In a surprise move last Thursday, US President Donald Trump along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan announced an agreement to establish full bilateral relations between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi.
The official Emirati news agency carried the statement following the over-the-phone meeting between the three leaders, saying they “agreed to the full normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates”. It added that 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”.
The announcement drew an outcry from the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza. But many countries in the Middle East and across the world welcomed it.
The strongest official opposition to the move came from Iran, days after the announcement, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described it as a “huge mistake” and “betrayal of the Palestinian cause”, threatening that “they will be dealt accordingly”.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi to hand him a strong note of protest against the threats contained in Rouhani’s speech regarding the deal. It considered the speech unacceptable and inflammatory and would have serious implications for security and stability in the Gulf region.
Rouhani’s statements were echoed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the Revolutionary Guard and other officials in Iran.
According to a statement carried by the Emirati news agency: “The UAE affirmed its absolute rejection of the language of inflammatory speeches delivered by the Iranian authorities… considering this an interference in its internal affairs and an attack on its sovereignty… The UAE rejects Iranian statements that are not conducive to stability in the region, and considers that relations between states, agreements and accords are a sovereign issue.”
This was the only official reaction from the UAE after the peace accord with Israel, announced Thursday, led to a media and propaganda campaign against the UAE and Gulf states as a whole. The campaign is being led by Qatari and Turkish media, along with other outlets backed by the two countries as mouthpieces for the Muslim Brotherhood, designated a terrorist organisation by many countries in the region.
Strong defence of the agreement came in other forms, like tweets by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash and other figures.
On Iran, Gargash tweeted Sunday that “the UAE-Israel peace agreement is a sovereign decision not targeting Iran… we don’t accept any interference in our decisions… we reject threats whether it is out of bullying or concern. Strategic decisions are transformational, with an impact and effect and our decision reinforces our competitive position.”
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi inaugurated a phone link between the two countries Sunday. Previously, it was not possible to make phone calls from the UAE to Israel. A statement from Abu Dhabi said “Sheikh Abdullah and Ashkenazi emphasised their commitment to fulfil the provisions of the peace treaty between the two countries in order to promote peace and regional development.”
Though the timing of the announcement might have come as a surprise, it is clear the peace accord has been in the making for some time. Not only due to economic dealings for years, but especially after the unprecedented article by the Emirati ambassador to the US, published by Israel’s largest daily Yedioth Ahronoth in early June this year.
Titled “Annexation or Normalisation”, the op-ed article by Ambassador Youssef Al-Otaiba warned that annexation of Palestinian territories jeopardises Israeli efforts to build relationships with countries in the region. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with the UAE,” he wrote in the piece directed to the Israeli public.
The article implied that those “efforts” to establish relations were there already and the message to Israel was “don’t impede it” by killing the two-state solution via annexation.
That view is corroborated by many Emiratis who spoke on condition of anonymity. They wondered, “why this anger?” as they see Emirati foreign policy as transparent and honest and based on the principle of mutual benefit.
An Emirati official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision achieved a tangible result on the core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by halting the planned annexation of parts of the West Bank and opening a new window for serious negotiations between the parties concerned on a durable and lasting settlement based on the two-state solution.
“We read history, live the present and look to the future… During seven decades of struggle, more was achieved through peace than through war. From the Camp David Accords to the Madrid negotiations to the Oslo Accords to the Wadi Araba Accords… As for us, this didn’t come from nowhere. We’ve been seeing Israelis here as part of international bodies from UN agencies to sports associations and we expect more in EXPO2020 next year,” he said.
He added: “No one can question UAE commitment to Arab causes, at the heart of which is the issue of Palestine… But look at the situation in the last few years. Nothing is being achieved.”
The official continued: “The decision is consistent with the UAE approach to regional and international affairs: tolerance, peace, stability and sustainable development, to ensure a prosperous future for young generations.”
Assistant to the minister of foreign affairs for culture and public diplomacy, Omar Saif Ghobash, was blunt in interview with AFP. “We are driven by pragmatic considerations,” he said, adding: “We are not a gift to be awarded to the Israelis at some stage if they satisfy Palestinian demands… We are very clearly stating that it is in our sovereign interest to make this move and therefore that sovereign interest will be served… We have spent the last 20 years developing relationships with all kinds of countries across the globe. We have an active foreign policy and we will make our own sovereign decisions.”
On the claim of those who see the move as not good for the Palestinian cause, Ambassador Ghobash told AFP: “I am trying to understand in what sense this is a back stab, given that what we have done is actually open the door for a rethink on the Israeli side about annexation… We strongly believe in the rights of Palestinians… So, we have taken the step in accordance with these deeply held beliefs, but also in accordance with the new reading of the region.”
Many Arab countries supported the Emirati move, including Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman. Egypt also welcomed it, but Jordan stopped short of endorsing it, “waiting to see its effect on Israeli actions”. Most significant is the Omani position, as countries like Qatar and Turkey were trying to “drive wedges” between the Sultanate and its neighbours. In a statement reported by Oman News Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat said: “The Sultanate of Oman hopes the agreement will contribute to achieving comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East and fulfil the aspirations of the peoples in the region in sustaining pillars of security and stability, and create factors for progress and prosperity for all.”
A London-based Arabic commentator concluded that apart from the benefit of the accord to Israel, and prospects of technological and commercial cooperation, there is also a by-product concerning a blow to the axis of Turkey-Qatar. He stressed that the angry reaction from that camp reflects an anxiety this Emirati approach “drags the rug under the feet of political Islamist groups and terrorist militias supported by the two countries”.
Israel is expecting other Arab countries to follow the Emirati path, though much will depend on the actions of the Israeli government.
The UAE and Israel will most likely benefit from cooperation in fields of technology, innovation and other sectors of business and economic cooperation. Emirati English-language daily The National quoted an Israeli rabbi as saying that many Israelis are waiting for the day that they can visit the UAE.
Both parties, along with the US, want that the accord cam be a model for future cooperation benefiting all, showing how peace is more rewarding than animosity.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly