We don’t hear many good news stories out of the Middle East, particularly recently, in the midst of the despair over Beirut, regional conflicts and the ravages of covid-19. But on Thursday there was a hopeful development: President Trump announced a historic peace agreement that will normalize relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
By Dennis Ross
Now what had been taking place below the table will be put on top of it. Security cooperation can be acknowledged in public and won’t have to exist in the shadows. Israeli companies will be able to operate openly in the UAE, and Israelis will be able to fly directly to the Emirates using their Israeli passports. Israel’s informal diplomatic liaison to the International Renewable Energy Agency in the Emirates will be replaced by an embassy.
Timing of the deal
But why now? It’s clear this was the only way to stop Israel’s annexation of the territories in the West Bank allotted to it in the Trump plan. This may seem surprising, since the Emirates have neither been in the forefront of peace-making diplomacy nor had a good relationship with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. And yet, because Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed and other Emirate leaders believe (probably correctly) that Israeli annexation would kill even the possibility of two states and Israeli-Palestinian peace, they decided to offer normalization. It looks as if they understood that this move would preserve the option for a two-state solution (even if it doesn’t happen anytime soon) and preempt Iran (and probably also Turkey) from exploiting the anger that annexation would likely produce to serve their aims in the region.
But this isn’t the whole picture. The UAE approached the Trump administration and offered formal peace with Israel in return for no annexation. At the same time, as officials have explained to me, the country understood from conversations with the administration that formal peace would give it access to previously off-limits U.S. weaponry, such as advanced drones. Until now, these weapons had been denied to them because of the U.S. commitment to preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge. While that edge has been essential for meeting Israeli security and deterrence needs, peace was also built into the calculus. The United States provided Egypt advanced weaponry after President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. Similarly, Jordan did not get F-16s until King Hussein concluded a peace treaty with Israel.
The equation of easing the military edge requirements when a country makes peace with Israel is now going to be applied again to the UAE. The idea is to reinforce the message that peace with Israel should yield long-term economic and security benefits, even if in the short term, as Emirate leaders probably expect, it exposes them to threats from Iran and radical Islamists. Of course, the American instinct to be less engaged in the Middle East perhaps played a role in the UAE’s decision, particularly if the Emirates believe they must become even more capable of defending themselves.
Was normalisation enough of a prize for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prevent him from going ahead with annexation? Maybe, but note that he recently said “the issue of applying sovereignty [annexation] is in Washington.” This was his way of telling his right-wing base that he could not go ahead with annexation if the Trump administration said no. The Emirate leadership also understood that, and acted to give the administration a reason to say no. In effect, Emirati leaders have now allowed the administration to brag about how their policies are advancing peace between Israel and the Arabs — even if the Palestinians are not included.
The Palestinians won’t like the Emirate decision. To them, it will give Israel the benefits of peace without having to end its occupation. While this is certainly true, normalisation should also signal to Palestinians that others are not going to wait for them. Focusing only on their grievances, their narrative and their posture of never initiating or offering counter proposals to negotiations will continue to weaken their position.
With covid-19 wreaking havoc throughout the region, the desire to benefit from working with the Israelis on a wide range of needs, including health care, tech, water access and cyber security, will only increase.
But no matter the underlying motives, this normalisation nevertheless represents an important contribution to peace-building between Arabs and Israelis. It stopped Israeli annexation, which would have likely ended the hope for two states. It also crosses a threshold, effectively saying “enough of tradition, habit and inbred hostility — we will make peace because it serves our interests, and others can choose to accept or reject it.” (Others may not follow immediately, but the barriers to normalisation have been eroded.)
Arabs states can build on this agreement and support Palestinians by making it clear that they will follow suit if Israel curtails its settlement activity and expands the territory in which Palestinians can exercise authority. But Palestinian leaders should also be mindful that if the Israelis take positive steps and they don’t respond, Arab leaders might still proceed with normalising moves.
At a partisan time, this is one issue that should be seen for what it is: an unexpectedly positive move.
Dennis Ross is a former special assistant to President Barack Obama, is the counsellor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute. He is the co-author of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped its Destiny.”
This article first appeared in the Washington Post