Ever since it came into being on May 14, 1948, Israel has been a geopolitical and cultural anomaly. Though located in the Middle East, it viewed itself as a beleaguered nation besieged by other Arab countries. Therefore, it sought its security, not through engagement with its neighbors, but with a substantial and enduring strategic partnership with the United States, where a multi-faceted pro-Israel lobby backed it. This situation led former Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, to point out: “They [the Israelis] have to achieve acceptance in the neighborhood where they come to (live in). They have come there by force, but cannot remain there by force. They can remain there only by acceptance.”
This obdurate posture had solid cultural foundations. The Zionist movement leaders, mostly from Europe, viewed their homeland in Palestine as linked with Western civilization. Thus, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the movement, said in 1895 that Zionism would form in Palestine “a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia” even though the Jews had suffered discrimination and hostility in Europe over the previous two millennia.
These two anomalies have been corrected by the agreement between the UAE and Israel to normalize their bilateral relationship. This agreement is recognition by Israel that it is an integral part of the Middle East, and its destiny will be shaped based on its relations with its neighbors in this geographical space. This is a remarkable development in ties between two countries that share the same space but have not shared formal relations – divided as they have been by differing perceptions relating to the territorial rights Israel has asserted in the region and its attendant denial of these rights to the Palestinian people.
The UAE-Israel agreement constitutes a significant re-shaping of the regional political scenario. It throws up extraordinary opportunities and challenges on how they can address the divisions and conflicts in the region they share and redefine the bases of the arrangements and alignments that have been the reality in the Middle East.
Reshaping regional security landscape
Commentators have so far described the implications of the agreement in two ways: one, it has no special significance for the regional situation, as it has only brought into the public eye the engagements between Israel and the UAE that have been ongoing for a couple of decades. Whatever value it has is thus limited to the bilateral sphere. Thus, Emile Nakhleh, recalling the UAE and Israeli leaders’ remarks, has noted that normalizing ties will provide a road-map for shaping bilateral ties in economic, political, technological, and logistical areas.
The other view is that the agreement is important, particularly in the context of ongoing regional confrontations. Thus, US commentator Kenneth Pollack says the agreement will “more closely band together” Israel and the UAE to resist the spread of the influence of Iran and extremist Islamist groups. Israeli writer Ben Caspit echoes this view, noting that many Sunni states, feeling threatened by Iran’s encroachment, “are sheltering behind Israel’s broad back”.
Hussein Ibish points out that the UAE knows that, while the US leads an anti-Iran coalition, “it’s Israel that’s doing most of the heavy kinetic lifting;” thus, normalization of ties with Israel is “crucial” for the UAE’s security. He adds that this normalization of ties will also “strengthen the UAE against the Turkish threat”.
These early comments merely reflect present-day regional rivalries and do not examine the third possible perspective relating to the agreement: whether the agreement can, over time, affect a tectonic shift in the regional political landscape. As Israel integrates itself with the Middle East space and regional nations come forward to interact with it, both sides now have the unique opportunity to shape their interests and destiny based on new ideas and approaches.
It is important to note that this normalization is taking place when the US is seeking to reduce its footprint in regional affairs. Kenneth Pollack has reminded us that the deeper cause of the Arab leaders’ shift toward engagement with Israel “lies in America’s disengagement from the Middle East”. This idea that, as the US reduces its regional leadership, and responsibility and regional states should assume a greater role in maintaining regional security issues had originated with Obama and has been echoed by Trump through his presidential term.
But there have been broader factors in play over the last decade that have diminished US leadership and credibility in regional affairs. Fareed Zakaria had written in Foreign Affairs last year that the US’s unipolar moment had already begun to lose its efficacy with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the Bush administration’s conduct having “shattered the moral and political authority of the United States.” This process has approached its nadir in the Trump administration when, in Zakaria’s words, “what is most notable about Trump’s foreign policy is its absence”.
In this background, the UAE-Israel normalization of ties should be viewed as a prelude to the pursuit of region-wide security and stability by regional states, without the US’s heavy hand to determine (or distort) their priorities and dull their initiatives.
The Palestinian issue is the key to regional peace. The issue of Palestinian statehood resonates across the Arab landscape, is the source of ongoing tensions and occasional violence, and is the most important factor restraining further political normalization across the Middle East. Nakhleh has noted: “Peaceful relations between Israel and Arab countries … cannot possibly endure without including the other children of Abraham, the Palestinians.”
The UAE’s leaders have recently emphasized this point as well. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, has categorically stated that the agreement with Israel will not come at the expense of the Palestinian cause and that the UAE was committed to the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
On August 31, addressing sections of the Palestinian community living in the UAE, Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed affirmed that the normalization of ties with Israel was “for the sake of delivering a peaceful future in the region.” He assured the community that “these unshakable bonds between the UAE and the Palestinians will remain solid and will never change.” He added that the UAE supported the Arab position “calling for establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
The UAE-Israel agreement to normalize ties suggests that the two-state solution to the Palestine issue will now have some chance of success. This is because, as a precursor to the agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to give up his earlier plan to formally “annex” a part of the occupied West Bank. While it is true that there are already 300 Israeli settlements in the West Bank that house about 600,000 settlers, formal annexation of these settlements into Israel would have foreclosed the two-state option once and for all, besides fomenting unrest and violence in the occupied territories and in parts of the region as well.
While for domestic political considerations, Netanyahu has indicated he has merely postponed the annexation, commentators in Israel and the US suggest that this is unlikely to be revived in the foreseeable future, primarily because it has no basis in international law and is opposed globally. As Hussein Ibish has pointed out, “most Israelis seem to prefer the deal [with the UAE] over annexation,” mainly because of the “significant strategic and commercial benefits for both sides” brought about by normalization.
Thus, the UAE-Israel normalization has ensured that the two-state solution is preserved and can be realized at the appropriate time in the future. With progress in Arab-Israeli normalization, the environment for major changes in entrenched positions will improve as well. As Stephen Daisley has observed: “Integration into the region will have its impact on Israel, too, and an Israel that feels more secure and less isolated may shed some of its cynicism about peace and cooperation built up in recent years.”
Challenges facing peace initiative
Following the firm position on Palestinian aspirations set out by the UAE’s leaders, it is proposed that the Emirates play an active leadership role in the peace process to realize Palestinian statehood. Besides giving justice to the Palestinian community, this will have positive implications for other contentions that bedevil the region – the security concerns that emanate from Iran and Turkey’s ideological and political ambitions. Both countries support the Palestinian cause as a major aspect of their regional political platform.
As the UAE actively backs Palestinian interests, it will not only deprive Iran and Turkey of a major point of criticism. It could also encourage some opening for dialogue with these nations. If peace replaces conflict, the region will be able to reap the benefits of its substantial and diverse potential in terms of energy, financial and technological resources, much of which is being used today to feed war instruments.
However, it is important to note that the endeavor to realize Palestinian aspirations will need to take into account several challenges:
One, the Arabs and the Israelis have been separated for several decades and today share a legacy of bitterness and mutual ignorance, suspicion, and prejudice. Each side has demonized the other for nearly a century, negating cordial Muslim-Jewish ties of over a millennium. Thus, a major effort will need to be mounted on both sides at official and popular levels to bridge the divide of hostility and replace it with understanding and camaraderie between the two people.
Two, a major obstruction in the path of normalization and mutual accommodation is the nature of Israeli politics. It is shaped by a long-standing alliance between the rightwing secular party, the Likud, and extremist religious parties, with the latter enjoying a national influence far beyond the number of their followers and exercising a veto over all efforts at territorial accommodation that would yield a viable Palestinian state. To take the peace process forward, Israel will need to accept the need to review the maximalist positions it has upheld. Al-Hattlan, referred to earlier, has said, Israel “must leave by the wayside its expansionist ambitions, curb its messianic zealots in the settler movement … [and] leave its military mentality behind and focus on future economic opportunities within the neighborhood.”
Happily, moderate elements in both the US and Israel recognize that injustice has been done to the Palestinians and regional security demands that their aspirations for a state be met. This is where the UAE will need to exercise influence so that, over time, Israeli laws and rules that are discriminatory and demeaning to Palestinians are removed, and Israel adopts positive attitudes to promote Palestinian interests, particularly in the economic field. For instance, Israeli border controls and regulation of trade and investments in Palestinian territories present severe obstacles to promoting Palestinian business and employment.
Three, the realization of Palestinian statehood’s will be a slow, prolonged and incremental process, frequently complicated by Israeli (and US) politics, internecine Palestinian differences, interventions by other regional players, and recurrent violence on both sides. This will require the UAE’s leaders and diplomats to be deeply engaged with the issue in Palestine and Israel while providing development assistance to maintain quality of life for the beleaguered Palestinian people.
Finally, the UAE will need to keep the issue alive through intense diplomatic effort at regional and global forums to ensure it remains in popular consciousness and leads to an international clamor for progress toward Palestinian statehood. Emile Nakhleh has quoted a senior Israeli national security official as saying that “lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs must start with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and finding ways to end the occupation of the West Bank.” The two-state solution is the best option, in this regard, today.
Peace promises an extraordinary bonanza for all the diverse inhabitants of the region – Arab, Jew, Iranians, and Turks – people who have interacted with each other for several centuries and, in the process, have created a great legacy of human civilization. This will be the best result of the normalization in bilateral relations initiated by the UAE and Israel.
(The author, a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India, and is a Non-Resident Fellow, TRENDS Research & Advisory. This piece first appeared here in the ‘Insights’ section of the TRENDS website )