Understanding the Arab world's response to annexation

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: Middle East expert Dalia Dassa Kaye says Israel tends to paint a much rosier picture than reality warrants.

Palestinians participate in a march rejecting Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. Rafah, Gaza Strip, June 11, 2020.  (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
Palestinians participate in a march rejecting Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. Rafah, Gaza Strip, June 11, 2020.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
A week ago Thursday, at a ceremony for graduates of the IAF’s pilot course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made breaking news headlines when he declared that a joint Israel-UAE announcement would shortly be issued.
“In a few minutes the health ministries of the United Arab Emirates and Israel will announce cooperation in the battle against corona,” he said in words quickly sent to reporters by his office.
“This cooperation will be in the area of research and development and technology, in areas that will improve the health security of the entire region. This is the result of extensive and intensive contacts over the last few months and will bring a blessing to the whole region.”
Coming as it did just two weeks after the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, warned in a barrier-breaking Yediot Aharonot opinion piece that going ahead with annexation would put the brakes on the establishment of more normal ties between the two countries, this statement of cooperation, even as Israel continued to talk about annexation, indicated a turnaround that would merit the overused adjective “dramatic.”
A few minutes passed, however, and no announcement came from Abu Dhabi. Then an hour passed, another hour and then a third. Only four hours later did a spokesman at the UAE Foreign Ministry tweet this: “In light of strengthening international cooperation in the fields of research, development & technology in service of humanity, two private companies in U.A.E. sign an agreement with two companies in Israel to develop research technology to fight Covid-19.”
Not exactly Netanyahu’s “blessings of health security” for the whole region. And this incident, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, the director of the California-headquartered RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Public Policy, reflects a problem Israel has when looking at its ties with the Arab world: a tendency to paint a much rosier picture than reality warrants.
Yes, Israel and the Gulf states share concerns about Iran, and yes, Israel’s achievements in technology, water management and cybersecurity are appreciated by the Gulf states, but don’t exaggerate: Israel is far from indispensable for these countries.
And that, Kaye said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, during which she mapped out her assessment of how various Arab countries would respond to annexation, is something Israel should keep in mind when contemplating such a move.
Even if what is decided upon eventually is only “annexation lite” – meaning extending Israeli sovereignty to only major settlement blocs – Kaye said the Arab world would oppose it the same as if Israel were to annex the full 30% stipulated in the Trump peace plan.
At the same time, she noted that there are important differences within the Arab world regarding possible reactions, with some – such as the Persian Gulf countries – likely to extract a price in “opportunities lost,” and others, like Jordan, liable to take tangible steps against Israel.
“For the Gulf monarchies – especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE – this is a headache, and they’re signaling there will be opportunity costs to Israel if they move ahead with annexation,” she said. These costs will be in terms of “normalization carrots” dangled periodically in front of Israel, such as increased diplomatic engagement.
Beyond withholding carrots, however, the Gulf states are limited in the price they can extract from the Jewish state. And even those carrots should not be exaggerated, with Kaye saying that “a lot of the normalization excitement is overblown.”
But how about Iran? Don’t the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis need Israel as a bulwark against Iran?
Yes, she said, to an extent. But there, too, she cautioned against inflating Israel’s importance.
The Persian Gulf’s calculations regarding Iran are different from Israel’s, she said, adding that geography plays a difference, as they are simply physically closer to Iran and would be the first to suffer from a conflagration.
Just as there has been closer cooperation between Israel and the UAE during COVID-19, with two Etihad Airways planes landing in Israel with aid for the Palestinians, there were also COVID-19 aid flights from the UAE to Iran.
“You are seeing a warming of ties there,” she said. According to Kaye, the Gulf states are nervous about long-term US commitment to the region, and as a result are “playing all sides” to hedge their bets.
Kaye said the idea that fear of Iran will send the Gulf states running to Israel with open arms, “at a time when they have countervailing interests, is unrealistic and a misreading of the complex and nuanced ways the Arab states adjust to new realities.”
The one Gulf state that has the ability to extract a concrete price from Israel immediately for any annexation move, she said, is Qatar, which has threatened to cut off its monthly aid package worth millions of dollars to Gaza as a result. If this happens, Kaye said, it could reignite tensions in Gaza and lead to an end to the ceasefire, which would be a tangible cost to Israel.
The other country that could conceivably extract a real price is Jordan, for whom – Kaye said – the annexation issue is an “existential one” that has “really made the Jordanian leadership nervous” for a number of reasons.
First, she said, such a move would slam the door on a negotiated solution that the Hashemite Kingdom had hoped would lead to a Palestinian state. If there is not going to be Palestinian state on the West Bank of the river, then the concern in Amman is that the voices will increases saying that the Palestinian state should be on the east side of the river, since Jordan already has a majority Palestinian population.
Furthermore, she said, annexation would likely lead to a breakdown in security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, which is bad for Jordan since many of those who would be interested in fueling violence in the West Bank are “also not big fans of King Abdullah.”
It is in Jordan’s interests, therefore, that vibrant security cooperation between Israel and the PA continue. Those who want to cause trouble in the West Bank for the PA, she said, are also interested in causing trouble for the king.
“There is no question that Jordan now is facing more pressure than ever, and there are many vulnerabilities there,” she said, adding that it is not clear whether all those vulnerabilities could lead to the Hashemite Kingdom’s collapse. Abdullah, she said, always seems to find a way to “muddle through.”
At the same time, between the Syrian refugee crisis, an economic crisis made worse by COVID-19, continuing conflict in the region, and significant socioeconomic discontent and frustrations at home, additional pressure from problems on the Palestinian-Israel front is the last thing Abdullah needs right now.
The idea of Israel annexing the Jordan Valley, Kaye said, is especially galling to Abdullah, for while there has long been a certain acknowledgment in the international community that Israel would, under a future agreement, retain sovereignty over the large settlement blocs, there has been no such acknowledgment regarding the land bordering his state.
Kaye does not think any of this would be enough for Abdullah to abrogate the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, a treaty made after the Oslo Accords and which Jordan could conceivably tear up with the justification that Israeli annexation abrogates those accords. The biggest reason why not, she said, is that Abdullah does not want to antagonize Washington, his country’s critical ally.
Short of abrogating the treaty, however, the king could put an even colder chill on the already chilly ties with Israel, meaning that he could kick out Israel’s ambassador and downgrade the security and remaining political links.
WHILE JORDAN may downgrade – but not cut off – ties, Kaye said this is less likely in the case of Egypt, the other country in the region with which Israel has a peace treaty. Egypt, which she said is a regional leader when it comes to issues of international law, will channel its anger over annexation toward challenging Israel in international forums based on legal issues.
Egypt is so dependent on the US for military assistance, and also cooperates so closely with Israel because of threats it faces from Sinai, that it is even less likely than Jordan to “take a drastic step,” she said.
At the same time, Kaye pointed out that annexation has put the Palestinian issue back on the agenda in the Arab world. “Everyone is talking about it, and the Arab public still cares.”
If non-Arab Iran and Turkey, killing Arabs in Syria, were not doing well through the use of “soft power” in the Mideast in recent years, a sudden emergence of the Palestinian issue provides them with an opportunity to “show their bona fides.”
Support for the Palestinians from the Iranians and Turks will make them look like the real champions of the Palestinians in the region, and place more pressure on those Arabs states that would like to work with Israel, she said.
Kaye said that the Palestinian issue is still important to Arab public opinion, and that “public opinion matters, especially when leaders feel vulnerable.” Remember, she added, it wasn’t that long ago that [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak was toppled in Egypt. No one feels safe.”
And it is that sense of insecurity and vulnerability that could be a considerable driver in determining how the various Arab leaders would respond if Jerusalem goes ahead and applies its laws to parts of Judea and Samaria.