Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 24, 2020) - The UAE deal: the price


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. As of Monday afternoon in Israel, the Likud-Blue White unity government appeared to be on course toward a compromise that would temporarily avert new elections. In contrast, discomfort and questions were multiplying over the UAE “peace” deal. Why?

A. In the week following announcement of the Israel-UAE deal, the Israeli public became aware of a number of troublesome dimensions. The UAE would probably be rewarded by being enabled to purchase the F-35 stealth jet from the US. PM Netanyahu had bypassed his coalition partners and the national security decision-making system on both the UAE and F-35 issues. Some key Emiratis were describing a “roadmap” process with Israel that seemed to fall short of a full diplomatic breakthrough. Others in the Arab world were hesitating to follow in the UAE’s footsteps.

The Israel-UAE deal still seemed like a good one, but not quite as good as advertised. The Israeli public initially approved the deal, meaning it abandoned or at least postponed West Bank annexation, by a polling margin of two-thirds. Yet in a prime-time press conference Sunday evening, Netanyahu seemed to be laboring to sell Israelis on the commercial and health payoffs.

Netanyahu has called the UAE a democracy and declared that his deal with it, unlike previous agreements with Arab countries, is “peace for peace”. Both assertions are untrue. The UAE is not a democracy (Netanyahu retracted his strange claim) and the deal with it, at least for the moment (see below), is gradual normalization. Besides, Israel can hardly make peace with a distant country it was never at war with.

Q. Let’s start with the F-35. What are the problems?

A. The US government and American security community are committed by law to maintaining Israel’s QME, or Qualitative Military Edge, against possible hostile aggressors in the Middle East. Some Israeli security circles argue that UAE possession of F-35s will violate the QME. Yes, the Abu Dhabi regime is friendly and stable. But sensitive knowledge of the aircraft’s stealth systems could leak and fall into Iranian hands. Any other Arab regime that now follows in the UAE’s footsteps and agrees to normalize relations with Israel will expect the same reward from Washington. And, as with Turkey which signed up for the F-35 when it was on friendlier terms with Jerusalem, the regime in Abu Dhabi might not remain friendly forever. The risks involved trouble Israel’s security community.

Did Netanyahu give the Trump administration a green light to promise Abu Dhabi the F-35? He says he objected on several occasions. Yet his national security adviser bypassed channels to discuss the issue with the commander of the Israel Air Force a month or two ago. And Netanyahu kept his key Blue White coalition partners in the dark not only about the F-35 but about the entire normalization breakthrough with the UAE. Netanyahu claims he feared leaks by Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, both ex-IDF chiefs of staff who are privy to Israel’s most sensitive secrets.

Trump’s closest advisers have made it clear that the potential sale to the UAE of the F-35 and of sophisticated Predator and Reaper unmanned intelligence and attack aircraft was made far more likely by the normalization deal even if it was not quite “part” of the deal. This is splitting hairs. Netanyahu appears to have needed the UAE deal so badly that he gave Israel’s consent regarding the F-35 with a wink and a nod. He needed a way out of his disastrous West Bank annexation initiative. He needed to distract the public from his disastrous mismanagement of Israel’s corona pandemic and its economic consequences.

Something similar happened a few years ago when Netanyahu okayed German supply to Egypt of sophisticated submarines like those in Israel’s fleet. In both cases, he bypassed the Israeli security establishment, knowing it would have objected.

Earlier Israeli prime ministers also made deals behind the backs of their coalition partners and/or the security community. Ariel Sharon shielded his Labor party partners from everything he did. Shimon Peres did not tell rotation-partner Yitzhak Shamir about the London agreement with King Hussein regarding the Palestinian issue (it proved abortive). Yitzhak Rabin kept the Oslo process a secret from the security community; he kept the peace process with Jordan a secret from FM Peres.

Coalition partners in Israel are often political rivals whom the prime minister has good reason not to trust. Further, one can argue that giving the UAE weapons that help it deter Iran makes sense. Under certain circumstances, a prime minister has the legal right to override the security establishment in making decisions.

But to imply that Gantz and Ashkenazi would leak national security secrets? In the case of the F-35, the issue is not traditional coalition politics per se but rather Netanyahu’s megalomania and his need to fortify his premiership in any way possible in order to stay out of jail. Being tried and convicted of corruption is the real threat he perceives in his coalition partners Gantz, Ashkenazi and Blue White’s dynamic justice minister, Avi Nissenkorn.

In doing both deals with the UAE--normalization and, via the US, the F-35--Netanyahu bypassed the entire national security assessment and decision-making process. Yet neither the national security establishment nor Blue White threatens him politically. Only morally. As with the rule of law and protection of human rights in Israel, in his panic Netanyahu removed another brick from the edifice of Israeli democratic governance. Abu Dhabi already sports the Arab world’s first nuclear power reactor. It recently launched the first Arab Mars mission. Now, like it or not, it will probably have the Arab world’s first F-35s.

Q. Yet the UAE is actually offering only a roadmap to normalization rather than full-fledged relations and embassies?

A. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zaid (MbZ) stated last week that the UAE and Israel had embarked on a “roadmap” toward establishing bilateral relations in return for “ending annexation of Palestinian lands”. UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba, whose dramatic op-ed in Yediot Aharonot daily several weeks ago first signaled publicly that a ‘normalization in exchange for stopping annexation’ deal was in the offing, followed up last Friday with another oped in the same paper. Now he stated that “normalization of ties has already begun, and will continue in stages. The most urgent matter . . . is the struggle against the corona virus. . . . Exchange of ambassadors and diplomatic missions will come afterwards.”

This does not sound like “peace for peace”. The only roadmap the Arab-Israel scene has known in recent decades was promulgated by the Bush 43 administration in 2003 and failed totally to advance Israeli-Palestinian relations. By using the term roadmap, MbZ appears to be signaling that this is a process that can be slowed or frozen if it is not proceeding as planned. Indeed, it could fail. Meanwhile it starts with fairly innocuous collaboration between health establishments.

Q. Why? What inter-Arab dynamic is at play here?

A. MbZ was cautious about the nature and timetable of normalization with Israel from the outset. His initial words of caution were simply drowned out by Israeli and US celebrations and regional congratulations or condemnations. One key reason for the caution is that, in normalizing relations, the UAE is consciously violating the Arab consensus as embodied in the Arab Peace Initiative approved by the Arab League in March 2002. The API, a Saudi initiative, posits normal Arab relations with Israel only in response to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan reiterated Riyadh’s commitment to the API. This has to be seen as a Saudi signal to the UAE and additional Arab countries that may be considering following in its footsteps with Israel: don’t go too far. The Saudis (still) take the Palestinian issue seriously.

The API, it should be noted, was never an effective formula for peace. It offered Israel no peace dialogue; only a rigid set of principles. As a compromise resolution of an Arab League summit, it embodied conditions regarding refugees and territory that no Israeli government could submit to. Yet in the years since 2002 the API has gradually been understood to have effectively recognized Israel and abandoned the course of war against it. It has generated a stable two-pronged regional status quo: no conditions for a two-state solution, and lots of secret and semi-secret Arab state normalization with Israel, from close security coordination with Egypt and Jordan to business and security deals all over the Persian Gulf.

This may explain why MbZ talks about a roadmap, and why additional Arab states like Bahrain and Sudan that reportedly are contemplating a similar upgrading of ties with Israel will fudge their definitions of normalization. They will also, like the UAE, condition progress with Israel on rewards from the US that can be sold to their Arab nationalist publics.

The UAE got cancellation of West Bank annexation. Sudan wants to be removed from the State Department’s list of terrorism-supporters. Morocco on Sunday rejected normalization with Israel, but if it is persuaded to change its mind it will want US recognition of its decades-old territorial claim to the Western Sahara. This week US Secretary of State Pompeo and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner are visiting the Arab world trying to pump up interest.

This leaves us with tantalizing questions. Will the Trump administration hasten to move these dynamics forward before US elections? Is there any real electoral payoff here for Trump? Will Arab normalization wannabees prefer to stay out of US electoral politics and wait until January?

Q. Closer to home, and looked at ten days later, what has the Israel-UAE deal done for or against the Palestinians? What has it done to Israeli politics?

A. The deal has at least temporarily taken Israeli annexation of West Bank territory off the agenda. That is a positive development in terms of the future of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. But by the same token, despite Emirati and other Arab protestations of fealty to the Palestinian cause, the Israeli-UAE normalization announcement has downgraded the regional status of the Palestinian issue. An Arab state can now overtly normalize relations with Israel and ignore its official API duty, since 2002, to first produce a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, back in Ramallah, reaction and obstinacy prevail. Rather than sue the UAE for compensatory aid and ask Israel to restore security coordination and transfer of customs levies, the powers-that-be appear concerned about the threat of some sort of coup by the followers of exiled Gazan security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who is backed by Abu Dhabi. And in Gaza it’s business as usual: Egypt and Qatar are trying for the nth time to bribe Hamas into ceasing its incendiary balloon and rocket attacks on Israel’s Gaza periphery. In a better world where national security decisions are part of an orderly process, Israel could be exploiting both the West Bank and the Gaza dilemmas with offers of aid and support, perhaps even in coordination with Abu Dhabi, perhaps in exchange for Palestinian concessions. Instead, the only noticeable initiative thus far has been to upgrade Israel’s broader international relations. This Wednesday FM Ashkenazi will travel to Europe--the first international mission by an Israeli minister in half a year of corona--where he will presumably seek to cash in on cancellation or postponement of annexation and translate it into enhanced opportunities for Israel.

So the UAE roadmap leaves the Palestinians worried, traumatized by the Arab world and certainly no better off. The slow slide down a slippery slope toward a single apartheid binational entity will continue even without Israeli annexation.

And Israel itself? If the Likud and Blue White coalition survives Monday’s deal-making and avoids elections, it will be at the cost of a functioning coalition capable of legislating a budget and appointing qualified key gatekeepers like a police chief and a chief prosecutor. The next crucial coalition crisis will have been postponed for three more months of paralysis. The total lack of harmony and civil relations within the coalition will continue. Netanyahu will be motivated and obsessed exclusively by his drive to avoid prosecution on corruption charges, no matter what the cost to governance and civility in Israel.

This coalition can’t even decide to properly restrain ultra-Orthodox prayer traditions for the sake of reducing covid-19 spread. Its newly-appointed corona czar, Professor Gamzu, is already contemplating resigning due to lack of government backing. The UAE deal? Netanyahu can ballyhoo it and take credit for it as much as he wants. His loyal followers in the ultra-nationalist-messianic establishment will applaud. The rest of the country will worry about corona and how to pay the mortgage. Nearly a quarter of the work force is laid off and there is no clearly-defined end in sight.

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