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August 15, 2020

MENA

UAE/ISRAEL: Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning

BY Jon B. Alterman

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( 4 mins)
  • This week’s UAE-Israeli rapprochement creates more uncertainties than have been publicly acknowledged.
  • It quickly stabilizes the Israeli government, while creating significant risks and opportunities for the UAE.

The agreement that was announced with great fanfare is somewhat less than it has been advertised to be. It neither establishes ties between Israel and the UAE nor precludes Israeli annexation of the West Bank. Rather, it promises direct negotiations on the former and no immediate action on the latter.

For Prime Minister Netanyahu, this diplomatic coup is also a political triumph. He got something that a broad swath of Israelis wanted in exchange for not doing something that a broad swath of his allies hoped he would not do. He will not only get credit with all of them, but he will change the topic from his corruption trial, the spike in Covid-19 cases, and an internecine political struggle on the political right. Earlier this week, Israelis were talking openly about forcing a fourth election. Israel went through three elections in a year before it was finally able to form a government last April. Talk of imminent government collapse will cease. Instead, Netanyahu has earned a place in Israel’s history books as the prime minister who has done the most to end Israel’s global isolation, patiently building ties with Russia, China, India, and now the UAE (with other Arab governments presumably not far behind). Former prime minister Shimon Peres talked of a “New Middle East” that would require deep Israeli sacrifices. Netanyahu managed to pave the way to the New Middle East without making those sacrifices.

For the UAE, the big prizes are adding to its deterrence of Iran and significantly increasing bipartisan support for the UAE in the United States. Israel will presumably cooperate more deeply with the UAE on a range of domestic surveillance activities in the UAE, which the parties will presumably see as a win-win.

The UAE action is not without its risks, however. Arguably, the UAE has lashed itself to Prime Minister Netanyahu without a guarantee of his future actions. There is nothing apparent in the agreement to preclude Israel from annexing territory at the time of its choosing, nor anything that commits Israel to negotiating Palestinians’ future with them. While most Arab governments appear generally supportive of the UAE’s move, it is possible they might distance themselves given future Israeli actions, or the reactions of their own publics.

The UAE has also increased the risk that some non-state actors might seek to carry out a large-scale terrorist attack in the UAE, which has not seen such an attack before. If it were to take place, it would harm the UAE’s reputation as a safe harbor in a dangerous region. Iran, too, can be expected to seek to increase its profile as the only regional government with the courage to oppose normalization with Israel. Since many Muslims see Palestine as a moral issue at least as much as a political issue, we are likely to see more sympathy for Iran in the region, and we are also likely to see political opposition groups—sometimes with Iranian support—gaining more traction.

We should expect some countries to follow the UAE, such as Bahrain and Oman. Both have indicated their openness to normalizing ties in the past. Saudi Arabia, in particular, may be quietly supportive but is unlikely to normalize relations due to the entrenchment of the religious class in Saudi and the country’s significance for the Ummah: the clerical establishment has had a privileged role in the Kingdom since the eighteenth century, the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques, and Saudi Arabia is the founder of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Essentially left out of the deal at this point are the Palestinians, who were counting on Arab solidarity to strengthen their weak negotiating hand with Israel. With solidarity broken, the Palestinian leadership may hand the keys for the West Bank back over to Israel, forcing Israel to directly govern and police a hostile population. Israel’s task directly governing the West Bank would be harder than it was in the 1970-90s, when labor and money flowed relatively freely between the Israeli and Palestinian population centers. Conditions in today’s West Bank would be considerably more dire, and they could force Israel into an enduring, unvarnished military occupation.

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