Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily express the views of Aish UK. This article was written on 18 August 2020 and is therefore reflective of events up to this date.
The notion of peace, shalom, is at the heart of the Jewish yearning for a better world. In Israel, the modern Jewish state, the word has in recent years been missing from the national discourse. The Israeli peace camp has traditionally advocated the principle of ‘land for peace’ – territorial concessions to the Palestinians, in exchange for recognition and security for Israel. However, this movement has dwindled in size and relevance over recent years, partially due to a wave of terrorism in the early 2000s and several rounds of hostilities with the Hamas terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip, which followed Israel’s withdrawal from the territory in 2005.
It was therefore with great elation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that not only had he resisted the ‘land for peace’ principle, but he had totally undermined this paradigm and achieved ‘peace for peace’ with the United Arab Emirates without uprooting a single Israeli from their home. While undoubtedly a historic moment in the decades of strife-ridden Israeli-Arab relations, Netanyahu paid a price for the deal – he was forced to suspend his plans to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, known as annexation.
On 13th August 2020, the United States brokered a historic agreement between Israel and the UAE to normalise full diplomatic relations. Known as the ‘Abraham Accord’, the landmark deal constitutes Israel’s first public breakthrough with an Arab Gulf state and only the third normalisation agreement in its history with a major Arab country following peace accords with Egypt and Jordan, in 1979 and 1994, respectively. The UAE, which is located thousands of miles away from Jerusalem and has never fought a war with Israel, is the Gulf region’s second most powerful and wealthy state. Although the terms of the agreement are unclear at the time of writing, the normalisation of relations is expected to extend to all spheres, including an exchange of ambassadors and cooperation in all fields. The accord is thus a major strategic asset for Israel, and recognition that “70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere…”, as Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash made clear. However, the decision to officially and publicly reach a peace agreement with Israel did not emerge from nothing.
Over recent years, there has been a gradual and largely covert process of rapprochement between Israel and major Sunni Muslim-led, Arab Gulf states, principally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Primarily thanks to a shared antipathy towards the Shiite Iranian nuclear and regional proxy threat, and the Arab states’ desire to gain access to innovative Israeli technologies and formidable intelligence capabilities, Jerusalem has enjoyed increasingly warm ties with prominent Gulf countries. This has included publicly breaking previously unthinkable taboos on implicit recognition of Israel. For instance, in 2018, the first-ever official state visit by an Israeli minister to Abu Dhabi was recorded when Miri Regev was welcomed in the Emirate. More recently, an Israeli delegation was invited to the UAE’s Expo 2020 in Dubai.
Annexation: Off the Table?
However, this progress towards normalisation seemingly grounded to a halt upon the Israeli government’s stated declaration to apply sovereignty to, or annex, parts of the West Bank from 1st July as part of a coalition agreement between Netanyahu, and former IDF Chief-of-Staff, Benny Gantz. Bibi, as he is known to Israelis, had pledged at several elections to annex parts of the West Bank and envisioned a golden opportunity to implement this vision when the Trump administration released its peace plan. Known as the ‘deal of the century’, it includes US recognition of Israeli sovereignty in approximately 30 percent of the West Bank. The Israeli leader aimed to reap the benefits of the deal, namely the unilateral annexation of territory, without pursuing dialogue with the Palestinians that would entail concessions further along the line in the form of a Palestinian state.
Nevertheless, together with reports that Washington was opposed to unilateral Israeli moves without engagement with the entire Trump plan, Netanyahu’s merger with Gantz’s ‘Blue and White’ party put a further spanner in the works. Gantz has persistently conditioned any declaration pertaining to territory in the West Bank on coordination with Israel’s allies, primarily the US, and its regional neighbours, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinians. Meanwhile, as the 1st July deadline grew closer, Netanyahu faced immense domestic challenges, including a second coronavirus wave, the economic ramifications of the pandemic, and demonstrations against his government’s alleged failure to manage the crisis, which was bolstered by a pre-existing protest movement that demanded Bibi’s resignation over corruption allegations against him.
Domestic opposition was not the only cause for concern. Alongside growing international rejection of any potential Israeli annexation (British PM Boris Johnson even wrote an op-ed in a major Israel newspaper to convey his concerns), in an unprecedented decision to publish in an Israeli newspaper, the UAE Ambassador to the US stated “Israeli plans for annexation...and normalisation are a contradiction”. The Emiratis presented Netanyahu with a stark choice: normalisation or annexation. This may have been a hint of what was to come, because Bibi clearly chose to go down the path of normalisation.
However, although the official joint statement issued by Israel, the US, and the UAE makes it very clear that Jerusalem has agreed to suspend the annexation plan, the messages emerging from the three countries’ leaders present a slightly distorted picture. While Netanyahu insisted that there is “no change” to his plan to apply sovereignty to the Jewish people’s ancestral homelands in Judea and Samaria, President Trump unequivocally stated that annexation was “more than just off the table”. Casting more doubt on the dynamics, Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, framed the agreement as halting “further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories”, while adding as a side note that the two countries will establish a “roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”
This illustrates the likely difficulties in implementing the agreement moving forward, as well as the challenges posed to leaders of both nations in successfully reconciling their commitments to each other while simultaneously not alienating key stakeholders. For the UAE, this is the Muslim and Arab world, while in Bibi’s case, it is the right-wing voters who supported his annexation pledge. Regardless, annexation appears off the table for now, and in the event of a Joe Biden victory at the polls in November, who has stated his opposition to the plan, it would likely be both undesirable and unfeasible for Israel in the foreseeable future.
Land for Peace? The Domestic Response
Netanyahu is a divisive figure in Israel and while the agreement with the UAE was welcomed across the political spectrum, it also prompted condemnation. Most acutely, the leaders of the West Bank settler movement and the right-wing Yamina party, led by Naftali Bennett, hurled criticism at the PM for failing to deliver on the annexation front. Bennett accused Netanyahu of “missing the opportunity of a century”. Meanwhile, while welcoming the peace accord with an Arab state, those on the left noted the grand irony in the Israeli leader’s declaration that Jerusalem had secured ‘peace for peace’. The peace camp emphasised that only by making concessions and “giving up” on the annexation of land, and thus leaving a window open to create a Palestinian state, was Netanyahu able to gain recognition from the Emirates. In other words, what we had witnessed was indeed the very ‘land for peace’ principle that Bibi so derided his political rivals for.
Winners and Losers
So, who are the winners and losers of this deal? In the immediate term, Netanyahu emerges from this new chapter of Israel-Arab relations with evident success. He has undoubtedly moved the goalposts. Prior to this agreement, his detractors on the left insisted that he would not be able to gain Arab states’ formal recognition of Israel until the Palestinian question was revolved, which would require painful concessions. He has thus altered this equation and achieved normalisation with a major Arab state prior to ending the conflict with the Palestinians and therefore gained implicit acceptance of the status quo and Israel’s continued control of the West Bank.
In doing so, he can project his status on the global stage as a statesman of remarkable gravitas, while embellishing his domestic legacy as a leader who made peace from a position of strength, following in the footsteps of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, who reached agreements with Egypt and Jordan, respectively. However, time will tell if the move translates into success at the ballot box. Alongside right-wingers who prioritise annexation and may now be persuaded to vote for Bibi’s rightist rivals, many Israelis have much more tangible concerns than a trip to Dubai at present, such as their diminishing livelihoods.
President Trump can finally boast a foreign policy coup after almost four years at the helm. He will portray his administration’s ability to broker the agreement as evidence of its vision of a strong Middle Eastern alliance of anti-Iranian and anti-terror nations committed to a brighter future. Nevertheless, in the same vein as Netanyahu, it is unclear whether this will yield electoral success for the mercurial American leader at the presidential vote in November, whose popularity has been undermined over the past months with the coronavirus raging and the economy in disarray.
The UAE also stands to gain a great deal from the agreement. In addition to being recognised as a pioneer in the region by embarking on a ground-breaking journey of peace, it will increase its access to both state-of-the-art Israeli technologies and American weapons. The US has adopted a ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ policy wherein Washington ensures that Israel receives more advanced weaponry than its Arab neighbours. By making peace with Israel, the UAE may be able to upgrade its military arsenal. All of this will position it better to tackle regional challenges, primarily, Iran.
The big loser of the Israel-UAE deal are the Palestinians. The Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and Gaza-based Hamas have become increasingly sidelined during the Trump era. Successive US policies have been perceived by the Palestinians to be wholly one-sided towards Israel, most notably the decisions to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognise the city as the capital of the Jewish state. The last straw for the Palestinian leadership was the Trump peace plan and Israeli declaration to annex territory in the West Bank on which the PA seeks to establish an independent state. This ultimately led the Palestinian leadership, of its own volition, to sever all ties with both Israel and the US.
This self-ostracization has left its leadership largely powerless. The only remaining leverage it had over Israel was the conviction that Arab states would never establish full relations with Israel without the Jewish state making concessions to the Palestinians. Now, even this asset is seemingly slipping away. While the UAE and its supporters deem the removal of annexation a major achievement for the Palestinians, for the latter, Israel’s ability to gain recognition without relinquishing control of the West Bank is an indication of their plight. For this reason, PA leader Abbas called the UAE’s decision a “betrayal”.
Leaving the Door Open to an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process?
This begs the question: will peace with the UAE help to resolve the real intractable issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Although Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, stated after the agreement was announced that “President Trump was able to get Israel to agree to a two-state solution”, Netanyahu continues to insist that he will annex territory in the West Bank. Meanwhile, the weak PA has been persistently undermined over recent years and much of the Arab world are reportedly increasingly frustrated by the former’s rejectionism. It is therefore unlikely that any breakthrough will emerge on the Palestinian front until leaders of both peoples are replaced.
Thus, it would be naive to talk of the dawn of a new era of peace, even in the likely situation that other Gulf states follow suit in normalising relations with Israel. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the achievement by all parties involved in the Israel-UAE agreement. As Emirati Minister Gargash stated, the Arab world has gained nothing by refusing to talk to Israel, and we should all welcome the return of the words shalom, salaam, peace to the international discourse.
- October 1st 2020