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The Israel-UAE agreement, and the consequences for the Middle East

BLOG - 18 August 2020

The US-facilitated peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel on August 13, was undoubtedly encouraged by circumstances. Let’s recall the main outcome of the agreement: the two countries will establish official relations and Israel will suspend the planned annexation of 30% of the West Bank (which was part of Trump’s "peace plan").

The rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf countries - not just the UAE - had begun years ago. Prime Minister Netanyahu was officially received in Muscat in 2018. Cooperation on security matters, together with commercial and other ties have in the meantime developed between the Gulf capitals and Jerusalem. The evolution of the American position has been a determining factor in this development. The Obama administration, and the Trump administration as well, seemed less interested in the security of their Arab allies, and America was less dependent on the region for its energy supply. In the meantime, Iran appeared to be a growing threat. It therefore seems only normal that Gulf monarchies and Israel should begin to talk to each other.

A growing disinterest in the Palestinian cause by the new Arab ruling elites (though not by the public opinion) took care of the rest. Gérard Araud notes in this regard that the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Washington were in fact present when President Trump's son-in-law and chief adviser, Jared Kushner, unveiled the president's "vision" for peace between Israel and Palestine. The vision - Trump's peace plan, the "deal of the century" - essentially endorses the defeat of the Palestinians.

It is therefore a priori not surprising that the UAE and Israel are formalizing a now well-established relationship. But why now? And why are the Emiratis making this gift to Donald Trump who is uncertain of his re-election, and to Netanyahu who is himself in great difficulty? 

This is precisely where the circumstances come into play. The Prime Minister had made a commitment to Israeli settlers to annex part of the West Bank by July 1. However fulfilling that promise was giving him quite a bit of trouble, given some reluctance from the Israeli establishment and hesitations from Washington - from Jared Kushner himself - alerted by their contacts in Arab capitals. MBZ, the prince-regent of the United Arab Emirates, offered him a way out: all Jerusalem needed to do was to postpone a cumbersome annexation in order to reap the benefit of decisive progress in normalization with a leading Gulf country. For his part, MBZ has long been considering this normalization: Netanyahu's supposed concession to renounce the annexation of the West Bank, for the time being, allows MBZ to come out as the ultimate defender of Palestinian interests. 

This agreement marks a real change of perspective in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This offers Donald Trump one of the few diplomatic victories he will have to his credit in four years of office. For MBZ and Netanyahu, it may be an investment in the event of Trump's re-election, without taking too great a risk in the event of a Democratic victory. The renunciation, albeit provisional, of Jerusalem's annexation of the West Bank sets aside for the moment a subject that would have complicated the relationship of a new Democratic administration with the Jewish state.

One man in particular, the well-known Emirates ambassador to Washington, Youssef al-Otaiba, may have been influential in this case. In June, he published a letter in an Israeli newspaper warning the authorities in Jerusalem that the annexation of the West Bank would be an obstacle to the rapprochement between the two countries. The August 13 agreement is in a way an operational corollary of this analysis, giving it a positive outcome. Youssef al-Otaiba is sufficiently aware of the American political world to have his own back covered in Biden's entourage. 

Not everything, however, boils down to tactical expediency. If the United Arab Emirates and Israel took the step of normalization, it is also because they considered it necessary to prepare for the future phases of American disengagement from the region and, in the event of a Democratic victory, for the possible return of détente between Washington and Tehran. Moreover, this agreement marks a real change of perspective in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It strips the Palestinian Authority of the only real playing card it had left, what is known as the Abdallah initiative or the Arab Initiative, the old doctrine that the Arabs would recognize Israel the day an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was signed. 

Admittedly, for the time being, normalization with Israel concerns only the Emirates. The move has however not been condemned by any Arab State. Everyone expects others to follow, and it is known that in Saudi Arabia it is the king who remains hostile to normalization, but not his son, MBS, who is the effective leader of the country. In other words, it is likely that the UAE-Israel agreement is a precursor to a general realignment of the positions of the regional players. 

What will Europe’s role be?

The new coalition that is taking shape has one main enemy: Iran (with Turkey increasingly coming in second). This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the announcement of August 13. In the summer of 2019, what made the headlines was a rapprochement between the Emirates and Iran, marked among other things by the visit to Tehran of a large delegation from Abu Dhabi. Indeed, in the event of a regional conflict, the prosperous Dubai, Abu Dhabi's sister city, could be the easiest target for an Iranian attack. 

Since last summer, the Emirati and Iranian governments have remained in contact. With the agreement of August 13, has MBZ changed his approach towards his dangerous neighbour? Or are the Emiratis simply calculating that the Iranians cannot afford to take any ill-considered risks until the American elections? Do they feel that they have an opportunity to strengthen relations with Israel as they did a year ago with Iran, in view of the many regional bargains to come?

 In the event of a regional conflict, the prosperous Dubai could be the easiest target for an Iranian attack.

In the United States, most commentators, even those who are not in favour of Donald Trump, have welcomed this seemingly historic development. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs was slightly more reserved in welcoming the rapprochement between the two countries that are friends of France, through a communiqué in which it also called on Israel to definitively renounce the annexation of the West Bank. From a European point of view, the new situation actually entails risks: it may further harden the internal fault lines within the region, radicalize the opposition between the Gulf-Egypt-Israel axis and Iran, as well as between the same axis and Turkey and Qatar. Is an extra notch in the encirclement of Iran really such a good thing?

The UAE-Israel agreement, however, shows a new fluidity in regional relations. It may therefore also represent an opportunity. The role of the Europeans must be to exploit the current uncertainties to work towards a reduction in tensions, starting with a firm stance to ensure that the West Bank is recognized as the Palestinian territory that it indeed is; also recalling that the ultimate objective should be Iran's integration into the region. From this point of view, all the diplomatic resources of the Europeans will be called upon in the short term to mitigate the shock of the major crisis that is looming over the Iranian nuclear dossier. 

After having been outvoted in the Security Council on its plan to extend the embargo on conventional arms to Iran (2 votes out of 15), the United States is now going to do everything in its power to trigger a return of UN sanctions ("snapback") against the Islamic Republic, invoking a provision of the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) from which it has nevertheless withdrawn itself.

 

Copyright: JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

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