVID-19 world, China has risen as a major trade partner in the Middle East, not to mention its long-standing trade relationships with Abu Dhabi. Therefore, the accord will secure Washington’s interests, both as a security and trade partner in UAE.
Like the U.S., Israel’s motives to rush into a peace accord with an important Arab nation is also deeply motivated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to gain positive political traction since his re-election. Benjamin Netanyahu is currently embroiled in a huge corruption scandal, which has resulted in his indictment after dropping immunity. On top of that, anti-establishment feelings against Netanyahu, and the issue of Jordan Valley annexation has resulted in state-wide protest against his regime, even during a global pandemic. Thus, for Netanyahu, the accord not only provides a temporary remittance for the resistors of Jordan Valley annexation, but it also supposedly redeems his image from a “vindictive, non-concessionary realist” to “a compromising peace-mongering idealist.” Moreover, the urgency, and the concealment of this accord from his unity co-partner Benny Gantz, until declared only reflects upon his urgency to show that he is still the boss in this political game, and expects to remain so for long.
Is there any prospective peace for Palestine?
In the end, beyond the strategic insight, it is important to ponder if the accord expects to deliver peace. Israel’s eagerness to halt claims of sovereignty over parts of West Bank is no doubt one of the single largest takeaways from this union. However, insider sources have called this a temporary suspension to elevate the credibility of the peace accord, which might be continued after November 2020, if the situations are conducive. Furthermore, despite Netanyahu’s lone warrior image, his decision to annex parts of West Bank has a lot of behind the curtain stakeholders, including his ultra-orthodox coalition Knesset members, and the Yesha council. Both parties have continuously discredited any geographical compromise for the Palestinian people, the latest one being the “Deal of the Century.” Since both parties also add to the credibility of Netanyahu’s political clout, it is highly unlikely that the leader will override his legitimacy backers and become complicit in his political fallout. Moreover, it is often claimed that the peace plans proposed and mediated by the U.S. are a necessary up-gradation of historical peace agreements between Israel and Palestine. However, in a stint of impulse, both Israel and U.S. forget to inculcate the most important factor of any peace deal between Israel and Palestine – Palestine Authority as a credible party. Long gone are the days when the Arab world provided major lip service to the Palestinian people. With Israel legitimising Palestine Authority in the Camp David and Oslo Accords as the leader of Palestinian people, it is now immature to keep them away from the talking table. The act of Israel’s camaraderie with the Arab periphery, while isolating the Palestinian centre can lead to extreme security and political challenges for the region. Furthermore, it stands to hamper the only credible way out of this prolonged conflict – two-state solution. It will encourage the people of Palestine to be reactionary, where they will actively stray away from their usual, moderate leadership, and demand support from the likes of Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, who are now backed by an ambitious, power-hungry Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, apart from a traditional ally – Iran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Author is an alumnus of the prestigious School of International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University – India. He has completed his master’s in Diplomacy, Law, and Business with a specialisation in Conflict and Peace Studies.