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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Why the Israel-UAE Normalization Matters

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We learned today that Israel is going to establish “full normalization of relations” with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Also, Israel will forgo its plans to annex parts of Judea and Samaria, in the West Bank.

These are two separate yet linked headlines. created by President Donald Trump. Israel and the UAE are bride and groom. Trump is the matchmaker. His achievement, and Israel’s, should not be dismissed.

Israel gained good relations with an Arab country. And by gaining it, it sends a message that cannot be lost on other countries: normalization is here, and those refusing to join in will be left behind. More specifically Israel, proves the point that time is on its side. It proves the point, made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu many years ago, that resolving the Palestinian issue is not the key to Middle East peace, or to normalizing relations with the Arab world.

Strategically speaking, it is a crucial message. Especially for those still stuck on the notion that the road to Baghdad goes through Ramallah, or some other version of this old, updated notion. Netanyahu proved his critics wrong. He does not move forward with resolving the Palestinian conflict and yet, he advances Israel’s relations with the Arab world.

For many months, annexation in Judea and Samaria was the big prize Israel was expecting. Annexation is controversial, and many have opposed it but it was the main diplomatic course the government was getting ready to follow.

The Trump administration got cold feet. Whether that is good or bad is up for debate, and Israelis will engage in that debate. But at some point Israel realized that annexation with Trump’s blessing was not happening. He and his staff should be praised for sensing that ditching annexation had a price tag; that the U.S. and Israel could use the threat of annexation to get something else in return.

Politically speaking, this is not going to help Netanyahu much. Israelis on the right who supported annexation will be disappointed. They will criticize the prime minister for caving, and will see less reasons to keep supporting him (his government is currently a failure on most other fronts). Israelis who did not care much for annexation will also not care much about the UAE. As important diplomatically as it is, the new accord will not change our lives. The UAE is not a real neighbor. It is not an intimidating arch enemy, so the psychological impact of normalization will be small, especially when people are busy with a pandemic and an economic crisis.

Then again, there’s a message here and if Israelis do not see it, that’s unfortunate but not crucial. Because the real addressees of this message are not Israelis. They’re Palestinians. The message to them is: compromise or lose. It is a message to Arab states: what are you waiting for? It is a message to Iran: the coalition against your ambitions is being shaped. It is a message to the world: You want peace? Here is one way to get it. It’s not the way you envisioned it and failed to implement it. It’s a way that may actually work.

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