The public announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates were moving forward with normalization of diplomatic relations was the most positive news to emerge out of the Middle East in months. This declaration did not really surprise regional observers although the timing and character did. It suggested some interesting political developments for all the parties.
Since prior to the Trump Administration, Israel and all the Gulf States, as well as Saudi Arabia, have been conducting “unofficial” diplomatic relations. In addition to trade missions and economic development issues, there has been, more importantly, a mutual sharing of security information, and exchanges of intelligence. These contacts have only grown since the JCPA Iran deal was initialed by the Obama Administration.
The Sunni states and Israel have been joined by a mutual concern about how to best protect themselves from an Iranian attack. They have also questioned their ability to rely on the United States should an actual confrontation occur. The Gulf States, the Saudis, Egypt, and Israel had bonded together in addressing their perception of the threat from Iran. For example, it has been widely reported that the Saudis had given the Israel Air Force (IAF) permission to overfly Saudi Arabia in the event of a possible attack or vital military maneuver to protect Israel and the Gulf States from any Iranian aggressive moves in the region.
As part of the understanding with the UAE, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he was “postponing” any Israeli annexation plan of the West Bank. The annexation proposal had been part of the Trump Peace proposal. It had generated extensive criticism for Bibi both within Israel as well as widespread international opposition. This normalization agreement with the UAE gave the Prime Minister the opportunity to walk back his planned annexation of portions of the West Bank, which many people had felt was merely a political slop by Bibi to his right-wing backers. Netanyahu still placated somewhat the right-wing elements of his Government by asserting that the annexation was only being postponed.
For the UAE, the deal pushed the Sunni Arab states forward in their on-going confrontation with Iran. It enabled them also to suggest to former Vice-President Joe Biden that he would not receive a very warm welcome in the Gulf, if a President Biden were to seek to revitalize the Iran deal from which Trump had removed the U.S. Within the Arab world, it is quite possible that the UAE was helping to open the other Gulf States, Morocco, and eventually Saudi Arabia to the possibility of following the UAE. They were being signaled about the possible benefits which they too might obtain if a new page in Israel-Arab relations could be achieved. With the respect to the Saudis, however, it may have a long road still to travel.
Announcing this event yesterday permitted President Trump to attempt to sidetrack the public from their focus on Covid-19, the economy, and the traditional Biden-Harris post-announcement poll bump. The deal underscored Jared Kushner’s consistent personal interest in the economic potential in the Arab world, to say nothing of a possible new Trump hotel and resort business in the region. During the announcement yesterday Trump also informed everyone that he would be taking a second bite out of this apple when he “hosts” an official signing ceremony at the White House in three weeks.
The immediate loser in the decision to normalize relations with Israel was once again the Palestinian people. The leadership in Ramallah certainly knew this was happening, but once again “could not lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity.” Instead of being the force which stopped the annexation with a constructive offer to try to sustain momentum for a two-state solution, the Palestinians once again end up with nothing. Meanwhile, the UAE stopped the threat of annexation and gave Israel in return diplomatic recognition. Mahmoud Abbas is now left with only the more radical elements among the Palestinians as allies. Once again, the Palestinian people see no movement towards peace with Israel.