Israel's Tohar Butbul (L) competes with Mongolia's Tsendochir Tsogtbaatar during a judo tournament in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi on October 25, 2019. Israel and the United Arab Emirates do not have diplomatic relations. Photo: AFP/Karim Sahib

The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, has penned an unprecedented op-ed in an Israeli newspaper, urging against the annexation of occupied Palestinian territories but declining to threaten repercussions.

“Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” Otaiba wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

Referring to the Israeli and Emirati armed forces as “the region’s two most capable militaries,” he called on Israel to think of the benefits of averting a “setback.”

The senior diplomat emphasized the strategic importance of his country as a “hub” that could “be an open gateway connecting Israelis to the region and the world.”

It was unclear what impact Obtaiba’s words might have, however, given that the UAE has long courted relations with Israel and his op-ed threatened no repercussions.

If the supposedly weighty article showed one thing, the Times of Israel concluded, it was that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s regular references to annexation have “moved the goalposts so dramatically” that the Gulf Arabs have accepted the status quo.

“While the diplomat offered many carrots, indeed, he did not wield any remotely heavy sticks,” wrote Raphael Ahren. “Otaiba did not threaten to arm the Palestinian resistance, nor promote another pan-Arab boycott movement.”

Abu Dhabi has for years been a notorious consumer of Israeli surveillance technology. While it has averted a peace treaty until now, it has engaged in ever-warmer relations, going so far as to roll out the red carpet for Israel’s minister of sports in 2018 – something unthinkable in most of the Arab world.

In May, in a historic first, an Emirati cargo plane made a direct flight to Israel. While the pretext was sending aid to the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority – which administers the Israeli-controlled West Bank – rejected the supplies.

As Otaiba wrote: “We have conducted quiet diplomacy and sent very public signals to help shift the dynamics and promote the possible.”

The lack of sticks in Otaiba’s message suggests engagement will carry on no matter what, albeit at a slower pace, depending on Israel’s choices.

“If you go ahead with annexation, the increasing signs of our budding friendship will have to stop,” he warned. “But if you do nothing,” ran the implicit subtext, “the sky is the limit,” the Times of Israel concluded. Annexation would only be a “misguided provocation … nothing less, nothing more.”

Perhaps the most interesting line in Otaiba’s op-ed was a nod to the strain Israeli annexation would put on Jordan, which had seemingly been abandoned by the Gulf states in their acquiescence to the Trump administration’s so-called Deal of the Century.

Jordan, a longtime US ally and one of only two Arab states with a peace treaty with Israel, is home to millions of Palestinian refugees believed to outnumber the native population.

The monarchy and parties across the political spectrum have a longstanding position that a two-state solution is not only necessary for the return of this refugee population, but critical for the security and integrity of Jordan.

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Alison Tahmizian Meuse

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.