The UAE-Israel Deal: Exploring the Motives

Emboldened by the Trump Administration’s so-called “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” which was unveiled by the White House on January 28, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly declared his intention to annex about 30 percent of Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank by July 1, 2020. “But,” as reported on that targeted date by The New York Times, “with his government divided, the White House indecisive and domestic opposition mounting, his allies said that a formal announcement could be weeks or even months away.”

Apparently, the brief Israeli hiatus has expired and the time has come to account for this unforeseen delay. The Trump Middle East peace team has taken full advantage of the internal political stalemate in Israel to diligently and quietly secure an Arab partner willing to enter with Netanyahu into a normalization of relations arrangement, one whose aim is to deflect from the failure of the Trump Administration’s grandiose dream for an accord between the Israelis and Palestinians, often dubbed by the media as the “deal of the century.” The motive in Washington was purely domestic in light of the approaching presidential election in November and the dismal poll numbers showing the incumbent president trailing his presumptive democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in key battleground states.

The surprise came on August 13, as Israel and the United Arab Emirates joined the United States in issuing a trilateral statement declaring full normalization of relations between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi. The Trump Administration portrayed the event as “a historic breakthrough” and took credit for securing “the first agreement to normalize relations between Israel and a major Arab country in decades.” In a fact sheet distributed on the day of the announcement, the White House arrogantly claimed that “This historic breakthrough was made possible by President Trump’s leadership and expertise as a dealmaker.” Furthermore, the administration expressed its belief “that more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead and normalize relations with Israel.”

Typical of past pyrrhic victories claimed by the Trump Administration, the statement released by the White House on behalf of the signatories raises more questions than it answers.

Typical of past pyrrhic victories claimed by the Trump Administration, the statement released by the White House on behalf of the signatories raises more questions than it answers. First, it portrays the bilateral Israeli-Emirati arrangement brokered by Washington as a “historic agreement,” implying that the deal was the culmination of a lengthy negotiation process between the parties that resulted in their mutual decision to normalize diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors for the first time between an Arab country and Israel since 1994. In reality, no such agreement has been signed. The White House press statement issued on the same day admitted that “Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investments, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.” UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), however, was more measured in his depiction of the arrangement as he confirmed that his country and Israel agreed to “cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship” (emphasis added).

Second, in its rather sanguine press release, the White House assured the American public and all concerned parties worldwide that in return for UAE normalization of relations, “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace.” This suspension amounts to being another falsehood that should be added to the more than 20,000 false or misleading claims by Trump that are documented by The Washington Post. Furthermore, Netanyahu, the principal beneficiary of this ill-conceived and overly hyped deal, insisted that he remains committed to annexing parts of the West Bank. He explained in a televised address to the Israeli people, and to others who might be listening, that he agreed to “temporarily suspend” his annexation plans “in order to reach a normalization deal with the UAE.” So much for Emirati diplomatic skills and claims to the contrary. UAE officials involved in this rushed process were clearly hoodwinked, or voluntarily chose to be misled, by the snake oil salesman at the White House. Even Trump himself felt obliged to correct his own statement by clarifying that “Right now it’s off the table”—the operative words being “right now.”

UAE officials involved in this rushed process were clearly hoodwinked, or voluntarily chose to be misled, by the snake oil salesman at the White House.

Third, Emirati officials wasted no time after their normalization deal with Israel became public, claiming that they did it to help the Palestinians by alleviating “the threat that further annexation of Palestinian territories posed to the two-state solution.” In other words, the UAE’s self-declared motive was to rescue the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Consequently, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, urged both Palestinians and Israelis “to return to the negotiating table.” By embarking on this risky path unilaterally and without any consultation with the Palestinians, the UAE has actually weakened the prospects for genuine and lasting peace by applying the coup de grace to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and giving credence to Netanyahu’s long-standing preference for a new era of normalization with Arab countries in lieu of negotiating peace directly with the Palestinians. In the final analysis, the UAE emboldened the occupying power and accorded a sense of permanence to its illegal military occupation over Palestine.

Although political, economic, and military cooperation between the UAE and Israel are not new and have been progressing rather considerably in recent years, analysts in the United States and the Middle East have been focusing extensively on identifying the reasons that prompted the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates to cement this deal at this particular time. The administration’s rationale was twofold. First, as expressed on August 15 by the architect of the deal, Jared Kushner, the administration moved swiftly after the stalemate created in Israel regarding the implementation of the Trump Middle East peace plan to rescue the process from the turbulence characterizing Israeli politics with regards to annexation. Having elevated Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” to the foreign policy pillar of the administration, Kushner and his colleagues needed a “breakthrough” to prove to the American public, and others, that Trump’s deal-making genius and strategy are still alive and producing results that “eluded American presidents since the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994.”

Although less publicized than the above-mentioned objective, the second component of Washington’s logic for pursuing the Israel-UAE deal was the upcoming presidential election on November 3rd. After all, Kushner has never abdicated or denied his role as the de facto manager of day-to-day operations in the Trump election campaign. Clearly, the campaign needed a serious foreign policy boost and Kushner persuaded his friend, MbZ, to help him shore up the campaign. It is doubtful that Kushner’s bluff would work with the American voters at large, but it has already done its magic with his evangelical and right-wing Jewish constituency.

As for the UAE, its rationale for entering into this new landmark deal with Israel remains obscure and unconvincing. Emirati leaders portrayed their risky diplomatic move as part and parcel of their founding philosophy in 1971 as “a beacon of stability, progress and moderation.” Foreign Minister Gargash claimed repeatedly that the US-brokered deal with Israel “immediately puts an end to Israel’s plans for the annexation of Palestinian lands.” He explained that the agreement “represents a significant step forward for the region, where the rights of Palestinians are respected and the risk of violent escalation among regional neighbors is reduced.”

This former professor of political science at UAE National University vehemently insisted in all his public pronouncements that his deal with Israel “revives hope for a two-state solution.” In other words, the politically ambitious Emiratis justified their adventure as a huge favor to the Palestinians, with whom they have had quite a rocky relationship. Indeed, Abu Dhabi essentially has had no significant diplomatic or economic relations with the Palestinian Authority since 2004, according to Palestinian leaders who perceived the deal as a “stab in the back” by Abu Dhabi.

The politically ambitious Emiratis justified their adventure as a huge favor to the Palestinians, with whom they have had quite a rocky relationship. Indeed, Abu Dhabi essentially has had no significant diplomatic or economic relations with the Palestinian Authority since 2004.

Israel’s motives in welcoming the normalization deal with Abu Dhabi is actually the least complicated to explain. Despite his unprecedented domestic instability, Netanyahu found it extremely difficult to turn down the Kushner offer on behalf of the UAE. It was simply too good to be true. It represented a historical aspiration that Netanyahu, and several of his predecessors, dreamt of for decades: peace with an important Arab state at the expense of the Palestinians. For Israel, that has always been the easy way to establish peaceful relations with Arab states, which, unlike a peace agreement with the Palestinians, does not require territorial compromise. It is replacing the much-resented land-for-peace formula with its antithesis, the narrow peace-for-peace formula, which completely dismisses and undermines Palestinian national rights.

The real historic breakthrough here is not that genuine peace, brokered by Trump, is spreading throughout the Middle East; instead, it is that the first Gulf Arab country, one of the richest in the world, is offering Israel a free deal. Normal diplomatic, economic, cultural, and security relations are offered on a silver platter without a demand for a serious price from the Israelis. Temporary suspension of annexation of West Bank territory is quite an affordable price to pay for the Israeli prime minister. Indeed, it is a “no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAE.” For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing violent domestic unrest, a faltering economy, a resurging coronavirus epidemic, and prosecution on charges of bribery and corruption, the deal was almost like winning “Mifal HaPayis,” Israel’s national lottery, without even having to buy a ticket.

Several analysts looking at the Israel-UAE deal were initially hesitant to criticize it for fear of undermining a potentially successful attempt at bringing about peace to the war-torn Middle East. However, any objective and thorough examination of the deal leaves one with serious doubts about its motives and objectives. First, the deal seems more focused on burying the Palestine issue than resolving it. It clearly leaves the Palestinians out of the equation, as pointed out by Israeli journalist Noa Landau who reminds all parties that the Palestinians remain Israel’s neighbor in the region in spite of their absence from Trump’s field of vision. “After all,” she concludes, “Israel has not moved to the Persian Gulf.” At least, not yet.

Second, as Marwan Muasher of Carnegie Middle East Center pointed out, “It is important to realize what this agreement is not about.” He points out correctly that “Unlike what the United States, Israel, and the UAE are painting it to be, this is not an agreement to move the peace process forward. It is simply an agreement to serve Emirati-Israeli bilateral interests and make public those relations that had been taking place under the table for years.”

Finally, it is important to place the agreement in its political context. It cannot be viewed in isolation from its authors within the Trump White House and their destructive record in the region. Max Boot points out that, “In truth, Israel and the UAE have been drawing closer for years because of their shared fear of Iran. Trump’s contribution was mostly inadvertent.” Boot’s conclusion is shared by many analysts: “Despite the UAE-Israel deal, Trump will leave the Mideast a bigger mess than he found it.”

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Khalil E. Jahshan click here