Annexation and normalizing UAE/Israel relations

Israel undoubtedly appreciates the UAE’s increasing willingness to engage. But the UAE’s statements reflect assumptions that Israel does not share.

On June 12, 2020, Youssef al-Otaiba, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States, published an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from implementing his plan to annex some as yet unspecified parts of the West Bank.
Otaiba warned that annexation and “talk of normalization” are a contradiction, and “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.”
This echoed UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash’s statement that Israeli talk of “annexing Palestinian lands” must stop, and that “any unilateral Israeli move” will be a “serious setback for the peace process,” “undermine Palestinian self-determination” and constitute “a rejection of the international and Arab consensus towards stability and peace.”
Unlike other critics of Netanyahu’s intentions, these UAE leaders refrain from sweeping condemnations of Israel or threats of intifada and sanctions. They speak for an Arab state that has already moved toward normalization with Israel. Responding to their warnings requires more delicacy than the threats of reliably hostile governments.
Israel undoubtedly appreciates the UAE’s increasing willingness to engage. But the UAE’s statements reflect assumptions that Israel does not share. No peace process exists that could be disrupted by unilateral Israeli actions, and the lack of responsible Palestinian leadership has led Israel to move unilaterally on many fronts.
Thus, Israel has unilaterally withdrawn from Gaza, built a security fence, provided separate roads and infrastructure to protect Israeli settlers, convinced the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem, imposed Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, and prevented Iran from establishing bases on the Syrian/Israeli border. Some form of “annexation” of West Bank territory would be the next application of a well-established strategic methodology.
Israel knows that annexation will complicate relations with the UAE and other states. But the UAE threat of discontinuing talk and gestures related to normalization is not going to cause Netanyahu to abandon his plans. Absent some more tangible benefit, Israel is likely to implement some aspect of what is being called “annexation” with the hope that it will be able to convince the UAE over time to resume enhancing engagement.
WHAT SORT of proposal could conceivably convince Israel to consider suspending at least some elements of its plan?
Getting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table is long overdue. But little good that would do, given the lack of trust between him and Netanyahu and his refusal to stop giving financial rewards to the families of terrorists.
The UAE could draw Israel into constructive discussions on annexation policy, however, if it were prepared to engage in direct talks, which include negotiations on a process for normalizing relations. Direct talks would enable the UAE and Israel to understand each other’s positions through detailed, professional exchanges rather than engaging in superficial public maneuvering; and accelerating recognition would be consistent with the UAE’s often suggested intent.
Direct diplomatic exchanges would recognize that Israel’s annexation plan includes several potential elements, each requiring separate consideration. Israel will, for example, at some point annex the major settlements around Jerusalem. The only real issue on that potential annexation is how to get the Palestinians to recognize those settlements as part of Israel in order to obtain the land swap Israel has previously offered.
Other possible annexations raise more complex issues. Applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley, and the possible annexation of pieces of territory encompassing Jewish settlements in the Palestinian-controlled zone of the West Bank, could create serious consequences, including possibly precluding a contiguous Palestinian state. The UAE should express its concerns about such steps directly, taking into account the details and impact of each proposed action.
COMMENCING NEGOTIATIONS on normalization with Israel would help both the UAE and Israel to deal more effectively with annexation and other issues. This step is no radical proposal, moreover; it would advance the UAE’s declared intent to treat Jews as one of the three legitimate branches of Abrahamic religion. It is building a center in Abu Dhabi where Christians and Jews will be welcome to pray. Why not, then, build a Middle East that is a home for all three Abrahamic religions?
For the UAE to normalize relations with Israel would be both practical and sound. Far more ambitious objectives were accomplished in moving Egypt and Israel from war in 1973 to a peace treaty in 1979, and in providing Jordan and Israel a process through the Madrid Conference of 1991 to a peace agreement in 1994. The UAE should continue that process.
The Palestinians would oppose UAE negotiations with Israel. But that attitude stems from their leadership’s refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state. Normalization between individual Arab states and Israel should be pursued regardless of the continued Palestinian/Israeli impasse.
In sum, for the UAE warning on Israeli annexations to have a constructive outcome, it needs to negotiate directly with Israel on all issues, including normalizing relations. No op-ed can substitute for genuine sovereign engagement.
The writer is the George P. Shultz senior fellow emeritus at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and was principal negotiator of the Israel/Egypt agreements concerning Taba while serving as legal adviser in the US Department of State from 1985 to 1990.