Monday, April 12, 2021

UAE-Israel Pact: Sacrificing Substance for Ceremony?

“The major issue is not [attaining] an agreement, but ensuring the actual implementation of the agreement in practice. The number of agreements which the Arabs have violated is no less than number which they have kept.” — Shimon Peres, Tomorrow Is Now, Keter: Jerusalem, p. 255

“Poor Menachem … After all, I got back … the Sinai and the Alma oil fields, and what has Menachem got? A piece of paper.” — Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in The New York Times, Oct. 19, 1980

“Qatar established trade relations with Israel in 1996, the first state bordering the Persian Gulf to do so. In 2000, Israel’s trade office in Qatar was closed down by authorities. Qatar permanently severed trade relations with Israel in 2009 following ‘Operation Cast Lead.’ ” — Professor Uzi Rabi, The Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer 2009

Since Aug. 13, when it was made public, rivers of ink have been spilled analyzing the pro and cons of the Israel-UAE peace (or rather, “normalization”) deal weighing the prospective rewards against the potential risks.

There was speculation as to how it upended past precedents that dictated approaches to the perennially faltering “peace process,” as well as conjecture as to whether other “moderate” Arab states (read “nepotistic despotic Sunni sheikdoms”) will follow suit and forge a similar compact with the Jewish state.

While all these aspects are certainly pertinent and worthy of attention, in many respects, they miss the major point: The agreement is merely a prop in the choreography for a much bigger drama. After all, formalizing the ongoing relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which despite its perceptions of great affluence and opulence has a GDP per capita lower than Israel’s and a domestic population of around 1 million(almost 90 percent of the UAE population are migrants/expatriates), is hardly likely to be a measure with enormous strategic significance.

Beyond the considerations of the agreement’s permanence, potential and possible extension, the issue that is liable to have the most profound and durable strategic impact for Israel is whether the Israel-UAE agreement will reap the Trump administration sufficient credit to nudge it to victory in the November elections.

Clearly, Israel will find itself in two very different — indeed, divergent — strategic universes depending on who wins that crucial ballot. It will be one thing if the largely pro-Israel GOP, with its strong evangelical Christian base, is victorious, and quite another thing if the increasingly anti-Israel Democratic Party with its vociferous and ever-more dominant radical wing carries the day.

Two divergent strategic universes for Israel

The outcome of the December polls will determine the fate of much for Israel, just as the outcome of the 2016 vote did.

Had the result then gone as expected, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv; there would be no U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; there would be no defunding of the fraudulent UNRWA or the pernicious PLO; there would be no American recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan; there would be no U.S. withdrawal from the atrocious 2015 Iran nuclear deal and punishing sanctions on Tehran; there would be no recognition by Washington of the legal standings of the Jewish communities beyond the 1967-Green Line.

Some — indeed, possibly all — of these historic gains could well be reversed if the Democratic Party takes the White House. Therefore, if the Israel-UAE pact is received as a significant foreign-policy success for the Trump administration, which helps it retain power in the November polls, that would be the greatest strategic benefit that would derive from it for Israel.

This does not mean that the emerging pact does not have inherent benefits in its own right. Much of the touted payoffs — both diplomatic and economic, perhaps even security — are not implausible prospects. However, it’s still early days to break open that champagne and celebrate their scope, and certainly their durability.

A succession of castles in the sand

In the past, agreements with Arab states have hardly lived up to the rosy expectations they raised when signed.

This is certainly true with regard to the Oslo Accords, concluded with great pomp and ceremony in 1993 on the White House Lawn. Purported to usher in the dawn of a “New Middle East” from Kuwait to Casablanca, with peace and prosperity replacing animosity and aggression, it proved to instead to be a harbinger of trauma and tragedy for the Israelis, and death and destruction on an even larger scale for the Palestinian Arabs.

Neither has the agreement with Jordan fostered much of the hoped-for harmony and reciprocal goodwill. Although the Hashemite regime, largely due to a sense of enlightened self-interest, has engaged in effective security cooperation with Israel and has managed to keep the Jewish state’s longest border relatively without incident, there is growing domestic resistance to the accord.

As one Middle East analyst pointed out: “Although it has been more than twenty years since Jordan and Israel signed a historic peace agreement to end decades of war, many visitors to the region could be forgiven for thinking that the two sides remain enemies, particularly at a popular level.”

High hopes left high and dry?

Indeed, from the economic perspective, the direct benefits of peace have been meager. Few, if any, of the many visionary projects originally foreseen have been implemented.

Clearly then, formal relations have not produced any significant lessening of popular mistrust and hostility — something the architects of the Israel-UAE pact will ignore at each other’s peril.

Therefore, in the words of one experienced pundit: “… criticism of the peace treaty with Israel, anti-Zionism, and calls for curtailing “normalization” of relations and even to abolish the treaty itself, form a common denominator — in fact, one of the only common denominators — and a ‘glue,’ for opposition and protest movements of many stripes: leftist, Pan-Arab, liberal-democratic, progressive and Islamic.”

Significantly, he notes: “The growth in Jordan of civil society and open discourse, and the uncontrollable increase in transparency, makes it more costly for the regime to pursue policies which are not popular. There is much more consideration for public opinion than in the past. It is important to note that social media has become very significant in the Kingdom (despite steps to limit it since 2012-13). The Palace is very cognizant of it, and reacts to it.”

The agreement, therefore, is not likely to survive a regime change should the Hashemite dynasty lose power to a more radical successor, or even if it becomes sufficiently weakened so as to be unable to resist demands to annul it.

Egypt: Non-belligerency rather than peace? 

Likewise, the agreement signed with Egypt, has, for most of the more than 40 years since its signature, been far more a resentful non-belligerency pact than a harmonious peace treaty sustained by mutual goodwill. Indeed, with the ominous wave of jihadi insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and the inability of the Egyptian authorities to constrain the violence with the limited forces allowed by the agreement, Israel’s greatest benefit — the demilitarization of Sinai — is being eroded away.

Thus, Cairo is boosting its military presence beyond the agreed limits — often, with Israeli consent — in an endeavor to deal with Islamists warlords, who pervade and ravage swathes of the wild desert peninsula, which lies between the strategic waterways of the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. 

Indeed, in Egypt, as in Jordan, decades of formal peace have done little to attenuate public acrimony against the Jewish state.

Significantly, for those who underscore that the agreement with the UAE was concluded without any progress on resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, some experts point out that the anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world is not necessarily a product of the Palestinian issue. Therefore, following the 2011 assault on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egyptian expert Eric Trager of the Washington Institute wrote ominously that anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt has nothing to do with Palestine: “ … to assume that the Egyptian protesters who attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last Friday … were motivated by cosmopolitan, pro-Palestinian concerns is to completely ignore the sad truth that Egyptians overwhelmingly hate Israel for wholly Egyptian reasons … .”

He goes on to argue that despite over three decades of contractual peace: “Egyptian national pride remains tied to the country’s previous wars with the Jewish state … accompanied by [a] powerful … anti-Israeli sentiment.”

Political winds and the weathercock of public sentiment 

For those who might invoke the warm pro-Israel public sentiment toward Israel/Israelis that exists in the Emirates, a word of caution is called for. After all, vibrant multifaceted ties prevailed between two non-Arab Muslim countries that transitioned from being close strategic allies to bitter strategic adversaries: Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel as a sovereign state (March 1949) and Iran, the second (March 1950).

From the early 1950s to the late 1970s until the fall of the Shah (1979), Israel and Iran conducted very close relations. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, a major portion of Israeli oil requirements was provided for by Iran.

Moreover, Iranian oil was shipped to European destinations via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline. There was brisk trade between the countries. Israeli construction firms and engineers worked extensively throughout the country. Israel’s national air carrier, El Al, operated frequent direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tehran. Iranian-Israeli military links and projects were largely classified but reportedly extensive—possibly including missile development.

The scale and scope of the Israeli-Iranian collaboration are dramatically illustrated by the words of Yaakov Shapiro, the defense ministry official in charge of coordinating the negotiations with Iran from 1975 to 1978: “In Iran, they treated us like kings. We did business with them on a stunning scale. Without the ties with Iran, we would not have had the money to develop weaponry that is today in the front line of the defense of the State of Israel.”

Clearly, there has been a sea change in Iranian attitudes towards Israel, now widely denigrated with the anti-Zionist epithet “little Satan,” subjected to chants of “Death to Israel” at mass rallies and to threats of utter annihilation by the leaders of Iran.

A Turkish turnabout

Turco-Israeli relations followed a somewhat similar pattern to those of Iranian-Israeli ones.

Up until a little more than a decade-and-a-half ago, and the ascendance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party(AKP), Israel and Turkey saw each other as having much in common—two non-Arab countries in an otherwise almost exclusively Arab region, sharing a western looking perspective with regard to the future development of both countries—with Ankara a far less problematic member of NATO than it is today, and with a then-firm ambition to accede to the European Union.

Indeed, so close and robust were the bilateral contacts between Ankara and Jerusalem, that The New York Times wrote in an August 1999 piece: “Over the last few years, Israel and Turkey have built a strategic partnership that has altered the face of Middle East politics. Trade and tourism are booming in both directions. Israeli pilots practice maneuvers in Turkish airspace, and Israeli technicians are modernizing Turkish combat jets. There are plans for Israel to share its high-tech skills with Turkey, and for Turkey to send some of its plentiful fresh water to [pre-desalination era] Israel.”

Relations began to deteriorate with the rise of the AKP and its increasingly firm grip on power in Turkey, but particularly following the 2008-09 IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza.

Although Turkey’s relations with Israel have not reached the same level of enmity as those of Iran, they are a far cry from those that prevailed in the 1990s, with Erdoğan even comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and the events in Gaza to the Holocaust in an address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Is the ‘quid’ worth the ‘quo’

This then is the empirical backdrop to the Israel-UAE normalization agreement, the price, of which Israel was asked to pay, was the forgoing the extension of its sovereignty of important areas of Judea-Samaria.

The cardinal question that must be addressed, therefore, is this: Is the “quid” worth the “quo.”

In an ideal world, devoid of political constraints and international pressures, the answer is clear. Even without broaching the topic of whether the deal was contingent on the supply of ultra-modern F-35 combat planes to the UAE and how significant this would be relative to the modernization of the Egyptian military in the wake of the 1979 peace agreement: Sovereignty is significantly more important than a possibly ephemeral deal with the Emirates.

One of the most important national imperatives for Israel is to ensure that the highlands overlooking the heavily populated coastal plain and the Jordan Valley never fall into potentially hostile hands. Clearly, extending Israeli sovereignty over additional areas of Judea and Samaria is an important step in achieving this goal.

What is unknown is what pressures were exerted on Netanyahu to yield—only temporarily, according to him—on the issue of sovereignty. There are, however, several factors that militate against delay.

Sacrificing substance for ceremony?

One is that if there is a Democratic victory in November, any measure to extend sovereignty will be off the table indefinitely.

Another is that prior to the November election, Trump is electorally dependent on this fervently pro-sovereignty evangelical constituency. After the election, their support will be largely irrelevant.

The third is that if normalization with Israel is a UAE national interest, why should Israel be called on to pay anything to facilitate the pursuit of that interest, especially as much of the interaction between the two countries is already being conducted informally? It is difficult to accept that the mere formalization of ongoing ties is worth forgoing sovereignty over strategic territory. Moreover, several experts believe that annexation (aka extension of sovereignty) would not seriously imperil UAE-Israel ties (see for example here, here and here).

Indeed, formalizing them may, in fact, jeopardize them—as across the Arab world this has raised resistance. Despite a display of bonhomie among certain sectors of the UAE public, in a recent article, Al-Monitor presents what might be the start of a brewing storm: “Palestinian leaders have cast the deal as a ‘betrayal,’ a view shared by many in the capitals of the oil-rich region, even if the allegiance to that cause has faded somewhat among the younger generation. … On social networks, the hashtag ‘Normalisation is Treason’ has been trending across the region in the past few days, particularly among young Saudi activists.”

These are signs that the architects of the deal in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi and Washington will be wise not to disregard.

We are therefore left to hope that Israel-UAE normalization will indeed turn out to be an effective prop in the successful choreography of the really crucial drama — the elections on Nov. 3.

How the Israel-UAE deal plays out and how it is judged hinges critically on the outcome.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.


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