Walking the Mideast peace tightrope - analysis

As the first baby steps on the journey toward full Israel-UAE normalization have been accompanied by high expectations and hopes on both sides, we must look at past agreements.

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)
Peace breeds elation, even euphoria.
It did so in 1977, when then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat flew 90 minutes from Cairo to Tel Aviv, in the process bridging a generation of hatred and hostility. That was the first step toward an Egyptian-Israeli peace deal, and the hopes were sky high.
There was talk of Israelis flocking to visit the pyramids and other sites in Egypt, and Egyptian students filling up the benches in Israeli universities. There was talk of sport, cultural and academic exchanges. There were great peace expectations; euphoria was in the air, especially in Israel, but not only.
People lined the streets in Jerusalem to catch a glimpse of the Sadat motorcade as it made its way to the Knesset, but people also lined the streets in Cairo – some of them bused in by the government – when he returned to Egypt. And when Israel withdrew from El Arish in 1979, the first of a staged withdrawal from Sinai that was completed in 1982, Sadat was mobbed there, too.
But that euphoria, at least on the Egyptian side, was short-lived. Israelis did not flock to the pyramids, largely feeling unwelcome there, and hardly any Egyptians – students or others – came here. The Middle East intervened, ensuring that Egyptian public opinion – long implacably hostile to Israel – would not soften much, if at all.
And that is important to remember now, as the first baby steps on the journey toward full Israel-UAE normalization have been accompanied by high expectations and hopes on both sides, fed by Jared Kushner and the US administration and talk about a region undergoing a significant makeover. On Tuesday, there were reports of direct flights within weeks and the establishment of embassies not long after.
But in its relations with the UAE, Israel will have to thread a needle between normal relations with Abu Dhabi, and taking tough military measures at times to protect its own interests; measures that might not be very popular in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
From the time the peace accord with Egypt was signed in 1979 to when it was fully implemented in 1982 (with the exception of an Israeli withdrawal from the last mile of the Taba beach), Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1980, destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in the summer of 1981, and extended its sovereignty over the Golan Heights in December of that year. Two months after the final withdrawal from Sinai, the First Lebanon War began.
While all of this was perfectly legitimate and reasonable from an Israeli point of view, the Egyptians saw it very differently. These moves further isolated Egypt in the Arab world, and alienated an already skeptical Egyptian public that – although pleased that Egypt got the Sinai back – were infuriated by Israel’s actions. Egyptian public opinion on the agreement soured, and has remained sour ever since.
This all came to mind on Tuesday, after hearing reports of an attack in Syria that Damascus attributed to Israel and which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said led to 11 deaths, including seven non-Syrian Iranian backed operatives, three Syrian soldiers and a civilian woman. Israel did not comment on the incident.
The Middle East of 2020 is fundamentally different than the Middle East of 40 years ago, and the killing of Muslims in an Israeli military raid does not elicit the same reflexive outrage among other Arab states as it once did, as some of those Muslims – such as members of Shia militias backed by Iran – are as much a threat to some of those Arab countries as they are to Israel. Since the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s negative view of Iran is similar to the one held in Jerusalem, few tears will be spilled in Abu Dhabi at setbacks the Iranians and their allies are facing in Syria. Quite the contrary.
But still there is a cautionary tale here.
Consider what the reaction in the Arab world would have been had Israel responded to a Hezbollah or Hamas provocation in Lebanon or Gaza by attacking military installations in southern Lebanon or Gaza, and killing Lebanese or Palestinians in the process. Then there would likely have been an uproar on the Arab street, criticism of the UAE for normalizing ties with Israel and a great deal of pressure on Abu Dhabi to cut those ties.
There is precedent for this, as Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia, with whom Israel had low-level ties and where Israel had trade offices after the Oslo process, cut ties and closed those offices after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.
What does this mean for Israel? Do peace agreements with Arab states tie its hands in its ability to take action it feels necessary for its own security? Obviously not, Israel cannot grant a veto power over its actions even to countries with whom it has peace accords.
But it does mean that Israel needs to factor the sensitivities of Arab countries with whom it has relations – such as the UAE – into its decision-making process. It means Israel must keep the UAE apprised of potentially controversial steps in real time, and that its leaders must weigh their public words very carefully after such actions to prevent inflaming public opinion against it in newly friendly Arab lands.
Israel will obviously continue to act as it feels it must, but from now on the ramifications of its actions on ties with the UAE will be an additional component to take into consideration. That, too, is a price of peace.