Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (September 8, 2020) - Between the UAE and Iran: Trump’s strategic legacy for Israel


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. Granted, Israel is preoccupied with its rising corona rate and PM Netanyahu’s spectacular failure to manage the crisis. But on the strategic front, is anyone paying attention to weapons-related developments involving Iran and the UAE?

A. Prime Minister Netanyahu is clearly looking forward to a signing ceremony with the UAE in Washington in mid-September. At the very least, this will constitute a brief escape from his embarrassment over Israel’s corona dilemma and his own political dysfunctionality. But day-by-day it is emerging that the real cost of the Israel-UAE deal is higher and more complex than initially understood, at both the military-strategic and regional-strategic levels.

Q. Military-strategic? You mean the F-35?

A. Last week we learned that there is more to the American arms payoff to the UAE. It turns out the Emirates will receive not only F-35 stealth aircraft and attack drones but also Boeing’s EA 18G “Growler”, an aircraft that neutralizes enemy anti-aircraft defenses. Israel does not have Growlers, though it may possess alternative technologies. Still, all these US arms supplies to the UAE would seemingly threaten to compromise Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) to which the US Congress is legally committed.

These highly sophisticated US arms for Abu Dhabi are leaving the Israeli security establishment uncomfortable. Yet despite PM Netanyahu’s denials, they were clearly greenlighted by him, without consulting Israel’s security establishment, as part of the recognition deal.

True, the UAE is now a friend. In view of the nature of Israel’s cold peace with Egypt and Jordan, the Emirates are potentially the Arab country with the warmest relations with Israel at the level of civil society. But seen in regional perspective, this is getting complicated.

For one, authoritarian tribal-based Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf region have been known to suffer from leadership instability. It is not inconceivable that a successor to the dynamic UAE leader Mohammed bin Zaid (MbZ) will chill or sever relations with Israel and just keep the weapons. The fact that, despite optimistic predictions to the contrary, no additional Gulf regime (Bahrain and Oman are usually mentioned) has followed in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps leaves MbZ regionally isolated for the moment, and the UAE subject to inter-Arab pressure.

Then there is the UAE’s problematic record of regional military interventions. Along with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), MbZ has left behind a military failure and a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The UAE Air Force is countering Islamist-fueled Turkish military and energy expansion in Libya and (with Greece) the Aegean. These adventures, coupled with the prospect of advanced American weaponry for the UAE and reduced American military involvement in the Middle East, must give Israeli strategic planners pause for concern.

The American withdrawal from the region began under President Obama, has continued under Trump and is likely to proceed under a Biden presidency. It is driven by a reduction in strategic concerns in the Middle East and a rise in Far East-related military concerns. As for Turkey, Israel opposes its drive for hegemony in the region but is striving to preserve thriving commercial relations with Ankara and to avoid any sort of military clash. Besides, Israel needs the good will of a Gulf ally of Turkey and rival of the UAE, Qatar. The latter regularly pays tens of millions of dollars to Hamas in Gaza in return for relative tranquility along the Gaza-Israel border. Taken together, these factors affect Israel’s regional strategic concerns. The UAE’s brash behavior, even if for the moment friendly in nature, poses new challenges. Alongside their colder peace, Israel’s strategic understandings with Egypt and Jordan appear to be far more stable and mature. And Israel needs Qatar and Turkey in a variety of ways that presumably contradict UAE interests.

Q. And regional diplomatic-strategic interaction with the UAE? What’s the problem?

A. Here the picture gets even murkier. Last week President Trump sat down with the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo and announced their agreement, after decades of enmity, to establish bilateral commercial ties. Kosovo also recognized Israel and, together with Serbia, agreed to open embassies in Jerusalem.

So far, this looks like a win for Netanyahu--Serbia and Kosovo will join the US and Guatemala as the four countries with embassies in Jerusalem. It is also a diplomatic feather in Trump’s cap as US presidential elections near. But there are potential complications. For Netanyahu, relations with Kosovo, which in 2008 successfully broke away from Serbia, set a precedent whereby Israel condones unilateral declarations of independence. That precedent could be invoked by the Palestinians if they were to go the same route. That is one issue.

A second complication likely involves the UAE directly. Abu Dhabi has long cultivated relations with both Serbia and Kosovo. When Serbia invaded Kosovo in 1998, the UAE provided the Kosovars with ample aid and a UN peacekeeping contingent. A key figure in all these dealings was Mohammed Dahlan, the exiled Palestinian security official who seemingly hopes to exploit UAE-Israel relations to position himself to take over the Palestinian Authority once Mahmoud Abbas leaves the scene. Was the UAE involved in arranging and financing the Serbia-Kosovo rapprochement in Washington last week as a payoff to Trump in return for more weapons? Was the Serbia-Kosovo gesture to Israel part of a UAE payoff to Netanyahu for looking the other way? The timing and circumstances, coupled with Abu Dhabi’s deep pockets, are suspicious. (And by the by, the European Union just warned both Serbia and Kosovo that embassies in Jerusalem would jeopardize their EU membership bids. So we won’t hold our breath on that one.) Then there is the flare-up between the UAE and Jordan, Israel’s next-door neighbor and, regarding Syria and Iran, strategic ally. It all seems trivial and gossipy, but when rival monarchs are involved you never know.

A half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Princess Haya bint Hussein, fled with her children to exile in London a year ago to escape her abusive husband, Dubai’s ruler Mohammed bin Rashid. Dubai is a very important part of the UAE. More recently, Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Ali called MbZ a “traitor” for normalizing relations with Israel without a two-state solution for the Palestinians. Ali is also actively supporting his sister Haya in London, where she is loudly suing her husband. And when a Jordanian caricaturist of Palestinian extraction, Emad Hajjaj, published (in a London-based and Qatari-financed Arabic daily) a very derogatory cartoon of MbZ as Israel’s peace partner, he was arrested briefly in Amman. Queen Nur, widow of the late King Hussein, publicly supported both Ali and Hajjaj.

Confusing? Hundreds of thousands of Jordanians work in the UAE. Abu Dhabi has been generous with financial aid to Jordan. The last thing King Abdullah II needs is a nasty dispute with the Emirates due to family squabbles among royals and because the Palestinian issue excites so much support among his own royal family. Like Israel, Jordan has a corona crisis. Its accompanying financial crisis is far worse than Israel’s. Clearly Trump, Netanyahu and MbZ did not take Jordanian royal and public opinion into account when they launched the normalization initiative.

Q. What are the weapons-related developments involving Iran that Netanyahu should be paying attention to?

A. Not just Netanyahu, but Trump and his possible successor as well. Lest we forget, a key selling point of the Israeli normalization and US weapons deals with the UAE is the potential for a joint Israel-UAE alliance against a nuclear-armed, hegemonic Iran.

Here again, the regional strategic backdrop should be troubling for Israel. Of course relations between the UAE and Israel are particularly welcome at a time when the US is reducing its military commitments in the Middle East. But it should now be clear that the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran has backfired badly.

Iran has not backed down and not begged the US to remove sanctions in return for acquiescing in a tougher nuclear deal. Quite the contrary, Iran is installing new cascades of advanced centrifuges. Its stockpile of low enriched uranium, which can be processed into weapons-grade, has grown ten-fold. Despite repeated Israeli strikes against the Iranian buildup in Syria, Tehran is persisting there and has signed new economic and military agreements with Damascus. Iran is entering an extensive oil-for-infrastructure investment deal with China designed to compensate at least partially for the US boycott.

Moreover, Iran’s Trump-ignited effort to expand its military nuclear potential seems to be pushing the Arab world to follow suit. The UAE just inaugurated the first Arab nuclear power plant. Egypt is contracting with Russia to build four nuclear power reactors by 2026. Turkey is constructing two of four planned Russian power reactors.

True, these are not military reactors and these are not enemy countries. In many cases, the countries in question are foregoing an independent nuclear fuel cycle. But a civilian nuclear infrastructure is a well-recognized precursor to a military nuclear initiative. And then there is Saudi Arabia: it apparently has developed secret uranium-processing sites and refuses to forswear an independent fuel cycle.

So Iran is shortening the countdown time for producing weapons-grade material and Saudi Arabia is virtually going rogue. Meanwhile the surrounding countries hedge their bets by building more and more nuclear infrastructure.

Q. Are we nearing a time when Israel invokes the Begin doctrine and attacks yet another neighbor’s military nuclear infrastructure?

A. Israel did this successfully with Iraq in 1981 and against Syria in 2007. But the countries we are discussing here, who are responding to the long-term Iranian nuclear threat, are friendly with Israel to one degree or another. And all four--Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Turkey--are American allies. Trump’s ill-conceived abandonment of the JCPOA, which the three Arab countries and Israel all applauded, is now clearly an escalatory factor for the region and a complicating factor for Israel.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Netanyahu has become too dysfunctional politically and too preoccupied with his corruption trial to deal effectively with either the corona virus or the strategic complications of the UAE normalization breakthrough. And his favors to Trump will not endear him to a Biden administration and a Democratic Congress, both of which he will need urgently if and when, inevitably, things go wrong in the region.

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