The Israel-UAE deal should leverage for peace with the Palestinians

Achieving a two-state solution is in Israel’s national interests, with or without direct flights to Dubai.

A woman shouts slogans during a demonstration against the UAE’s deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Gaza City, August 19, 2020 (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
A woman shouts slogans during a demonstration against the UAE’s deal with Israel to normalize relations, in Gaza City, August 19, 2020
(photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
The diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a positive development. While not a full-fledged peace agreement (between states that were never at war), but rather a road map for promoting bilateral relations, it nonetheless constitutes a substantive upgrade of relations between Israel and an important Middle Eastern state. The UAE has greatly boosted its regional standing in recent years. Along with its economic power, it has begun flexing its diplomatic and military muscles as well, becoming an influential player in the geopolitics of the Middle East, and even of the Mediterranean Basin.
At the same time, the crisis between the UAE and the Palestinian Authority has deepened. Emirati support for Mohammed Dahlan has enraged his rival in Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as have normalization measures with Israel, some on the backs of the Palestinians – such as the Emirati plane that landed recently at Ben-Gurion Airport carrying medical equipment designated for the PA, which refused to accept it.
The Emirati announcement of the breakthrough with Israel expressed support for the Palestinians and commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but lacked any concrete demands of Israel in that respect. In the past, Gulf states conditioned normalization on concrete measures attesting to real progress on a two-state solution and on an Israeli commitment to achieve it. The UAE appears to have shelved that precondition, for now.
The extent to which the UAE is willing to raise the glass ceiling imposed by the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its ties with Israel is still unclear. However, had Israel expressed willingness to move ahead in the peace process with the Palestinians, the UAE would have been just one of many Arab states willing to normalize ties with it.
Just as the Oslo Accords in the 1990s gave rise to a wave of agreements, regional conferences, and the opening of mutual representative offices in Israel and Arab states, so a breakthrough with Abbas would have led to a dramatic reshaping of Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world. Conditions for such progress are ripe, but absent a pro-peace Israeli foreign policy, such achievements will remain limited and opportunities could be missed.

LINKS BETWEEN Israel and the UAE, which have developed consistently in recent years, include clandestine and defense-related components, but are unique in significant civilian aspects lacking in ties between Israel and other states in the region, including those with which it has made peace. Israeli athletes compete in the UAE with their national flag and symbols, Israeli government ministers go there to attend international conferences, Israel is represented at the UAE-based UN International Renewable Energy Agency, and had it not been for the coronavirus, it would have opened an impressive pavilion at the Dubai Expo in October.
Official UAE representatives have even tweeting in Hebrew and expressing themselves in Hebrew media in seeking to convey opposition to Israel’s annexation plans. The relationship’s civilian, diplomatic and economic potential is evident and could serve as a model for relations between Israel and Arab states, with Israel’s Foreign Ministry in a leading role, rather than defense officials.
The agreement between Israel and the UAE puts an end to the immediate de jure annexation dream of the Israeli political Right. There is no guarantee that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have moved ahead with the annexation, prospects of which appeared increasingly remote in recent weeks given the absence of the required US approval.
What is more, even without annexation, Netanyahu has tightened Israeli control of the Palestinian territories consistently. Nonetheless, removing the annexation from the agenda paves the way for a renewed discourse of peace and hope – not only with distant neighbors in the Gulf, but also with the ones next-door in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The developing relations with the Gulf states – the UAE and others that may follow (perhaps Bahrain?) should serve as a lever for peace with the Palestinians, rather than as a bypass of such progress. Achieving a two-state solution is in Israel’s national interests, with or without direct flights to Dubai.
The writer is founder and head of Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a lecturer on Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.