Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, US President Donald Trump and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (GPO, EPA, Reuters)
I have been very much in two minds about the Israel-Emirates peace treaty which was announced last week. On the one hand it is indeed a very good thing, one less enemy in the Arab world and indeed one more ally, or at least a trading partner. On the other hand one of the conditions (or maybe just a clause) in the treaty was that Israel cease its plans to apply sovereignty (commonly but mistakenly referred to as annexation) over Judea and Samaria – and this is a very bad thing.
If two countries want peace and good relations, then what one country does within its own territory should be no business of the second party.
Then again, any Bibi-watcher could have told you that the Prime Minister was never going to actually impose sovereignty or annex any areas at all, let alone the entire Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu talks the talk, but is incapable of walking the walk. We have seen it time and again, and what is strange is that for a very wily politician Netanyahu manages to enrage both his base and his opponents. He talks big and loud about legalizing or annexing the settlements and infuriates his adversaries, both from the Israeli Left and the international community. And then when push comes to shove he doesn’t actually carry out any of his promises, thus enraging his Likud and national religious supporters. He is a complete puzzle. I am just surprised every election cycle how right-wing Israelis fall into the trap of believing Netanyahu and his wild promises. He is not a leftist, but he is mostly interested in maintaining the status quo, not making any changes in the region, even if they would be good for Israel in the long run. His ethos seems to be that if you don’t do anything at all you also can’t do any damage. This is a mistake, but is the subject for another blog.
This being the case, that sovereignty was never going to happen anyway, the UAE deal seems to be a win-win situation for Israel. as Alan Dershowitz writes in the Gatestone Institute:
The agreement by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalize relations with Israel bodes well for the future of Israel and the dangerous region in which it lives. It was not the first such agreement — there were peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) — but it will probably not be the last. It is likely, though not certain, that other Gulf nations may follow. Even the president of Lebanon, Michel Aoun, has “hinted at the possibility of peace talks with Israel.” In any event, he has not precluded eventually joining other Arab countries in normalizing relations with Israel.
The deal makes clear that the Palestinian leadership no longer has a veto on the actions and attitudes of its Arab neighbors who will do what it is in their own best interest. It has also become clear that strengthening ties with the militarily, technologically and economically powerful Israel is the best protection against the dangers posed by an Iran that for decades has been seeking to have its own deliverable nuclear weapons capability.
The deal, however, is more than “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The UAE will derive many benefits from closer relationships with the Middle East’s most stable and advanced country. These include economic and technological partnerships, military and intelligence sharing, mutual tourism and better relationships with the US and much of the rest of the world.
Haviv Rettig Gur, always a sane voice of reason, in the Times of Israel, explains the intra-Arab dynamic and the waning influence of the Palestinian problem, in his article The Palestinians weren’t betrayed by the UAE. They were simply left behind:
The Palestinian national movement is now at a crossroads. To be sure, the Arab world still cares about the Palestinians, sometimes deeply. But the Palestinian story has nevertheless shrunk from representing a broader Arab story to a tragedy that affects only the Palestinians, and in the process lost its grip on Arab policymaking. The oil-rich Gulf states are now respected global business hubs that view the West not as oppressor or competing civilization, but as a target for investment and a source of stability. The new threats that loom over the Arab world are regional — Iran, Turkey, Islamist factions of various sorts — or deeply local, from corruption to sectoral strife. The Arab world has changed, the Palestinian narrative has not.
The Emirati decision to normalize relations with Israel is thus a kind of liberation from the Palestinian question. To the desperate frustration of the Palestinians, the Emiratis don’t even seem embarrassed by it.
Yet in the normalization deal lies a lesson for the Palestinians. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who negotiated the agreement from the Emirati side, has demonstrated a key point about dealing with Israelis, a point the Palestinian factions, who spend surprisingly little time seriously studying how Israeli Jews think and feel, have yet to grasp. It is so simple it can seem cartoonish: To change Israeli Jews’ behavior, you must convince them they have something to lose.
A better way to put it might be that Israelis must be made to believe they have something to gain that could compensate for all they might lose.
Israelis — forgive the generalization, there are many kinds of Israelis with all kinds of views, but the term serves for the moment to describe the very large majority of them — do not actually believe that Palestinian politics are capable of offering them peace. That’s not just a convenient conceit, it’s a real, driving assumption for most Israelis when they come to think about the conflict with the Palestinians.
Then came the Emiratis. A fascinating Sunday poll conducted by Direct Polls for Channel 12 revealed the dramatic effect on Israeli opinion and politics that a sliver of hope could bring.
Asked explicitly whether they preferred the normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promised annexation in the West Bank (the Emiratis conditioned the deal on stopping the annexation), fully 77% of Israelis preferred the peace agreement with the UAE. Just 16.5% favored the annexation.
Even among self-described right-wingers, Netanyahu’s constituency, the Emirati deal won handily, with a whopping 64% to 28%.
Palestinians lost a great deal last week. They weren’t “betrayed,” as some PA leaders have complained, but simply left behind. They didn’t lose vital allies who cared deeply for their cause, but one-time supporters who still vaguely support them but are tired of the intractability of their cause.
I was surprised to see so much support for this peace deal from the Israeli right wing, considering the price was the suspension, if not the cancellation, of any sovereignty plans. But Ruthie Blum, a very staunch right-wing columnist, praises Netanyahu’s bold move:
In answer to critics on both sides of the spectrum, Netanyahu penned an op-ed on Monday to “remind [readers] that in the current agreement, not only has Israel not withdrawn from so much as one square meter, rather the Trump plan includes, at my request, the application of Israeli sovereignty over extensive territories in Judea and Samaria. It was I who insisted on including sovereignty in the plan, and this plan has not changed. President Trump is committed to it and I am committed to conducting negotiations on this basis.”
He went on to say, “At the U.N. in 2013, I said that for years, many believed that Israeli-Palestinian peace would advance a broader reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. I said that I was of the view that peace would be achieved in the opposite fashion: It was expanding reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world that would likely advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
There is no question that Netanyahu was right all along that the root of Middle East strife was not a lack of Palestinian statehood. Only liberal Jews continued to believe that fallacy, to which even most Arabs have stopped paying lip service. Proof that they only used the Palestinian “cause” to bash Israel lays in the appalling treatment of Palestinians in their own countries.
This is something that members of the Israeli right never doubted. Many, however, have cast serious aspersions on Netanyahu’s convictions where preserving Jewish rights in the land of Israel is concerned. They see the UAE deal as a form of capitulation to foreign pressure.
They are wrong to perceive his actions in this light. He is not caving to Washington. Rather, he is buying time and creating optimal conditions for Israel’s road ahead. As Movement for Governability and Democracy managing director Daniel Seaman so aptly put it in these pages on Sunday: “While most politicians are busy playing checkers, Netanyahu has always been playing three-dimensional chess.”
The journalist David Suissa has similar praise for the move:
In the Gulf, compared to the rest of the Arab world, economic dynamism is a greater priority. This makes Israel, with its innovative spirit, an ideal partner. That is why in recent years, we’ve seen more and more Gulf business conducted with Israel. A shared desire to confront the Iranian threat has only reinforced this mutual interest.
But this business was always unofficial. As often happens in the Middle East, if you’re cooperating with Israel, better not be too loud. Even with Egypt and Jordan, any business with Israel is usually discreet.
The highly public deal with the UAE has broken that ice.
For decades, the world community indulged the Palestinian myth that the “key to Mideast peace is the Palestinian conflict,” as if there are no other countries or conflicts in the area. The Arab Spring of 2011, which exposed deep grievances throughout the region that had nothing to do with Israel, was a big crack in that myth. So was the rise of the Islamic State and the civil war in Syria.
The deal with the UAE is yet another.
From this day forward, the new message to the Arab world is: Israel is not your enemy. Israel is part of the solution. Israel can be your partner. Don’t give the corrupt Palestinian leadership a veto on your growth and progress. Encourage them to make peace with Israel.
And if you live in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you won’t have to hide that you’re going to a water conference next week in Tel Aviv.
A cursory search around the internet, including the vast majority of Israeli sites, will yield many similar articles in praise of this new peace treaty and/or in praise of Netanyahu.
One of the lone voices against the deal is the blogger Vic Rosenthal in his blog “Abu Yehuda” who expresses my own qualms at the deal as he looks at the downside of the UAE deal:
My immediate reaction was that I am happy to see normalization of relations with the anti-Iranian faction of the Arab world. Anything that facilitates cooperation against Iran is a good thing, although I have no illusions that there is any fundamental change in the Arab consciousness. It is still Islamic doctrine that Jewish sovereignty over what they believe is rightly Muslim land is unacceptable. Islam, however, permits temporary alliances – even with Jews – when they are expedient, and certainly the situation in the Middle East today makes it highly expedient. But Islamic antisemitism, as well as the overlay of Nazi Jew-hatred imported from Europe, won’t go away so easily (just at look at our “peaceful” relations with the Kingdom of Jordan for an example of de jure peace and de facto hatred).
On the other hand, we have to start somewhere, and Israelis really like the idea of visiting those fancy hotels.
But – you were waiting for this – I have one big concern about the process, and that is the suspension of plans for extension of civil law or sovereignty to the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as the Jordan Valley.
Many observers suggest that since there was already no chance to implement sovereignty, then Israel gave up nothing by agreeing to the demand to suspend it. But this ignores the very important political significance of the decision.
The official Israeli position is that the territories belong to Israel by international law. But Israeli officials have always been ambivalent about this. The decision to treat the Arab population in accordance with the law of belligerent occupation, as though the land were occupied, seems to sometimes have been understood by elements in Israel’s government, Foreign Ministry, and judicial system as implying that the status of the territories in fact is that they are under occupation.
And don’t think that the Emiratis don’t see it this way. Listen to Hend al Otaiba, Director of Strategic Communication for the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when asked “why now?”
Annexation was our immediate concern. We felt it would kill the prospects for a two-state solution, which has been the basis of almost all past peace-making efforts, and set prospects for regional peace back decades.
Israeli public diplomacy should push back against this idea. It should stress that the land belongs to us, and while we might under some conditions cede some of it for a Palestinian entity (something less than a state!), there is no a priori Palestinian right to it.
That is why agreeing to suspend the application of civil law indefinitely (which really means forever) is a big deal.
However one final item that I would bring to your attention (sorry for the plethora of articles here!), is a very interesting opinion staunchly in favour of the deal davka by a very right-wing opinion maker, Dan Schueftan who sees the deal as Israel and the Arab states against Iran and Turkey:
The proposed agreement with the United Arab Emirates is important, and more importantly, symbolizes a trend. The delay in applying sovereignty is much less crucial, since Israel’s strategic needs are wider and immensely more important than its needs in the Palestinian arena, and also because in this arena, the agreement and this trend strengthen Israel’s negotiating position.
The willingness of the Gulf states to establish ties with Israel conveys the strength and reliability of the Jewish state in the eyes of the Arab nations; the timing shows the fear that an Obama-like administration in Washington will again endanger the Gulf states through its reconciliation towards Iran. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel strived to free itself from isolation and the threat of its Arab surroundings with the “periphery alliance” with Iran and Turkey; today it works mainly with the Arab nations against the aggressiveness of both these non-Arab regional powers.
Beyond the diplomatic deed and the great potential for economic cooperation, this is a dramatic regional achievement. This breakthrough, with Egypt’s blessing and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heartwarming rage, establishes the strategic axis of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman – and in other ways also Greece and Cyprus – against the radical regimes of Iran and Turkey.
The glee of the center-left and the mourning on the deep Right over the suspension of applying sovereignty is peculiar. The Center-Left is wrong for objecting to the annexation of the Jordan Valley since it allows for the security conditions to disengage Israel from most of the territories in Judea and Samaria and the establishment of a “state” that will have no territorial contiguity with the radical elements threatening Israel.
The deep Right is wrong because the agreement with the UAE harms the Palestinian negotiating position after it was devastated on the issues of Jerusalem, UNRWA and the Trump plan. The Palestinians are expected to thwart any plan in Judea and Samaria that any government in Israel can accept. Therefore, whatever hurts their ability to harm Israel is something that should be welcomed by all wings of the Israeli political map. The ignoring of Palestinian objection and the establishment of the joint axis with most Arab elements are described in Gaza, Ramallah and Ankara as a “stab in the back.”
In that case, those significantly harmed are Iran’s stature, Erdogan’s hopes, and the illusions of the Palestinians. What more could one ask for?
What more indeed? Let’s hope all these learned journalists and researchers are right. This could be the dawning of a new age of warm relations if not outright peace. Then again…