The UAE-Israel deal is a paradigm shift for the Middle East

DIPLOMACY: Palestinians need to catch up to reality created by Israel-UAE deal

A MAN takes a picture as Tel Aviv City Hall is lit in the image of the United Arab Emirates national flag, following the announcement of a deal to normalize relations. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
A MAN takes a picture as Tel Aviv City Hall is lit in the image of the United Arab Emirates national flag, following the announcement of a deal to normalize relations.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
When Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced formal relations two weeks ago, it was a major symbolic shift in the reigning paradigms about Israel’s place in the region.
From the Khartoum Resolution’s “three noes” – no peace, no recognition and no negotiations – to the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, most Arab states said they didn’t want anything to do with Israel until the Palestinians’ problems are solved to their satisfaction.
This is the source of the “linkage theory,” the argument that if Israeli-Palestinian peace is achieved, all the Middle East’s other conflicts will end, with the subtext being that Israel is somehow at fault for all of the region’s problems. If only Israel would once again give up a huge chunk of land – after successfully making peace in that way with Egypt and unsuccessfully with the Palestinians in Gaza – then there would be peace in the Middle East and we could all sing “Kumbaya.”
Much of the foreign policy establishment went along with this theory as though it made sense. Year after year, Palestinian recalcitrance was bolstered by Western money pouring into their institutions with little to no demands on them, the perennial victims, along with warnings that Israel was isolating itself. Israel continues to be a monthly item on the UN Security Council’s agenda, even in relatively calm times, as though the conflict with the Palestinians were the most important problem in the world.
But over the decades, plenty of issues have cropped up in the region that have almost nothing to do with Israel.
As White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner said last week, “Israel is always a convenient scapegoat... [but it] is not the main issue in the region.”
Iran, not Israel, shot missiles into Saudi Arabia. Iran, not Israel, sent its proxies into Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, destabilizing them, Kushner pointed out.
And that’s only in recent years. If you go back to the First Gulf War, it started with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. And it continued even when Hussein’s gambit to draw Israel into the war and gain support from more Arab states by shooting Scud missiles into central Israel failed. Notably, though the strategy failed, it convinced the PLO to support Saddam, and Kuwait forced out almost 200,000 Palestinians after the war.
It was not long afterward that Israel began having ties – some secret, some open – with the UAE and other Gulf states, though those were inspired by the Oslo Accords.
Israel has developed those relationships more recently, and they have flourished, regardless of the lack of movement on the Palestinian front.
Wikileaks cables revealed Bahrain’s king had ties with the Mossad as far back as 2005, and that it stopped referring to Israel as the “enemy” or the “Zionist entity.” In 2018, Bahrain officially acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself from Iran, and the following year it hosted then-foreign minister Israel Katz, along with Israeli officials on two other occasions.
Oman and Israel opened reciprocal trade offices in 1996, and Oman’s foreign minister met with then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni in 2008. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Muscat, and Oman’s foreign minister described Israel as “an accepted Middle East state,” saying “maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations” as the others.
Ties with UAE have been continuous for the past 20 years, with a two-year downturn after Israel allegedly assassinated Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in his hotel room in Dubai in 2010. A major jump in relations began in 2018; in 2016-2018 four official Israeli delegations visited the UAE, and in 2019 there were 15 delegations and three Israeli ministers.
Israel and the UAE have worked together to counter Iran’s threat to the region throughout the years, appealing to former US president Barack Obama to take a tougher stance against the mullahs’ regime in 2009. Netanyahu met with the Emirati foreign minister in New York in 2012. The countries’ ambassadors to the US discussed their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, and so on. In 2016 and 2017, the Israeli and Emirati air forces participated in joint exercises with the US and other countries.
Plus, Israel opened an office – with an Israeli flag - in the International Renewable Energy Agency’s offices in Abu Dhabi in 2017, and last year Israel and the UAE announced that Israel would participate in the Dubai Expo 2020 innovation fair. Over the last three years, Israeli athletes were able to compete in the UAE, and in 2018 the country reversed its position and allowed Israeli athletes to display their country’s flag.
A senior Foreign Ministry source said that even before the Abraham Accords between the country, the ministry helped facilitate connections between 500 Israeli companies and Emirati companies, and that there were 20 joint projects in the pipeline, in the areas of water, agritech, renewable energy, fintech, cybersecurity and homeland security. Israel helped establish the Emirates’ diamond exchange, and 20 Israelis are registered there.
Some critics, such as former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, have taken that long history as a reason to dismiss the deal between Israel and the UAE as unimportant. Rhodes tweeted that it “enshrines what has been the emerging status quo in the region for a long time (including the total exclusion of Palestinians). Dressed up as an election eve achievement from two leaders who want Trump to win.”
But as John Bolton, former national security advisor under Trump, wrote in Mosaic magazine this week, “not every diplomatic breakthrough is a home run, but solid singles and doubles, added together, make for winning (and sometimes championship) seasons.” For those who don’t understand baseball metaphors, Bolton explains: “‘normal’ diplomatic progress between former adversaries is, in the Middle East, a considerable success.”
All of this is to say that there was plenty of time with myriad opportunities to recognize that a shift had taken place, at least in the Gulf area of the Arab world, and the paradigm had been shattered.
Gulf-Israel relations have very little to do with the status of the Palestinians. Stopping Israel from implementing the Trump peace plan by applying sovereignty to settlements in Judea and Samaria may have been what prodded UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed to cross the Rubicon into official relations with Israel, but there were 19 years’ worth of groundwork laid before the Trump plan even existed. Israel gave up something theoretical for something concrete. This is not land for peace.
YET THE reaction in many quarters was similar to when US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy, and it didn’t result in war or even a significant uptick in violence. (Don’t let the cable news split screens from that day fool you; Hamas started rioting on the Gaza border months before.)
The Palestinian leadership has not engaged in any self-reflection or considered changing course. As analyst Shimrit Meir described the internal Palestinian discourse following the Abraham Accords this week: “There is no ‘where did we go wrong?’ ֿno great agitation. This is accepted as the expected height of a process of the Arabs abandoning [the Palestinians].”
Instead, Palestinians think their options are “unity, including bringing Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the PLO, tightening ties with Turkey and Qatar as opposed to [other] Arab states, and waiting for [Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden,” Meir wrote. The first two won’t help the Palestinian case insomuch as it depends on Israel. And if the Palestinians continue being as inflexible as ever, Biden won’t be able to help them get a state any more than Obama or Clinton did.
Of course, any Israeli moves toward peace and cooperation and away from regional isolation challenge the orthodoxy among Palestinians and their supporters that Israel is racist and oppressive of Arabs, and that its supposed cruelty is an end in and of itself.
And encouraging their obstinacy as always, with funding and words, are foreign ministers of Europe, continuing the linkage theory as though the Palestinians are still the apples of the Arab world’s eyes.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the normalization a “courageous decision by the UAE and its desire to contribute to the establishment of a just and lasting peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, the veteran member of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, was more pan-Arabist than the actual Arabs involved, and in a radio interview accused the UAE of selling out the Palestinians: “I think you can’t just let your own brothers down in order to pursue economic interests and perhaps also have more security for yourself.” UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab visited Israel this week, preceded by a Foreign Office statement that he is going to “press for renewed dialogue between” Israel and the Palestinians, “in light of the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel.”
Israel can’t totally disregard these views. The Palestinians are still an issue for Israel. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, and an important diplomatic partner beyond that, which means its positions are worth considering.
But Israel can’t also pretend that the Palestinians are the biggest, most urgent issue right now, just because Europe wants it to. There are bigger problems on the horizon. The UN arms embargo on Iran is weeks away from running out – with no help from Europe to extend it, despite Tehran’s violations of the nuclear deal – and Russia and China are waiting in the wings to sell it weapons, plus Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has been attacking on the northern border. And then there are the problems everyone has these days – namely, coronavirus and the related economic downturn.
Israel isn’t going to give up on opportunities for peace, security and economic growth through partnerships with Arab states just because the Palestinians aren’t part of the deal.
The Palestinians and Europe will just have to catch up with reality, because Israel isn’t slowing down for them.