European sticks won’t stop annexation, but UAE carrots give pause

European threats don’t seem to be at the front of any of the Israeli decision-makers’ minds.

Abu Dhabi. UAE (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Abu Dhabi. UAE
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
July 1 has come without Israel making any changes to the settlements’ legal status, but the sovereignty train is still going – not full speed ahead, but still chugging along. Or as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday: “We talked about the question of sovereignty that we are working on these days, and we will continue to work on in the coming days.”
And many countries are still sending stern warning messages, the most recent of which is from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that seem to be met with a bit of a yawn from Jerusalem.
On the other hand, the opportunities Israel may miss – such as normalization with Gulf states – are what has given decision-makers pause.
“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yediot Aharonot. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”
The EU as well several of its member states have also said they won’t recognize any extension of Israeli sovereignty.
These threats ring hollow in Israel. None of these countries recognize Israel’s sovereignty over east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. Who in their right mind thought that West Bank sovereignty would get a nod from Europe? Certainly not Netanyahu or anyone else involved in the decision-making.
These are countries that view Israel’s presence in the West Bank, in any form, to be illegal, so saying “the UK will not recognize any changes” is really saying there will be more of the status quo.
They may as well say, “we will support resolutions against the settlements in the UN.” OK, and the sun will rise in the east and set in the west.
Polling shows Israelis are not particularly interested in sovereignty moves at this time, with a second wave of coronavirus and resulting economic turmoil. But it’s worth noting that polling over many years also shows that the vast majority do think Israel has a just claim to the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, to which Israel applied its laws decades ago.
Johnson, EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell and others think that the Golan Heights rightfully belongs to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who thinks nothing about gassing his own citizens, let alone Israelis if he once again had the high ground from which his country attacked Jews in three wars and beyond over decades. So many Israelis do not take them so seriously when they say things like “our commitment to Israel’s security will be unshakable” (Johnson) or “Israel’s security... is non-negotiable for us” (Borrell).
In other words, it’s become axiomatic for many Israelis that the European conception of a “rules-based international order,” as Borrell called it in an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post this week, does not account for the fact that Israel’s enemies do not care about those rules.
And “Mr. Security,” as Netanyahu has been called, is acutely aware of that. Israel has to walk a tightrope, because of proceedings at the International Criminal Court, and the world’s double standards, with its allies expecting a level of perfection reached by few, all while facing continuing security threats. It’s the same tightrope Israel always walks, and it was there when we had prime ministers willing to make concessions, like Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and it remains under Netanyahu.
Of course, unlike the UK, the EU has hinted at some other ways to hit Israel where it hurts if sovereignty moves forward. Borrell wrote that ties between Israel and the EU would “inevitably” come to “retract” in that scenario. EU officials have said that Israel’s participation in the 100 billion euro “Horizon Europe” scientific research program, a major driver for innovation in Israel, would be in danger, along with the Erasmus Plus education program.
But these European threats don’t seem to be at the front of any of the Israeli decision-makers’ minds. And the Trump administration’s contempt for Europe in general is well known.
What does seem to be making an impact is public statements by the United Arab Emirates.
Like Johnson, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al Otaiba chose to communicate his concerns directly to the Israeli public, choosing Israel’s second-most-read daily, Yediot Aharonot, over the most-read Israel Hayom, which is right-wing, pro-sovereignty, and even more pro-Netanyahu. And both wrote that “annexation” would threaten Israeli and regional security.
But Otaiba laid out a different strategy, writing that the UAE “helped to create incentives – carrots rather than sticks – and focused attention on the collective benefits for all parties.”
“These are the carrots – the incentives, the upsides – for Israel. Greater security. Direct links. Expanded markets. Growing acceptance. This is what normal could be,” he wrote.
Otaiba is close with Trump administration members within the peacemaking portfolio, senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner and Special Envoy for International Negotiations Avi Berkowitz, so much so that it has been insinuated that Kushner or Berkowitz wrote the op-ed for him to try to stop Israel from extending its law in the West Bank. This, however, is not true; they did not write the article and they are not trying to stop sovereignty, though they have emphasized that it is only one element of the broader “Vision for Peace.”
What is true is that Kushner and Berkowitz have been working on normalization between Israel and Arab states for years, an effort helped by a shared interest in combating Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Netanyahu has also prided himself on expanding Israel’s relations with more and more countries around the world, especially Arab countries.
Otaiba’s message resonated in Jerusalem and Washington.
All this is not to say that the sovereignty train is going back to its home station, never to depart again. Netanyahu still feels strongly about securing Israel’s borders for the long term and the Trump administration is still standing by its peace plan at this point. But there are some messages that will be more strongly considered on the way than others.