A Big Deal in the Middle East

A Big Deal in the Middle East
(AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Last week, we witnessed what might be the most dramatic and positive news to come out of the Middle East in many years. The United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to sign a peace treaty and fully normalize relations. In exchange, Israel suspended its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. This is the first time in a quarter of a century that an Arab state has agreed to normalize relations with Israel. The implications of this could be revolutionary in their effect on the broader region. 

The leaders involved — Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed of the UAE, U.S. President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — deserve much credit for sealing the agreement, and they stand atop a long list of winners. Indeed, the Netanyahu doctrine comes out the biggest winner of all. In its outline, that doctrine holds that peace between Israel and the Palestinians must go through the rest of the Arab world first, rather than waiting for Palestinian approval. Israel is done taking risks and making concessions for an elusive peace that hovers on the horizon, always just out of reach.  

Opposite a long list of winners stands only one real loser. It is not the Palestinians, or at least it doesn't have to be. Rather, it is the failed belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace is the key to regional stability, and that it is Israel that must be pressured to achieve that peace through territorial and other risky concessions.  

The Annexation Dilemma  

A key part of Netanyahu’s doctrine is to minimize risks. The downside of that is reaping few rewards. Netanyahu has stayed true to this approach since 2009, carefully navigating regional challenges and opportunities to help Israel move slowly, but in a positive direction – economically, militarily, and diplomatically. Trump's arrival provided Israel and Netanyahu with new opportunities. It is doubtful Trump would pressure Israel to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians, as previous presidents did. For all of his unorthodoxy and lack of experience in diplomatic affairs, this might be one of the few areas where it served to everyone's benefit. For too long, capable and knowledgeable diplomats and policy experts have "known" what a solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict would look like: two states, with a Palestinian state on nearly 100% of the West Bank (with some land swaps); all of Gaza; possibly even a shared Jerusalem. Israel’s being the stronger party was taken to mean that it should be pressured to make concessions. Lastly, the overarching belief held strong that the road to peace in the region ran through Ramallah.

Those parameters no longer reflect domestic or regional realities. Israel made far-reaching peace offers in 2000 and in 2008 to the Palestinians, and it unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005. Far from encouraging peace and inviting counter-offers or reciprocal concessions, these moves were met with more violence and foot-dragging from the Palestinians. 

However, the Israeli hard right’s solution of annexation is also risky. Yes, it fulfills an ideological dream, but with few strategic benefits and many risks, including strained relations with many of Israel’s friends; getting off on a bad foot with a potential Biden administration; widening the rift in relations with American Jewry; creating chaos in the Palestinian areas; and halting progress made with the Gulf Arab states.  

The Trump Plan And Emirati Initiative

The Trump peace plan proposed earlier in 2020 gave an important boost to Netanyahu and his doctrine. It offered what amounts to a revolutionary element to the peace process. The plan began changing the consensus of the two-state solution we all imagine it, and also pressured the Palestinians for the first time by suggesting they would get a worse and not a better offer the next time.

It offered a “two-state solution” that was in reality far less. It gave Israel most (but not all) of what it wanted and asked it to make fewer risky concessions. It recognized a few important realities, including the shift that has taken place in Israeli politics and demographics. Israel is more right-wing than it was in 2000 and 2008, and there are now 100,000 settlers beyond the security barrier who aren’t going anywhere.  

Therefore, if making concessions to an elusive two-state solution and giving in to Palestinian demands time and again is a mistake, and annexing parts of the West Bank is a mistake, the obvious choice should be to do nothing for now – especially as Israel already controls this territory.  

It is not clear whether Netanyahu sought to go ahead with annexation, and if so, what territories he would have moved to annex. If not, was this only a political move to outflank his competition to the right? Would the Trump administration have allowed this to go through? None of this was clear.  

It is here that the UAE, the Trump administration, and Netanyahu’s team get a lot of credit for creatively capitalizing on an opportunity. In late June, the UAE, through its ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, reportedly made an interesting proposal to Jared Kushner and peace envoy Avi Berkowitz: The Emiratis would move to normalize relations if Israel held off on annexation. The UAE and most of the Arab world have long understood the situation on the ground. They get that Israel has tried to compromise. They get that the Palestinians have rejected those offers. They get that seven decades of rejecting and fighting Israel have not helped anyone, especially the Palestinians, and that Israel is far from the source of the region’s troubles. It seems the UAE — and more quietly, a lot of other countries — get that it’s time to try a different approach. They are also keenly aware of their dependence on Israel to push back against Iranian aggression in the region.

Basically, Netanyahu saw and seized upon an opportunity to be rewarded for not annexing land which he already controls, and where official annexation would harm Israel's interests.  

There are many winners and a few losers here.  

The big winner is Netanyahu’s doctrine. Israel should not take stupid risks as it has done in the past. Israel’s gain came perhaps ironically as a result of threatening to act on its hubris. The results could alter the region well beyond Israel-UAE relations. Bahrain is touted as the next Arab state that could normalize relations with Israel. Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco might soon follow. But it is not unrealistic to consider scenarios where Saudi Arabia, and even the likes of Sudan, become open to warming diplomatic ties, as official statements from these countries’ leadership and a press-statement from Trump hint. Moreover, most of these countries have noticeably warmed their relations with and softened their tone on Israel in recent years. Even Lebanon, which shares a tense border with Israel, spoke more openly than in the past about such a possibility.  

Ironically, we can credit the Obama administration’s Middle East approach for inadvertently planting the seeds of this move. That administration tried to distance itself from Israel and the Gulf Arabs in an attempt to woo Iran. It refused to militarily confront Iranian aggression, creating a dynamic that pushed these relations forward. Moderate Sunnis know they need Israel to confront the Iranian threat, and Netanyahu has deftly capitalized. 

Netanyahu himself comes out a big winner too. It’s a much-needed win as he faces unprecedented political pressure over a combination of his corruption trial and mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The UAE comes out a major winner here. By being the first Arab country to take the “Israel leap” since Jordan and Egypt, the UAE formalizes what many felt was going to happen anyway in the coming years. The UAE can now fully reap the rewards. These include what will surely be closer defense and intelligence cooperation with Israel against Iran, as well as access to state-of-the-art Israeli arms and to groundbreaking Israeli tech in cyber and water. For example, when the coronavirus broke out, Israel managed to gain access to medical equipment from the UAE, and there are already reports on medical cooperation regarding Covid-19 research. The UAE might also get access to higher-grade American arms through this move, hoping its new relationship with Israel would lift Washington's limits on what arms it supplies to the region.. 

Israeli tourists are expected to begin flocking to the UAE when the skies open, and Emirati tourists to Israel, including to its Islamic holy sites. Of course, a lot of this has been happening quietly and behind the scenes, but allowing this relationship to fully develop will benefit the UAE greatly.  

On a regional and international level, this will boost the UAE’s stature as it vies for regional supremacy (alongside Saudi Arabia) with Turkey. If other regional players follow suit, they will enjoy many of the same benefits listed above. 

The United States also comes out a big winner here. Trump can claim a real diplomatic win, being the first world leader to facilitate an Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 25 years. A process that began with a much-ridiculed recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and continued with recognition of Israel’s control of the Golan, could radically and positively overhaul the Middle East for decades.  

Joe Biden and centrist Democrats win too. If Israel had gone through with the annexation and buried the two-state solution, centrist Democrats, who have courageously defended U.S.-Israel ties against the criticism of progressive Democrats for years, would have been placed in an impossible situation. They would likely have had to adopt a more critical approach to Israel. This logic holds true for most of Israel’s friends in Europe and beyond.  

Even the Palestinians are counted among the winners, as strange as it may sound. The Palestinians have long been victims of their own delusions and have been encouraged by the international community, rejecting real-world concessions in favor of fantasies. The truth is that the world and the region have moved on. Nothing was achieved by pressuring and isolating Israel while humoring Palestinian intransigence. Israel only became more entrenched in its positions. The Trump plan is far from what the Palestinians ostensibly desire to achieve vis-à-vis the Israelis, but apparently so were the far-reaching 2000 and 2008 Israeli offers that were rejected by Ramallah.  

The UAE’s move, at the very least, offers Abu Mazen (or whoever comes after him) a lifeline and buys them more time. The Palestinians now have a chance to be more pragmatic. After all, the Emirati move was meant to stave off annexation, which would effectively kill any chance of a two-state solution. Sure, they wanted more, but it seems this is the most Israel is willing to offer in the foreseeable future. And time is on Israel’s side.

There are of course a few losers.  

The biggest loser is the Palestinian strategy, long built around what they had convinced most of the world to believe: that Israel must first make peace with them, on their terms, before it has peace with the region. Mind you, this doesn’t have to mean the Palestinians come out as losers, but it must mark the end of that approach. This move neutralizes the biggest piece of diplomatic leverage the Palestinians possessed over Israel.  

Palestinian radicals, chief among them Hamas, also come out as losers here. They, of course, won’t accept normalization with Israel in any scenario — they are firing rockets at Southern Israel as I edit this — and this move leaves them increasingly isolated and weakened.  

Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah also end up in the loser category, being among the main driving forces of Islamist radicalism in the region today. Increasing cooperation between Israel and the Gulf countries undercuts their regional aspirations. Turkey’s opposition seems strange, as Ankara continues to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Turkey has taken a leading role in favor of the Palestinians in recent years, but its reluctance might have more to do with its rivalry with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

The global hard left will also surely chafe at this move, which upends its vision effort to pressure and isolate Israel into capitulation through diplomatic and economic boycotts. The far-left vision of obtaining what it calls justice for the Palestinians by bringing an end to Israel as a Jewish state just took a major blow. 

 The Israeli hard right also ends up a loser, though not as much as it thinks. While having to abandon its dreams of annexation, at least for now, the far right is also not being asked to give up anything concrete. Even before the UAE deal was announced, it was not at all clear Netanyahu would have annexed any territory of significance, and Israel currently controls the territory on which settlements are built anyway. The window of opportunity to annex territory was not as open as the Israeli right had imagined.  

The normalization of Israel-UAE ties is a significant and positive development on a number of levels. But the most important point, and perhaps the most overlooked one, is that it is completely dependent on Israel simply reining in its own hubris. As the UAE said in June, Israel can have annexation or normalization, but it cannot have both. The Netanyahu doctrine, the big winner here, tells us not to take big risks. This goes both ways – don’t take big risks for peace, but also don’t take big risks that shut the door to peace. Yet it was the willingness to embrace the same Israeli right’s march toward annexation — or at least the appearance of such willingness — that spurred this revolutionary move. Embracing the region’s new realities, rather than holding on to past illusions, can benefit all sides, and this move is an important first step in that direction. 

Dan Feferman is a Major (res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a foreign policy advisor, assistant to the deputy chief of staff and an intelligence analyst. He researches, writes and speaks on Israel and the Middle East and is co-host of the Jewanced Podcast.

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