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  • The Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags seen on the side of a road in the city of Netanya. Photo: Flash90
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Israel reaches historic agreement with UAE

Andrew Tucker - 21 August 2020

The political landscape in the Middle East is changing rapidly. On 13th August, Israel, the US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that Israel and UAE have reached a historical agreement to “normalize” relations.

Ever since its creation in 1948, the Arab world has refused to conduct normal diplomatic relations with Israel. They have demanded full Israeli compliance with the demands of the PLO for the liberation of Palestine. Since the Six Day War (1967) the Arab issued their famous “three no’s”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations.

This agreement reflects a reality that has been developing over a longer period of time: Israel’s close economic and security relations with a number of states in the region. For decades, there has been much covert coming and going between Israel and the UAE, involving major arms and security deals.

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven Emirates including Abu Dhabi (which serves as its capital). Sandwiched between the Sunni states of Oman and Saudi Arabia in the south, and the Shiite states of Iran and Qatar in the north, it represents the alliance of states who have a common interest in resisting the influence of Iran and its proxies in the region, as well as the expansionist ambitions of Turkey under President Erdogan who is seeking to re-establish the caliphate ruled from Istanbul.

According to the statement: “The historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region. All three countries face many common challenges and will mutually benefit from today’s historic achievement.”

The agreement to “normalize” relations between these two countries is the first such agreement since the historic peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). It reflects what some commentators have called a “paradigm shift”. Other moderate Islamic states in the region, such as Oman, Morocco and possibly even Saudi Arabia, are expected to follow suit.

It is a major achievement that Netanyahu has managed to reach a deal with an Arab state without making the major concessions that previous were assumed necessary. This is the first agreement with an Arab state that does not condition peace with compliance with Palestinian demands to give up land.

The response in Israel is mixed. Some say the deal is a cynical PR stunt intended to lift the political fortunes of the Israeli Prime Minister and United States President in times when their popularity is falling. Others hail the agreement as a feat of statesmanship that will usher in a new diplomatic era in the Middle East.

Perhaps predictably, the PLO, Iran and Turkey immediately condemned the deal, as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and Islamic values. However they have received little support from Arab states. The deal has sidelined the Palestinian leadership, demonstrating increasing Arab impatience with the zero-sum rejectionism of the Palestinian leadership.

Netanyahu has paid the high price of postponing indefinitely his plans to apply Israeli sovereignty to settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley. As part of the agreement, Israel has agreed not to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the “West Bank”. According to the statement: “As a result of the diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.”

Does this mean Israel has abandoned its plans to apply Israeli law to parts of the “West Bank”? According to Netanyahu, the plans are still on the table, and he remains committed to his promises.  In contradiction, according to the UAE Prime Minister, as well as Trump Adviser Kushner, Netanyahu agreed to abandon sovereignty application without USA consent, which is not likely to be forthcoming for the foreseeable future. Kushner: “President Trump is committed to holding them accountable to it, and Israel has agreed with us that they will not move forward without our consent,” Kushner told reporters during a briefing. “We do not plan to give our consent for some time, as right now the focus has to be on getting this new peace agreement implemented.”

There is no doubt this is a major development, that reflects changing balance of power in the Middle East. It is to be hoped that it will lead to further “normalized” relations between Israel and the Arab world.

It remains to be seen, however, for how long the extension of Israeli sovereignty over (parts of) the West Bank can be postponed. Within Israel, there is considerable pressure to move forward with resolving the status of Israeli settlements and applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.

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