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New era in the Middle East

The announcement by Donald Trump that Israel and the UAE will normalise relations has sent shockwaves across the Arab region, upturning old certainties

Hussein Haridy , Tuesday 18 Aug 2020
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On Thursday, 13 August, US President Donald Trump took the Middle East and the world by surprise when he tweeted, “Huge breakthrough today. Historic Peace Agreement between our two Great Friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.”

The Arabs and the Palestinians were stunned. No one saw it coming. In the midst of talk in Israel of the annexation of 30 per cent of the West Bank, and when to announce it officially, a Gulf country, the Emirates, decided to normalise relations with Israel. According to a communique released by the White House, the Emirates and Israel would start talks soon to establish diplomatic relations, and sign a host of agreements covering investments, energy, air travel, security and technology. The Emirates stressed that once opened, its embassy in Israel will be headquartered in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem.

In order to sweeten the pill, the official declarations by Emirati officials indicated that in return for the establishment of diplomatic relations, the plan for annexation is shelved, a position that was immediately contradicted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The latter stressed that the agreement does not abrogate the annexation of “West Bank territories”.

As for the Israeli prime minister, he told the Israelis that as he succeeded in achieving peace with the United Arab Emirates he would, also, succeed in bringing about annexation, but only after coordinating with the Trump administration. In the remarks he delivered Thursday evening, he reiterated that, “there is no change whatsoever in my plan to extend sovereignty over Judea and Samaria in full coordination with the United States. Implementing annexation will be done only in coordination with the United States.”

President Trump spoke about “other Islamic countries” that would follow in the footsteps of the Emiratis. One Israeli analyst mentioned three countries; namely, Bahrain, Oman and Sudan.

The United Arab Emirates will be the first Gulf country to normalise relations with Israel. However, those who have been monitoring Israeli-Gulf relations believe that the announcement last Thursday is a logical outcome of regular contacts that both Emirati and Israeli officials have maintained lately, particularly after the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The United Arab Emirates has, reportedly, sent medicine and other medical equipment to Israel that has suffered from a lack of equipment to fight the pandemic. On the other hand, two flights of the Emirati Etihad carrier arrived in Israel directly from Abu Dhabi two months ago, carrying assistance to the Palestinian Authority. At the time, Palestinian officials said that they were not notified beforehand.

Furthermore, Israel was invited to participate in Expo 2020 that was to be held this year in the United Arab Emirates but had to be postponed to next year because of coronavirus.

But what is more significant is the fact that the director of the Israeli Mossad visited the UAE on various occasions.

Arab and international reactions were, on balance, supporting and favourable, with the exception of the reaction of the Palestinian Authority that recalled its ambassador to Abu Dhabi and called the decision of normalisation between Israel and the Gulf country, “a stab in the back”. Of course, this reaction is understandable taking into account the absence of any glimmer of hope of advancing peace prospects between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the rejection by the Palestinian Authority of the “Prosperity to Peace” plan announced by the Trump administration last January.

The official Jordanian reaction was cautious. It had to balance its fears of the future annexation of the Jordan Valley with its interest in maintaining good relations with the UAE and to position itself if other Gulf countries will follow suit and embark on the treacherous road of normalisation with Israel.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi reacted very positively to the news and believed that the process of normalisation, as outlined in the Washington communique, will bring “stability” to the Middle East.

The official British reaction was noteworthy in linking the steps taken by the UAE and Israel to the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, similar to the Jordanian position that linked these steps with concrete Israeli actions — like, for example, rescinding all “illegal” measures adopted by Israeli authorities in the occupied territories.

For the last two years, the Israeli prime minister has talked — and I would like to use the word “bragged” — about his secret talks with Arab leaders without naming them. Of course, people understood that he meant Gulf leaders. Just to note in passing, he had paid an official visit to Oman in 2018, where he was received by the late Sultan Qabous.

Netanyahu once said that in “secret talks” he has told “Muslim and Arab leaders that peace with Israel is worthwhile to you because Israel is strong. I do not hesitate to stand up to Iran.” To which he added a very strange and surprising statement, which is: “And if need be, I can go against the whole world.”

Apparently, some of the leaders he referred to in this particular quote believed him.

By deciding on normalisation with Israel, the UAE is repositioning itself in the Middle East and the Gulf region. Cementing relations with the United States through official relations with Israel will be a force multiplier for the Emiratis, whether against Qatar or against Iran.

Of course, the Emiratis realise the limits of their coordination with the Americans and the Israelis against Iran. Still, it has bought an insurance policy in case Iran would think someday of destabilising the UAE.

On the other hand, the UAE is bracing itself for the post-oil era, by going full steam ahead in exploring new horizons and opportunities in the coming age of artificial intelligence and advances in high tech that would transform the world. The Emiratis decided that the time has come to start joining hands with the Israelis.

Moreover, the Trump administration has scored a strategic and diplomatic triumph. The Warsaw Process that the United States launched last year with the aim of establishing the bases for regional integration in the Middle East has borne fruit. The normalisation of Emirati-Israeli relations is the first concrete step towards launching America’s strategy of integrating Israel into a regional system that includes the Gulf countries, Israel and Arab countries that have already established diplomatic relations with Israel (namely, Egypt in March 1979 and Jordan in October 1994).

The peace process of old is history, as well as the Arab Peace Plan. The two Arab peace treaties with Israel were based on the well-known formula of “land for peace”, whose international legal framework has been UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967.

The communique released in Washington 13 August did not refer to this resolution as the legal basis for the announced normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. It is the first concrete manifestation of the Israeli formula, adopted under Netanyahu and his Likud Party, of “peace for peace”.

The new era in the Middle East is full of uncertainties, so long as the Palestinian question remains unresolved. A new era does not mean a better Middle East, in terms of security, stability or economic prosperity for its peoples. It means probably an American-crafted region where Israel will call the shots, unfortunately.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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