Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 17, 2020) - The peace deal with the United Arab Emirates


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Is the UAE peace agreement a done deal? How far-reaching are its ramifications? Is West Bank annexation now really “off the table” as President Trump says?

A. It is early to project hard-and-fast insights on many aspects of last Thursday's UAE-Israel breakthrough. Some in Israel are skeptical that full-fledged diplomatic relations will emerge. To what extent, if at all, President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will register genuine domestic political gains from this brief 'distraction' is not clear, particularly when the right/messianic base of each can justifiably feel betrayed by the abandonment of West Bank annexation. Nor for the moment is it clear how the Palestinians assess the ramifications of the UAE-Israel deal.

Q. Let’s return to the key Palestinian dimension later. Let’s first assume this is indeed a breakthrough to peace between Israel and a third Arab country . . .

A. That would make this an undeniable Middle East peace achievement for the Trump/Kushner team and for PM Netanyahu. They deserve credit. They bargained West Bank annexation, which for a myriad of reasons was not about to happen, for formalization of long existing low-level tacit peace relations with an Arab country. That is not earthshaking by Middle East standards. But it looks like a smart deal, even if Israeli expectations of a huge Emirate windfall of hi-tech investments appear inflated.

Q. Why was annexation not about to happen?

A. Netanyahu fairly quickly realized there was too much opposition. The Trump administration applied the brakes, demanding an Israeli quid-pro-quo for the Palestinians. Jordanian opposition was critical. The messianic settler leadership, which is never satisfied, demanded more land and assurances that no Palestinian state would emerge. Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Blue-White’s Gantz and Ashkenazi, pushed back and lobbied the US administration to push back. Netanyahu was in political trouble due to his mismanagement of the corona/economic crisis.

So annexation was in any case not about to happen. In the midst of all this the UAE, through its ambassador in Washington Yousef Al-Otaiba, hinted at an upgrade in relations with Israel in return for cancelling annexation. Netanyahu grabbed at the opportunity.

Q. Netanyahu states he has only postponed annexation.

A. The UAE leadership has made clear that cancellation of annexation plans is its rationale for normalizing relations. Last Thursday UAE leader MbZ (Muhammed bin Zaid) tweeted “an agreement was reached to stop further annexation of Palestinian territories”. “Stop”, and not delay as Netanyahu has tried to persuade the settlers. MbZ has trumpeted this as a major achievement. Whether or not this is merely an excuse, it is fair to assess that were Netanyahu or a successor to proceed with West Bank annexation, Abu Dhabi would feel obliged to cancel diplomatic relations with Israel.

Note, too, MbZ’s use of the term “further Israeli annexation”. Is he referring to East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, both annexed by Israel decades ago? Will the UAE have something to say about this too at some point in the future? Then too, MbZ’s tweet states that “the UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship”. This is wording that falls well short of celebrating a peace treaty and full diplomatic relations, as Netanyahu has led Israelis to believe. Could MbZ have achieved cancellation of West Bank annexation in return for something less than a total peace breakthrough? Let’s wait and see.

In this regard, note that this will not be Israel's first diplomatic breakthrough with the Gulf. In the mid-90's, following the Madrid and Oslo agreements, Oman, Qatar (and Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania in North Africa) all instituted low-level diplomatic relations with Israel. They cancelled those relations when the Oslo process went south. This is definitely a relevant precedent for the Emirates.

Q. Are the dynamics of this breakthrough somehow particularly relevant to the policies of Netanyahu, Trump, and the Emiratis?

A. Yes, but also particularly relevant to Iran and Turkey.

First, at the strategic level, Netanyahu has long argued that Israeli-Palestinian peace need not precede peace with Arab countries and that the reverse would be a more profitable course. Now he can point to a solid achievement for this approach. Palestine has been downgraded as an Arab cause. The Palestinians cannot veto Israel-Arab peace. If, as rumored, Bahrain and Sudan soon climb onto the bandwagon, the setback for the Palestinians will be compounded.

Second, the looming threat from Iran is central to this breakthrough. A presence in the UAE places Israel just across the Gulf from southern Iran, and parallels Israel’s strategic deployment in Azerbaijan to Iran’s north. This balances Iran’s threat to Israel from Syria and especially from Lebanon (Hezbollah’s 100,000 missile warheads). From Israel’s standpoint, this is an existential issue.

From the UAE’s standpoint, peace with Israel is a ticket to yet more sophisticated weaponry, delivered without Israeli objections, from the US. That is also about Iran. The Israel deal is also an insurance policy against a US-Iran rapprochement under a President Biden or a second Trump term. No wonder Tehran doesn’t like the agreement.

Third, this is the first Arab-Israel peace breakthrough NOT negotiated bilaterally behind the back of the US and against its advice. Israel's breakthroughs with Egypt (November 1977), the PLO (Oslo, 1993) and Jordan (1994) were all surprises for Washington, which then hastened to line up behind them. So this is very much an American-initiated peace. And as such, any assessment of its chances must factor in earlier Trump 'breakthrough' fiascos, e.g. nuclear disarmament of North Korea and unbearable pressure on Iran. Will this one too turn out to be heavy on bluster and low on results?

Fourth, the economic dimension of this agreement appears at this early juncture to be stronger than in earlier Israeli peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt. The Emiratis bring to the table lots of money, huge commercial, technological and military ambitions, and a long tradition as traders. Trump sees virtually everything in terms of economic profits. Netanyahu believes in ‘economic peace’. Last week’s breakthrough announcement offered a long list of planned areas of economic cooperation. This will build on Israel’s existing, billion-dollar under-the-table trade with the Gulf.

Fifth, the UAE is distant and has no painful shared memories of war with Israel and no historic Palestinian 'file'. Accordingly, it is indeed possible that this peace will be 'warmer' than that with Jordan and Egypt. But lest we forget, those peace relationships also started out warm before cooling off once it became clear that Israel was not ‘delivering’ on the Palestinian front.

Sixth, UAE-Turkey tensions are a unique background factor. The two are both projecting hard and soft power throughout the region. They are currently strategically at loggerheads everywhere from the Horn of Africa via Yemen and Libya to the Aegean. Abu Dhabi is wary of US efforts to smooth over relations with Ankara; here it needs Israel.

Greece also needs Israel. The Greek foreign minister was in Israel Thursday, the very day of the Israel-UAE breakthrough, to solicit Israeli backing against Turkish energy incursions in the Aegean (drilling for gas in Greek-claimed waters). Israel has for years had good strategic reasons to steer clear of renewed confrontation with increasingly Islamist Turkey, with which it maintains booming economic ties. But it is also closely allied with Greece and Cyprus regarding shared Mediterranean gas resources. Last week, Netanyahu paid lip service to Athens’ complaints. Will Israel’s now public alliance with Abu Dhabi be directed against Ankara as well as Tehran?

Q. Meanwhile, back in Palestine, who opposes the deal?

A. Both the PLO in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza are furious--not toward Israel, which has actually backed away from the hostile act of annexation, but toward the Emirates and the many Arab countries that are voicing support for the UAE move. It is not as if Palestinian leaders believed for a moment prior to the Trump Plan and the annexation panic that Netanyahu had the slightest intention of advancing a two-state solution with them. Nor, for that matter, are the PLO/PA Palestinians likely to soften their more extreme two-state negotiating demands such as the right-of-return, merely because they just suffered yet another in a long list of historic setbacks. So in this sense, nothing has changed.

Turkey’s Erdogan and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah have issued statements condemning the insult inflicted by Israel and the UAE upon Palestinians. Nothing new there either.

On the other hand, the Qatari reaction could be interesting. Qatar with its unusual tolerance of both Iran (Hezbollah’s patron) and the Muslim Brotherhood (cultivated by Turkey) has for several years been boycotted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It hosts a Turkish military base (and a huge US base). Qatar also feeds tens of millions of cash dollars to Hamas in Gaza every month. Hamas, lest we forget, is the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s millions are a Machiavellian bribe facilitated by Israel to ensure peace and quiet between it and Hamas. Will Qatar now angrily tell the Emirates they just "bought" the Gaza file? Or will Doha redouble its efforts to remain relevant to Israel and the Palestinians?

Then there is the Dahlan factor. Mohammed Dahlan, former PLO security chief in Gaza, has lived in UAE exile for several years, ever since PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas accused him of treason. He is presumably Abu Dhabi’s candidate to succeed the aging Abbas. Dahlan-follower Sufian Abu-Zaida, a fellow Gazan who fled the 2007 Hamas takeover in Gaza, just published a courageous oped in Ramallah praising the UAE peace breakthrough. Stay tuned: this Israel-Arab peace agreement could yet affect internal Palestinian politics.

On the other hand, Ramallah can now renew security cooperation with Israel and claim the customs and VAT funds Israel withholds for the Palestinian Authority. These were both areas where Palestinian Authority boycotts protesting annexation ended up inflicting pain mainly on Palestinians.

Q. And in Israel, opposition?

A. Netanyahu's right-messianic settler political base feels totally betrayed by his abandonment of annexation and is likely to take its revenge politically. The settler movement has proven to be a formidable political actor. “Scam of the century” was the reaction of Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, to Netanyahu’s opportunistic leveraging of the annexation promise. “Netanyahu sold the settlement future in return for a cheap flight to the UAE. . . . [Israelis] might have taken the trouble first to visit older and closer attractions in the hills of Hebron”, sniffed columnist and politician Yifat Ehrlich piously.

At the other end of the Israeli political spectrum, Palestinian citizens of Israel share the overall Palestinian sense of betrayal by the UAE. But the majority of Israelis are definitely pleased with the prospect of peace with yet another Arab state.

Still, Netanyahu’s popular support has, according to initial polls, not increased. After all, the much-ballyhooed prospect of vacationing in Dubai cannot alter Israelis’ glum reality of a mismanaged corona pandemic and an economy in its worst recession in 40 years. The Black Flags protest movement hoisted a new slogan last Saturday night at their anti-Bibi protests outside Netanyahu’s residences: “What about peace among us?”

Accordingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, Netanyahu has followed up on the peace breakthrough with efforts to compromise over the budget with Blue-White (whose parliamentary opposition to annexation helped delay it until the UAE entered the picture). He is shelving talk of new elections that would be designed to prevent Blue-White’s Benny Gantz from becoming prime minister. And he has abandoned machinations to form a narrow right-religious government that could magically legislate Netanyahu’s escape from his corruption trial. The UAE deal appears to have at least briefly stabilized Israel’s shaky national unity coalition.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The peace deal looks at this point like a triumph for Netanyahu’s and Trump’s approach to peace. It is doubtful this achievement specifically will benefit either of them at the polls in the age of corona.

The deal is also a first violation of the Arab League’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative consensus that dictated that peace with the Palestinians must come first. The API has long served as an Arab excuse for normalizing behind-the-scenes coexistence with Israel. The UAE deal signals that this bluff may be over. The Arab world is too weakened by revolution and too disunited to do anything about it. Other Gulf states, Sudan and perhaps Morocco, all fed up with Palestinian intransigence, may now be prepared to warm up relations with Israel due to considerations involving the US, Iran and militant Islam.

Is Netanyahu now, as he proclaims, in a class of peacemakers with Menachem Begin (Egypt, 1977-81) and Yitzhak Rabin (Jordan, 1994)? Hardly. Israel never fought a war with the UAE, and it may take months if not years before we see whether this new deal evolves into real peace with distant Arab lands. Still, if Netanyahu is looking for a peace legacy with which to exit the scene, he now has one. If only he were looking . . .

The United Arab Emirates have already emerged as winners of the Arab Spring revolutions. Now the prevailing Arab reaction is to proclaim MbZ a winner from this agreement, too. Indeed, the UAE ruler is emerging as a genius at power projection, both soft (peace with Israel) and hard (in Yemen, Libya and on the Horn of Africa). Abu Dhabi, Dubai and potentially additional Gulf city-states like Qatar are replacing Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo as the political, cultural and economic centers of the Arab world. For Arabs, that is a revolution.

Yet when all is said and done, and even assuming West Bank annexation steps by Israel are indeed off the agenda, Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue to slide down a slippery slope toward a very ugly one-state reality, with truly disastrous consequences. The two-state solution has been put in the ICU on Netanyahu's watch, respirator and all.

Palestine may have been downgraded on Thursday as an Arab cause. But not as an existential Israeli problem. For those Israelis who wish Israel to remain a Zionist, democratic state, the paradox of last week’s breakthrough could not be more disturbing. By encouraging a sense of rapprochement with the Arab world and displaying Arab exhaustion with the Palestinian cause, the deal has exacerbated and lubricated the slide down the slippery slope. Discounting lip service to the Palestinian cause, basically Abu Dhabi is signaling that the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza, with its promise of Israel’s ultimate demise as a democratic, Jewish state, is just fine with the Arabs.

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