Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh is a retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and founding director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Office. Nakhleh is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico.
OPINION — The normalization agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel has elicited a frenzy of media coverage ranging from unbridled praise to angry denunciation. Much of the encomium included such phrases as “historic” and “victory.”
Supporters predict that because of this so-called “Abraham Accord,” the region will enter a new Age of Aquarius. The truth is that the UAE-Israeli agreement is somewhere in between. It is neither the deal of the century or a colossal betrayal.
Let’s be clear, peaceful relations between Israel and Arab countries is welcome and good but cannot possibly endure without including the other children of Abraham, the Palestinians. Although weak and dispossessed, the Palestinians are obviously a central party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Asymmetrical peace agreements or imposed peace, as was the case with the Weimar Republic after World War I, invariably result in instability and war.
The mockery of ‘annexation’
The normalization deal is not about the Palestinians, nor will it impact them in practical terms. Taking annexation off the table as the UAE Crown Prince and de facto ruler Muhammad bin Zayed (MBZ) has claimed, or delaying it for the time being as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised his right-wing settlers, is really irrelevant to the Palestinians.
Creeping Israeli annexation through expanding settlements is spreading across the West Bank unabated. If the UAE leader really wanted to focus on the plight of the Palestinians, he should have urged Netanyahu to freeze settlements, not playing word games with the legalistically questionable term of annexation. The “annexation” issue was used as a fig leaf for the two parties, but it is incidental to the agreement.
Nearly 300 government-authorized and unauthorized Jewish settlements currently exist in the West Bank with over 600,000 settlers. As these settlers are governed by Israeli, not Palestinian law, it really doesn’t matter whether annexation is on or off the table. Israeli sovereignty already covers large swaths of West Bank territory.
Settlers have their own power and water grids, irrigation networks, and a highway system that crisscrosses the entire West Bank, which Palestinians are prohibited from using. Israeli settlements enjoy grass covered soccer fields, for example, while Palestinian children play on dirt fields because of water shortages. This is what creeping annexation is all about and this is what the two leaders should have addressed if they were genuinely interested in expanding peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
It is disingenuous, therefore, for Netanyahu, MBZ, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to hang the UAE-Israel normalization agreement on annexation, which Netanyahu had already refrained from doing because of domestic and international opposition. Netanyahu’s claim that this agreement has once and for all erased the decades-old “land for peace” formula is equally fallacious, especially as the agreement totally ignored the Palestinians.
The UAE and Israeli leaders have already stated that the deal aims at normalizing relations and formulating a roadmap for bilateral economic, military, political, technological, and transportation relations, which they have been conducting surreptitiously for years. Now they want to pursue these relations openly through exchanging diplomats and embassies. The Israeli embassy will presumably be located in Abu Dhabi, whereas the UAE embassy will be located in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem.
Palestinian leaders were broadsided by the announcement and denounced it as “betrayal.” These same leaders, however, like many of their Arab counterparts in the region, were aware of the growing relations between Israel and some Gulf countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. Yet they remained silent. They were equally aware of the close relations between MBZ and Trump and Kushner. Moving the sub rosa relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi to the next level should not have come as a surprise to President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader in Ramallah, and other members of the PLO Executive Committee.
Apparent winners and losers
The three apparent winners of the normalization deal are MBZ, Netanyahu, and Jared Kushner. By re-affirming his friendship to Trump and Kushner through this deal, MBZ expects to receive approval by Trump for the sale of sophisticated American military aircraft to the UAE. MBZ was also probably hoping that the widespread media coverage of the agreement would divert the world’s attention from the serious human rights violations that his forces have committed in Yemen and Libya.
Netanyahu may have expected that normalization with the UAE would give his sagging poll numbers a boost and that it would deflect Israelis’ attention from his forthcoming corruption trial and his perceived poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To Jared Kushner, the deal represented a major foreign policy achievement for his father-in-law two and a half months before the presidential elections.
There are no indications, however, that the UAE-Israel agreement has netted any tangible benefits for the apparent winners. The agreement has been overtaken by domestic political developments in the United States and in Israel. MBZ has been vilified in some Arab media as having sold out the Palestinians. So far, the story has not gotten media traction globally.
The Palestinians are the biggest apparent losers. What has irked many Palestinians is that the UAE, a member of the Arab League and traditionally a strong supporter of the Saudi-driven 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, has used the word “normalization” or “tatbi’” in Arabic to describe the new relationship with Israel. In recent years, Arabs who have advocated normalization with Israel short of ending the occupation have been ostracized and vilified in Arab media. The UAE action has prompted Hannan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization to drily warn, “You may never be sold by your friends.”
Will others follow?
Now that the UAE used the “annexation” card to justify its normalization with Israel, other countries — for example, Bahrain and Oman — might find it difficult to follow MBZ’s example without another tangible fig leaf. Kuwait and Qatar, however, are not expected to climb on the normalization wagon so openly. Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, is in a difficult position, especially as his father, King Salman ibn Abdul Aziz, has been a major supporter of the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for peace with Israel after it ends its occupation of the West Bank.
Arab states will likely take a pause on normalizing relations with Israel for at least the next 10 weeks and await the results of the presidential election in the United States and the outcome of Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Yet, we might see an eruption of violence in the West Bank and Gaza and a resurgence of terrorism across the region by ISIS, al-Qaida, and their affiliated regional groups.
Several years ago, a senior Israeli national security official told me that peace between Israel and individual Arab countries, for example Egypt and Jordan, was welcome and good, but it was not the real deal. He said he frequently briefed Israeli political leaders that lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs must start with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and finding ways to end the occupation of the West Bank. He viewed the Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan as important markers on the path toward regional peace but believed they will only come to fruition after settling the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The UAE normalization deal is no different.
This column by Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh was first published by Responsible Statecraft