Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday announced a historic peace deal with the United Arab Emirates, Israel’s first treaty with an Arab state in more than a quarter-century.
By inking the agreement, Netanyahu has outplayed his domestic rivals, granted a foreign-policy victory to ally Donald Trump, and created a new factor in a region in flux.
“We decided to commence full and official peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” he announced on Thursday night.
Normalization with the UAE will include an exchange of ambassadors, direct flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, and investment by Abu Dhabi in an Israeli Covid-19 vaccine.
This sort of cooperation, Netanyahu said, is “very important to our economy, the economy of the region, and our future.”
As arguably the second most powerful Gulf state after Saudi Arabia, the UAE can lead the way for further normalization of the Israeli position in the region.
Just as important, the deal is a major concession on the part of Abu Dhabi. Until now, the Emiratis had insisted normalization could not occur without a just solution to the Palestinian issue. Now, they are willing to abandon the Palestinians in return for a maintenance of the status quo in the West Bank.
This is the third peace agreement Israel has signed with an Arab state, after a particularly historic agreement with Egypt in 1979 and obtaining peace with Jordan in 1994.
Netanyahu predicted on Thursday that “further Arab states will join the circle of peace alongside us” in the period to come.
Annexation olive branch
To seal the deal with the Emiratis, Netanyahu agreed to delay, though not outright cancel, his July announced move to annex parts of the West Bank.
A trilateral statement on the agreement noted that Trump had requested, and Netanyahu had agreed, that “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace,” better known as the Deal of the Century.
Instead, Israel would “focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”
Netanyahu defended the move, saying, “I had always stated that declaring sovereignty without American support would harm the settlement movement and Israel. Trump asked that Israel wait before sovereignty is instilled, and asked first to bring peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and other states. I have not removed sovereignty from the agenda, and I will bring sovereignty as well.”
The Emiratis announced a different interpretation of what had been decided regarding annexation.
“The UAE, US and Israel have agreed on suspending Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories in order to establish bilateral relations towards a stable and peaceful region via dialogue and diplomacy,” said Hend Al Otaiba, the director of strategic communications of the Emirati Foreign Ministry.
She emphasized that the UAE “is committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and the rights of the Palestinian people for an independent state.”
That 2002 initiative calls on Israel to withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. These terms have been deemed unacceptable to Israel.
The UAE had made it clear that it would not sign an agreement if annexation were to proceed.
In June, the Emirati ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, wrote an op-ed in Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot. In it, he said that Israeli dreams of normalization were in contradiction to plans to instill Israeli sovereignty in parts of the West Bank.
Otaiba warned that “annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.”
In retrospect, this op-ed seems to have accompanied a crucial point in the trilateral negotiations.
In all likelihood, however, Israel would have suspend annexation regardless for domestic considerations.
Netanyahu sidelines rivals
Since the Trump peace plan was released, Covid-19 and the Israeli government’s inability to control a second wave have become the dominant story in Israel.
In the last few weeks, massive demonstrations against Netanyahu’s handling of the epidemic have been occurring on an almost daily basis. The government has also been unable to pass a budget.
An annexation right now would likely be seen by many as a cheap ploy to distract from the real problems and will likely please no one but the hardcore right-wingers.
And yet the UAE treaty has allowed Netanyahu to do an end-run around his political rivals, most notably Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
The Blue and White party ministers, part of a tense coalition government with Netanyahu since May, have been working against annexation and using the power of their ministries to do so.
This has distressed the Trump administration and undermined the strength of Netanyahu’s political position vis-à-vis annexation.
On Thursday, it was reported that neither minister had been briefed on the developing deal. Though Ashkenazi denied these reports, a source in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Asia Times that they had indeed been “left completely in the dark, both when this was in the works and since the announcement.”
Citing confidentiality, the prime minister claimed the two were not informed as “all sides asked that others not be let in.”
Netanyahu may now claim a large diplomatic achievement for himself at their expense.
“All peace agreements were reached similarly,” he claimed. However, this is patently false. Ministers such as Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann and Shimon Peres were deeply involved in negotiating previous peace agreements.
Campaign season gift
For Netanyahu’s friends in Washington, the agreement is a major achievement in an election season.
By all accounts, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was the force behind the UAE agreement. And this deal marks the first major success of Kushner’s tenure as the presidential envoy to Middle East peace talks.
Kushner said that talks with other Arab states had been put on hold in order to guarantee that the UAE deal was signed promptly.
“It was important to them to be first,” Kushner said.
He did not make clear which other Arab states were in the process of negotiating a deal, but Saudi Arabia would be the first to come to mind. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has long dropped hints he is eager for such a deal and is an avid consumer of Israeli surveillance technology.
Kushner on Thursday described wider peace with Arab states as an “inevitability” and noted that “at the end of the day, everybody wants to move forward.”
From the American perspective, the deal will help solidify an anti-Iran axis in the Middle East, which currently includes Israel and most Gulf states.
Whether by timing or coincidence, the deal comes as the fate of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, hangs in the balance after a devastating and still unexplained explosion on August 4.
Moreover, the deal represents a major foreign policy victory for Trump in the run-up to the presidential election in November. The incumbent is already claiming the deal as a hallmark achievement of his first term in office.
“HUGE breakthrough today! Historic peace agreement between our two GREAT friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates!” he tweeted.
A photo-op ceremony on the White House lawn is already in the works.