It has been widely known for several years that Israel and the Gulf States have established, unofficial, non-diplomatic ties in a number of areas of mutual interest. While the relationship was motivated largely by mutual military and strategic self-interest, it has certainly evolved into genuine economic benefits as well. There has been intelligence sharing—up to a point–, exchange of trade missions, and high-level visits. Both sides’ security considerations evolved from a continuing regional concern about possible hostilities with Iran.
Last week’s U.S. orchestrated White House ceremony was predicated on the expectation that Israel and the United Arabs Emirates were agreeing to establish diplomatic relations. What is unclear is what are the respective parties’ true motivations to advance down this official road of recognition at this moment.
The UAE has few problems proceeding with formalizing relations with Israel, as this already has been the status of its relationship with Israel, minus ambassadors, embassies, and flags. The other Gulf States, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain are also ready; while the Saudis have domestic, religious, and leadership issues to sort through first.
The UAE also saw this as an increased opportunity for a growth in economic development with the United States. In turns out, however, that their most important interest was their expectation of being able to purchase America’s latest F-35 fighter jets with Israel’s acquiescence, and no congressional push-back. All of this would be made possible as long as both sides show proper obeisance to the Trump Administration. It presents another opportunity to help the Trump re-election campaign from both the UAE and Israel.
For Israel, these new diplomatic ties are desirable, especially to further Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s grip on power. The timing of the visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Jerusalem hopefully to expand and expedite this diplomatic breakthrough also was not coincidental. It provided Pompeo the opportunity to solidify his foreign policy talents by displaying them from the roof of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem as part of the Republican National Convention, a clear misuse of their office by another Trump official. His trip to Sudan and throughout the region also suggests another set of possible diplomatic coups timed to occur during the final weeks of the presidential campaign. For the Trump Administration–and not of little consequence to Kushner and Trump personally–this could be win-win.
For Israel and Bibi there are real questions. Sale of the F-35’s to the Gulf apparently has been a matter of deep in-fighting in Israel between the Prime Minister, the Military, and the Mossad. Israel’s agreement was apparently also maneuvered by Bibi without the acquiescence of his so-called “assistant” Prime Minister, Benny Gantz.
The pressure on Netanyahu from the Trump-Kushner team no doubt is intense. Given what is hanging over Netanyahu’s head between now and January, good-looking deals are politically very helpful to solidifying him politically. In fact, normalization is good for Israel and much less controversial than annexation which has totally disappeared from the discussion. One wonders, however, why if this deal was so ready to be made, a less politicized Israeli leader might have configured the entire decision another way.
If Trump is re-elected, they can do the deal in November. If Biden wins, it could give Bibi a way to ingratiate and perhaps rebuild relations with the Democrats. Historically, Biden has a very strong track record of support for Israel. Letting him lead off in 2021 by arranging the increased normalization might go a long way to rebuilding trust among many Israelis in a Democratic President. A diplomatic deal at that point might ensure that the weapons’ deal with Arab world does not create an entirely new arms race.