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Bronner writes: "Israel and the United Arab Emirates have concluded a pact. Some have suggested that it is meaningless; others, that it is a landmark. In truth, it is neither."

Emirati and Israeli officials discuss future cooperation agreements in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020. (photo: Amos Ben-Gersho/GPO)
Emirati and Israeli officials discuss future cooperation agreements in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020. (photo: Amos Ben-Gersho/GPO)

Reflections on the Israel-UAE Agreement

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

02 September 20


srael and the United Arab Emirates have concluded a pact. Some have suggested that it is meaningless; others, that it is a landmark. In truth, it is neither. The agreement between these two nations partially closes one door and partially opens another. Brokered by the United States, Israel and the UAE have agreed to normalize relations, exchange ambassadors, allow passenger flights, and facilitate trade. The UAE will thereby become the first Arab nation formally to recognize Israel as a state while, for its part, Israel has agreed to “postpone” its plans to annex about one-third of the West Bank. Admittedly, this is not much of a concession: annexation is still possible, and 600,000 Israeli settlers inhabit what would appear as Palestine. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will also undoubtedly use the new agreement to deflect attention away from his indictment for bribery, a failing economy, a completely inadequate response by his administration to COVID-19, and mass protests in the streets. That this agreement sparked a new gas deal between Israel and Gaza should also have come as no surprise. Should things get out of hand in Palestine, Netanyahu still has the annexation card to play.

None of this costs the UAE anything either. Quite the contrary: it has steadily been building a relationship with Israel for the past few years, and now its standing in the region has grown immeasurably. The UAE can now lay claim to its role as a peacemaker, and — above all — it can forge a new political path by abandoning the Palestinians. Both Israel and the UAE have strong ties to the United States. The former receives $4 billion per year in aid and $8 billion in loan guarantees while the latter can expect new shipments of military hardware, drones, and the like. Given its size, the UAE is no military juggernaut. It has never posed a threat to Israel and, in fact, US foreign aid has been negligible over the years. Behind the UAE, however, stands Saudi Arabia, whose Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, wrangled a ten-year $350 billion arms deal from President Donald Trump. That is of importance. The prince is intent on deterring the ambitions of Iran, fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and interfering in Libya and Syria; he can use every friend he can get. 

Trump had leverage and he used it. The president was desperate; he needed an accomplishment amid the utter failure of his foreign policy. He had promised to handle North Korea through personal diplomacy: Kim Jong-un is now engaging in more dangerous tests of long-range missiles. Trump had vowed to cripple Iran’s military capacity through rescinding the nuclear non-proliferation treaty negotiated by President Obama in 2015; Iran is now rapidly building a bomb, and tensions between these nations have grown. The president proclaimed he would put “America first!” but instead wound up leaving Western Europe to its own devices, kowtowing to Russia, stripping the UN and its agencies of funding, ignoring opportunities to cooperate on dealing with COVID-19, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords. Just as bad is America’s loss of moral standing; its strategy is unfocused, its politics is unpredictable, and its leader is a laughingstock. 

Even if only very rarely, however, Trump’s administration can do something right. The agreement between Israel and the UAE is a step in the proper direction. It sets precedents even if it still leaves the Palestinians with the prospect of a sovereign state that lacks any meaningful sovereignty at all. The new ambassador sent by the UAE to Jerusalem will, symbolically, ratify Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. The only losers are the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority was not consulted; Gaza was barely mentioned; and worse — what has been thoroughly ignored in the American media — Palestinian foreign policy and domestic political strategy is in tatters. In the face of a failed intifada, paralysis in its negotiations with Israel, a collapsed economy, sectarian conflict between Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, Palestinians are suffering from an ever-deepening malaise. Its leaders looked to foreign movements and the world community to stand in solidarity with them. Together they would pressure Israel into re-starting peace talks, challenge favorable treatment of Israel by the United States, provide capital and support, and view the plight of the Palestinians as that of the region. 

This new agreement has undermined these hopes. Arab unity has been broken. That Palestine and its supporters, such as Turkey, condemned this diplomatic initiative of the UAE as a “betrayal” is irrelevant. Claims that it had no “right” to enter into this bargain are absurd. As a sovereign state, it had every “right” to do so. Like Israel and the United States, the UAE saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Bahrain is already waiting in the wings. The UAE built upon the de-facto peace agreements already in place between Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. And its action was bold. There is now a legitimating precedent for other Arab states to do what they have been quietly wanting to do for years, namely, open relations with the “Zionist entity.” Their quiet frustration stems from the inability of either Fatah or Hamas or any of the extremist sects to develop a policy consonant with the radical imbalances of power that define relations between their country and Israel. 

The real significance of the treaty lies in driving the Palestinian leadership back to the drawing board. Hamas has led the way. Sparked by the new treaty, it has consummated a gas deal between Israel and Gaza. But this is only a small step. Palestinian foreign policy has been predicated on moral outrage and inducing guilt. Neither is sufficient to outweigh the national interest of other states, and neither can substitute for a genuine strategy. Palestinians and their allies have watched their envisioned state and its boundaries steadily shrink. Compare the maps! What would have been a viable state in 1948 made way for the prospect of a truncated state in 1967, and then again the 1980s and 1990s, what today appears as little more than a conglomeration of disjointed cantons without contiguous borders. As this shrinkage took place, moreover, the imbalance of power grew ever greater. Political leaders were (and are) responsible for formulating a strategic response — that is why they are political leaders. But that is precisely what they have not done. They have instead engaged in a studied avoidance not of the question “what is to be done?” — but what is it possible to do?

The past is the past, and we can leave the dead to bury their dead. Throwing up one’s hands in despair is not a political act. The Israel-UAE agreement does not guarantee peace. But it should serve as a wake-up call for the Palestinians, whose vision is in danger of being abandoned by its former allies even while Israel is mitigating its pariah status. Who knows what the future holds? Things can change again. Palestinian partisans say they are in it “for the long run.” But just how long is the run? It’s a legitimate question, since the Palestinian people will be doing the running. As John Maynard Keynes noted, after all, “in the long run we are all dead.” 

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. His most recent work is The Sovereign (Routledge).

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