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Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Accidental Peace: How Big Is the UAE Deal?

Many people know very little about the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and can hardly remember where it is located, let alone a more detailed account of its main strengths and deficiencies — unless you are an expert or a very well-traveled American. Maybe you became curious when you heard the big news: On Aug. 13, Israel and the Emirates announced they agreed to normalize relations. Perhaps you wondered, “Is this really big news?”

Dubai is the United Arab Emirates’ largest city. The capital is Abu Dhabi. A little more than 10% of its population are citizens; the rest are foreign workers from India, Egypt, Pakistan and other countries. It is a very wealthy area. It is a monarchy with no border and no real dispute with Israel — except for the concern, real or manufactured, about Palestinians. It does have disputes with its closer neighbor, Iran, across the Persian Gulf. This is the key to this historic pact.

Peace agreements often come as surprises. Israelis were not expecting the 1977 historic visit by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. It materialized quickly and without much warning. The beginnings of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in the early 1990s was no less surprising. The talks were secretive; the public didn’t know much about them.

When Israel negotiated peace with Jordan, it was less of a surprise. But even then, clandestine talks preceded public announcements. In the fall of 1993, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin crossed the border from Eilat, Israel, to Aqaba, Jordan, to address Jordanian King Hussein’s concerns about Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians. The meeting was arranged by Efraim Halevy, then deputy director of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service.

Yossi Cohen, the current director of Mossad, was instrumental in bringing about the agreement with the Emiratis. Mossad is the organization that handles many of Israel’s delicate relations with the Gulf states. In some ways, this agreement was the easiest; the UAE has no real reason not to have peace with Israel. In some ways, it was the most unexpected; the UAE has no immediate reason to have peace with Israel. There is no shared border. There is no dispute. Relations between the countries had been warming up over the past decade, and almost everybody knew they were in an unofficial state of peace. Cohen is a frequent visitor to the UAE, in Oman and in Saudi Arabia. His work preceded current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in 2018. In the past year, Cohen made several trips to the UAE.

It was what one would call an “open secret.” Then, it no longer was a secret. A grain of luck, a speck of shrewdness, suddenly made the agreement possible. And the credit goes to the man who vowed to make the “deal of the century.” Presidents before him wanted to make peace. Donald Trump succeeded, although there already was de facto peace between the two countries. 

Netanyahu met with the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. As part of the agreement, Israel would suspend its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. Direct flights between the two countries would begin and reciprocal embassies would be created. The countries already have long-established commercial links. The Palestinians, however, saw the pact as a blow to gaining statehood because maintaining a unified Arab bloc has long been an important bargaining tool with Israel. 

Trump’s success didn’t come out of nowhere. It is a culmination of a long process of disillusionment with the old formulas for advancing peace. President Bill Clinton deserves credit for pointing an accusatory finger at the Palestinian leadership — Yasser Arafat in particular — when the 2000 Camp David summit failed. It was important for someone to acknowledge that peace would come only when the Palestinians agreed to compromise. In 2004, President George W. Bush recognized “facts on the ground” and essentially accepted Israel’s position that the 1967 line is no longer a practicable reference point for peace. During his eight years in office, former President Barack Obama futilely tried to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians. That proved that not even a president who made a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians a priority of his administration can square the circle of Middle East realities.

It is somewhat sad and somewhat predictable to realize an agreement to normalize relations is about to be signed between Israel and an Arab country, yet no one is truly jubilant.

In the meantime, most players in the Middle East recognized there had been a shift of regional fault lines from the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Arab-Iranian conflict. Thus, Trump could bring a long process to its logical conclusion.

Trump acknowledged that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. He engineered a peace plan, released in January, that didn’t ignore the facts on the ground. He emphasized the need to stop Iran and its allies from being the primary destabilizers of the region. He communicated his impatience toward Palestinian rejectionism. He declined to do the one thing that repeatedly failed: pressure Israel to foster peace.

The initial reaction to the peace plan was skepticism and condemnation. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that “only a negotiated two-state solution, acceptable to both sides, can lead to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” A letter signed by 12 U.S. senators expressed a “profound concern regarding your decision to release a one-sided Israeli-Palestinian peace plan forged without any Palestinian involvement or support.”

Yet, the ultimate result is peace — not between Israel and the Palestinians. That is going to have to wait for another round. No wonder the Palestinians feel betrayed. The Palestinian Authority called the agreement between Israel and the UAE an “aggression against the Palestinian people,” and recalled its ambassador from the Emirates.

But the so-called Israel-UAE “Abraham Accord” is historic, nonetheless. An agreement that, had it not been brokered by Trump, the world would celebrate as a great achievement; an agreement after more than 25 years since the last such accord; an agreement that may be followed by more pacts with more countries. The response ought to be elation but instead, it is subdued, perhaps because it’s overshadowed by the pandemic. Or because it’s not peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Maybe it’s because it caught the world off guard. Maybe it’s because of Trump’s unpopularity.

It is somewhat sad and somewhat predictable to realize an agreement to normalize relations is about to be signed between Israel and an Arab country, yet no one is truly jubilant. The first peace, with Egypt, was tantalizing. Israelis were exuberant as they witnessed this process toward the end of hostilities with their most dangerous enemy.

Later, they were less certain about the Palestinians. Some of them were hopeful and imagined a new Middle East. Others already were more skeptical. Then came peace with Jordan. No one opposed it, but many Israelis quickly realized that how Jordan defines peace is similar to how Egypt defines peace. It means a peace between governments, not people. It means peace in the realpolitik sense, not in an emotional sense.

The idea of peace with Egypt was exhilarating; the actuality less so. The idea of peace with the Palestinians was intriguing; the reality disastrous. The idea of peace with Jordan was agreeable; the practicality uninspiring. So when Israelis received the good news about a forthcoming agreement, it was not hard to understand why they appreciated the achievement, then nodded, then moved on. They never saw the UAE as an enemy, and hesitated to think of it as a friend.

A look at available data would magnify their lukewarm reaction. According to several public opinion polls, most of the UAE public is not eager to have strong, friendly relations with Israel. Just one-fifth wishes to “work with Israel” on issues “like technology, counter-terrorism, and containing Iran.” That’s the same percentage found in other Arab countries. About twice as many — close to 40%  — have a favorable view of Hamas. The only factor that could change this public sentiment is renewed and robust peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, talks are desirable but they’re also a long shot. 

Israelis will not expect too much from peace — unless reality proves them wrong. Shany Mor, former director for foreign policy of Israel’s National Security Council, believes that such proof might be in the offing. “What’s notable about the UAE gesture,” he wrote in an Aug. 13 opinion piece in The Forward, “is that it used the word ‘normalization’ and seems to mean it. If this agreement is carried through, we may actually see Emiratis do what Jordanians and Egyptians have not done: Come to Israel. Check out its beaches, see its holy sites, argue with its waiters, get stuck in its traffic, make patronizing comments about its food.”

Most players in the Middle East recognized there had been a shift of regional fault lines from the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Arab-Iranian conflict. Thus, Trump could bring a long process to its logical conclusion.

The alternative view is that the UAE agreement is going to be more in line with other peace accords: The country will work with the government when necessary, but recall the ambassador when things get messy. It will be a peace of shared interests, not one of the heart.

It still is better to have an inaudible, uninspiring peace than a state of hostility. Israel still benefits from this move forward. It legitimizes it in the region, it provides Israel with a business partner and it gives Israel some diplomatic leverage.

When Israel thinks about the way forward, it can realistically hope more Arab states soon will have official dealings with Israel. It also may hope this new coalition puts pressure on the rest of the world to tamp down Iran’s quest for power. Israel may hope this coalition will counter Turkey’s growing assertiveness. It might even hope — cautiously — that this development alters Palestinian policies toward a more conciliatory approach. In fact, the leaders of the Emirates have their own vision of a Palestinian future and their own candidates for leading the Palestinian cause when the current leadership begins to fade away.

Still, we did not see Israelis dancing in the streets after the announcement — and it wasn’t just because of the pandemic regulations. It was because establishing full diplomatic relations with our neighbors no longer is an emotional shock to the system.

There also is the Netanyahu factor. An agreement prompted by Trump and implemented by Netanyahu is not one the so-called “peace camp” imagined. Netanyahu is the hard-nosed rejectionist; the man who rarely says yes; the man who rebuffed Obama’s efforts and made sure no peace initiative was fulfilled. How can anyone tolerate a peace plan implemented by Netanyahu?

This past weekend, center-left Israelis gathered in the thousands to protest. They want Netanyahu out. But what about peace? It doesn’t matter to them. It doesn’t buy the prime minister much goodwill. Say what you want about Netanyahu and his tendency to consider politics first and country second, in the case of the UAE, he took the high road and the country won.

Politically speaking, however, the agreement could hurt him. His opponents don’t see this achievement as significant enough to cut him some slack — and many of his proponents are disappointed with his decision to suspend West Bank annexation plans, at least temporarily. The settlers, the leader of right-wing Yamina, even some members of Likud criticized the prime minister. In polls taken this week, Likud didn’t gain much but rightist Yamina did. If polls are to be believed, this pro-annexation party is becoming the second- or third-largest party in Israel.

When Israel thinks about the way forward, it can realistically hope more Arab states soon will have official dealings with Israel.

Right-wing Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich said it was time for the right to “present an alternative leadership to that of Netanyahu.” Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein said annexation “is no less important” than peace with the UAE. Naftali Bennett of Yamina said “it’s tragic” that Netanyahu did not “muster the courage to apply sovereignty to even an inch of the Land of Israel ….” 

For those critics, the old, good peace of the brave suddenly sounds like the peace of a coward.

As we ponder the sequence of events that led to the agreement, we must study luck and unintended consequences. Trump proposed a peace plan with the Palestinians. Nothing happened. Israel decided to act unilaterally and annex parts of the West Bank. Again, nothing happened. The Trump plan doesn’t explicitly call for immediate unilateral annexation but seems to make such a move an acceptable possibility. Yet, Trump hesitated. His son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, the principle author of the peace plan, was against immediate annexation. He did not see a great benefit to the U.S. nor to Israel in making such a move. The leaders of Israel’s Blue and White Party urged caution. Many Israelis felt this was not the right time to even think about such dramatic moves.

Netanyahu, because of political calculations and maybe because of his belief that annexation does more good than harm, kept pushing for it. Trump and his team kept rebuffing and delaying the coveted green light. Their hesitation opened the door to an opportunity: Israel will postpone annexation; the UAE will come out of the closet of secret relations with Israel and make the ties official. It’s a triple win: Trump gets his peace of the century — or at least the peace of a decade; Netanyahu gets to show Israel can normalize its relations with the Arabs without resolving the Palestinian issue; the UAE gets an excuse with which to justify its move toward normalization. Hopefully, it also gets to be the forerunner in a new trend. Looks like a home run.

Except, Israel did give up on its coveted goal of annexation — at least for the foreseeable future. This raises a philosophical and psychological question: Can one lose something that wasn’t theirs to begin with? In more concrete terms: Can we call the discarding of the annexation plan a loss? Many decades of studying behavioral economics taught us something about humans’ greater fear of loss and lesser appreciation of gain.

For those Israelis who yearned for annexation, they see loss. But for the many more who yearn for peace and a brighter future, the “accidental” UAE deal is, indeed, a big deal.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor.

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