The announcement on Aug. 13 that Israel and the United Arab Emirates were formalizing their relations brought near universal praise for the diplomatic achievement. Credit for the historic accord was shared by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Trump administration, who together have changed — for the better — the rules of Middle East diplomacy that were in place for more than six decades.
While there is some question about certain details — particularly regarding the meaning of a “suspension” of Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank — those issues will hopefully be ironed out in final negotiations over the next weeks.
In the meantime, in the afterglow of the treaty announcement — which also was praised by Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden — there are clear winners and losers. First among the winners are Israel and the UAE. Formalization of the longstanding Israel-UAE ties, and the anticipated expansion of Israel’s diplomatic relationships with other players in the area, will make the regional coalition against Iran more credible, tangible and effective. The deal will allow an increase in trade between the rich Gulf oil state and the nimble Israeli economy and promote collaboration on matters of medicine and science. The agreement also will provide Israel with its third Arab peace partner, following Egypt and Jordan.
The United States is also a winner, having played an active role in the agreement process. That effort reflects a welcome reemergence of the Trump administration in the region, following multiple signs of withdrawal. We hope the move signals the administration’s desire to resurrect U.S. prominence as an honest broker.
The clear loser is the long-stagnant and remarkably stubborn Palestinian leadership, which condemned the agreement along with Iran and Turkey. Palestinians have reason to be worried, since the agreement defies the long-touted formula that Arab state normalization with Israel would only come in tandem with progress on resolution of Palestinian issues. That clearly has not happened here.
As Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., wrote last week in The Times of Israel, the UAE-Israel agreement proves that “resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near as important as countering the Iranian threat and stimulating Middle East development. It proves that, in order to achieve peace with a powerful Arab state, Israel does not have to uproot a single settlement or withdraw from a meter of land. It opens the way to alternative approaches to addressing the dispute, one that is not dependent on Israelis and Palestinians offering concessions that neither can ever make. And the agreement punishes, rather than rewards, the Palestinians for leaving the table. It will not be surprising if, in the coming weeks, the Palestinian Authority begins to intimate its willingness to return.”
We see a significant opportunity for Palestinians to engage with Israel on movement toward a two-state solution, and to do so with the support and encouragement of much of the world community. To the extent such an effort requires new thinking or leadership on the Palestinian side, it is incumbent on those who are able to step forward, seize the opportunity and help navigate the process. Palestinians need to test and explore Israel’s repeated commitment to resolution, and to do so within the two-state construct that offers the most potential benefits for all parties. Such an effort would require compromise and concessions on both sides — as with any negotiation — and is achievable.
We are optimistic about the future of Israel and its neighbors. Speculation is rampant that possible diplomatic deals are in the works with Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and even Saudi Arabia. The agreement between the UAE and Israel is a valuable reminder that conflict in the Middle East is broader than the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Throughout its 72-year history, the Jewish state has had to deal with many hostile players. Making progress toward peace with one is genuine progress, and we are hopeful it will indeed be a first step in creating a more secure Middle East for all. PJC