Israel-UAE peace deal bridges the gulf

Israel has always sought normalization with the Arab world, but the ongoing Palestinian conflict prevented such a development until now.

The spectacular Abu Dhabi skyline (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The spectacular Abu Dhabi skyline
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem hopes the dramatic announcement that the United Arab Emirates will soon be establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel will prompt other Arab nations to follow suit, heralding the end to the Jewish state’s regional isolation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at such a scenario when he said, “I believe there is a good chance we will soon see more Arab countries joining this expanding circle of peace.”
Speculation was rife over which country may be next: Bahrain, Oman, Sudan and Morocco were all mentioned as possibilities.
Saudi Arabia, the most important of the Gulf states, remains the jewel in the crown, as far as Israel is concerned. There was speculation that the deal with the UAE, which enjoys very close ties with Riyadh, would bring closer the prospect of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, such a development may still be a way off. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan clarified that Riyadh is sticking to its policy of not establishing diplomatic relations with Israel until there is peace with the Palestinians.
Israel has always sought normalization with the Arab world, but the ongoing Palestinian conflict prevented such a development. Egypt became the first Arab nation to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1979 with the historic peace treaty signed between prime minister Menachem Begin and president Anwar Sadat. Jordan followed suit in 1994 after the peace treaty signed between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein.
Although Israel set up trade missions in a number of Arab states and developed commercial and intelligence ties with Gulf countries, formal relations remained elusive.
In recent years the common threat from Iran brought even closer ties with a number of Sunni Arab countries – particularly in the military and intelligence spheres – and Israeli officials have hinted that it was only a matter of time before additional Arab states would agree to normalize ties.
Sources who were involved in the talks said the negotiations between Israel and the UAE had taken several months, adding that Mossad Director Yossi Cohen had visited the UAE several times in the course of those talks.
However, the mid-August breakthrough remained a well-guarded secret, and Netanyahu refrained from informing Alternate Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi – both from Blue and White – claiming any leaks could have torpedoed the entire move. “They could have spoken carelessly with their associates and that information could have gotten out,” according to Netanyahu.
Despite being left out of the loop, Blue and White was quick to also claim credit for the diplomatic breakthrough, saying it had convinced the White House to walk back its consent for West Bank annexation, thereby paving the way for the UAE deal.
The deal with the UAE marks the first time an Arab state that did not fight a war with Israel and does not have a border with Israel declared a willingness to establish full diplomatic relations.
“Opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economics will transform the region by spurring economic growth, enhancing technological innovation and forging closer people-to-people relations,” said the statement by US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
Extensive commercial ties have been maintained between Israel and the UAE for almost two decades, despite the absence of diplomatic relations. According to media reports, military cooperation between the two countries includes missile defense systems, precision-guided ordnances, border defense systems and building UAVs and technological systems for homeland defense. Civilian cooperation projects in the spheres of agriculture, water desalination, medicine, drugs and advanced technologies can now be advanced openly.
Delighted with the announcement was the 2,000-strong Jewish community based in the UAE, which maintained a low profile but has been increasingly active in recent years. ”We were surprised by the timing, but we knew it was coming,” said community leader Solly Wolf. “We have been feeling more free for a while now, but even more so now. Over the past year, the authorities have given us permission to open synagogues.” He urged Israelis to visit, stressing the country was welcoming, tolerant and safe.
Dr. Gadi Hitman, of Ariel University’s Middle East and Political Science Department, said the timing was right for the UAE.
“They see themselves as pioneers, breaking the glass ceiling,” he explained. “They see themselves as a new regional political power and they want to be part of mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians in the future. From their point of view the timing is right now because once Netanyahu put the question of West Bank annexation on the table, they can be the protectors of the Palestinians, insisting on no annexation in return for normalization.” Abu Dhabi agreed to establish formal ties in return for Netanyahu dropping his plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank under Trump’s Middle East peace plan, dubbed the “Deal of the Century.”
Netanyahu declared he still plans annexation at some future date, but it would not happen without a green light from Washington – and Trump made it clear that such a scenario is now “off the table.”
The right wing in Israel was furious at the quid pro quo with some even saying that the time has come for an alternative leader to Netanyahu.
Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing opposition party Yamina, welcomed the diplomatic breakthrough, but criticized the fact that Netanyahu jettisoned extending Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria.
“It’s unfortunate that Netanyahu missed a once-in-a-century opportunity to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, Ma’aleh Adumim, Beit El and the rest of the Israeli settlements,” he said. “It’s tragic that Netanyahu didn’t seize the moment and didn’t muster the courage to apply sovereignty over even a centimeter of the land of Israel. But sovereignty over tracts of our homeland is yet to come, from somewhere else.” David Elhayani, head of the Yesha settlers’ council, the umbrella organization of West Bank Jewish residents, expressed the feeling of betrayal felt by many of the settlers.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu misled us. He misled half a million residents of the area and hundreds of thousands of voters. Mister prime minister, you betrayed my trust and the trust of the residents of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley in you, and you sold us lies for a year,” he said. “Do not expect us to keep quiet. Don’t tell us that there will be sovereignty in a few months. The trust in you is gone.” Other settlers voiced support for the deal with the UAE, even though the cost was no annexation, for now. Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi, a member of the Yesha council, argued that normalization was no less important than the application of sovereignty. “From the days of the Madrid Conference up to Trump’s declaration, we were told that the Jewish settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria is the obstacle to peace. The agreement with the UAE proves that those arguments are baseless. Peace can arrive even without uprooting Jews from their homes.” Canceling the sovereignty plan led immediately to improved ties with European Union states, as the threat of sanctions against Israel, raised in response to the planned annexation, was removed.
Days after the landmark deal, President Reuven Rivlin invited bin Zayed to visit Israel.
He extended the invitation in a letter written in Arabic, expressing the hope that normalization will “help build and strengthen trust between us and the regional nations, a trust that will advance understanding, march the region forward, bring economic prosperity and supply stability for those living in the Middle East.” Although a formal ceremony establishing diplomatic ties is only expected to take place at the White House after the Jewish High Holy Days in October, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi wasted no time in taking steps toward normalization.
Direct telephone links were established a few days after the announcement, and Netanyahu confirmed talks are already underway for direct flights to the UAE flying over Saudi airspace.
“It is a short flight of three hours, like to Rome, but it will greatly change Israeli aviation and the economy, with a great number of tourists on both sides and a great number of investments,” Netanyahu said.
He noted that Emiratis are interested in “massive investment” in Israeli technology, and that free trade zones in the Emirates will allow for inexpensive goods to be imported into Israel.
He also claimed that the process of normalization will eventually drive peace with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu denied media reports that the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates included Israeli consent to any arms deal between the US and the UAE, particularly the purchase of the F-35 – the most advanced stealth fighter jet in the world.
“It’s a historic agreement. There regrettably has also been fake news surrounding it. Not only won’t it damage Israel’s security, it is going to contribute to Israel’s security. There is no agreement by me or any other agreement to arms sales by the United States to the United Arab Emirates – not openly, not covertly, not in a letter not in an appended letter – that’s all just one big piece of fake news. I understand that it’s hard to accept the fact that we’ve made a different peace. Peace for peace, not peace for land and not peace for weapons. And that is going to have an impact in the coming years.” Netanyahu stressed that the US had assured Israel that it would always maintain its qualitative edge. Trump confirmed Abu Dhabi’s interest in purchasing the F-35 jets made by Lockheed Martin Co., which Israel has used in combat. “They have the money and they would like to order quite a few F-35s. We’ll see what happens. It’s under review,” he said.
Emirati officials indicated arms sales were part of the tripartite discussions that proceeded the announcement of the establishment of diplomatic relations, and it is now difficult to envisage Israel lobbying assertively against any plans Washington has to sell military equipment to Abu Dhabi once formal ties are in place.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) commented that Israel should not be overly concerned, even if the UAE eventually acquires F-35s. “In order to reach us, they will need to refuel twice in the air. We should worry more about the F-15 planes that Saudi Arabia has, because they are only 150 km. from Eilat.” The Israeli public responded positively to the deal. According to a poll a few days after the breakthrough was announced, 76.7% said they preferred normalization with the UAE, while only 16.5% said they preferred West Bank annexation. The survey, conducted by Direct Polls for Channel 12 among 545 adults, had a margin of error of 4.4%.
The Palestinians recalled their ambassador from the UAE, and protests were held in the West Bank. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, described the deal as a “betrayal of Jerusalem, al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause.” Hamas accused the UAE of “stabbing the Palestinians in the back” by signing a treaty with Israel.
The Palestinian leadership accused Abu Dhabi of abandoning the traditional Arab position, enshrined in the 2002 Arab League peace plan, under which normalization could only come after the establishment of a Palestinian state and a full Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territories.
Sheikh Mohammed Hussein, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority, issued a religious ruling forbidding citizens of the UAE from praying in al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City if they visit the site in the wake of the agreement with Israel. The mufti told a Turkish news agency that only people who enter the mosque through “the gates of Palestinian legitimacy” would be able to worship there, and not people who normalize relations with Israel.
Although there was fierce criticism from Iran and Turkey, and from some Arab states such as Qatar and Yemen, the response from the broader Arab world was more supportive, indicating that the Palestinian question is no longer the cause célèbre it once was: a rallying call for the radical rejectionist camp that left Israel as a pariah state throughout the Middle East.
For decades conventional wisdom held that an agreement with the Palestinians would open the gates to the Arab world. Netanyahu realized that negotiations with the Palestinians were going nowhere, and he believed that by building up its economic and military power and maintaining relations on the global stage, Israel would eventually break the Palestinian veto power over other Arab states on how they engage with Israel. The deal with the UAE indicates this strategy is working.
“I think that the big change in the Middle East in the Arab countries’ attitude stems from my standing up against the nuclear agreement with Iran. Against Iran’s aggression. Many countries in the region saw in Israel under my leadership a country that had transitioned from being an enemy into a vital ally,” he said. “I developed Israel’s strengths. Through my policies, Israel has become very strong from an economic standpoint; strong militarily and technologically; a cyber superpower and a country with strong international standing. A country that is courted by countries on every continent. Arab countries noticed that... They particularly noticed – and I know this from personal knowledge – my firm stance against Iran and my willingness to stand up to the entire world against a danger that threatens them as well.” The pace and depth of normalization with other Arab states remains to be seen, but it now appears to be a question of when and not if.
A few days after the UAE deal, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was fired for declaring that Khartoum was looking forward to signing a peace agreement with Israel. The Arab world may be moving toward normalization, but caution – combined with months of discreet planning following the UAE model – may be the secret to success.