There is nothing to condemn in the partnership that suddenly erupted between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. But there are plenty of behind-the-scenes angles and ramifications worth examining: an anti-Iran alliance, an arms sale, and a political boost for both President Donald Trump and Israel’s scandal-plagued Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For us Americans, what matters most is that Trump has been able to take credit, and as a TV-image maestro he scheduled a “peace treaty” signing at the White House for Tuesday. Although foreign policy rarely decides the results of U.S. elections, the contest between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden could be so close that every televised display of prestige carries weight.
Until last month, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was nurturing his Middle East peace plan on life support. He calls it a “vision” for Israel and the Palestinians, but it has seemed more like a mirage. Palestinians complain that the plan is humiliating and refused to enter negotiations.
Kushner and his team, traveling almost nonstop to capitals in the Persian Gulf amid the coronavirus pandemic, urged kings, crown princes, and sheikhs to turn their backs on the Palestinians — and instead to embrace the United States and its best friend in the Middle East, Israel, thus building the strongest imaginable bulwark against Iran.
Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, Arab countries refused to recognize it, with the history-shattering exceptions of Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The general opinion, heard in palaces and in the street markets, was that the Jews were a foreign splinter irritating a mostly Muslim region. Yet Israel, thanks to military might and high-tech prowess, has convinced everyone (with the apparent exception of Iran’s leaders) that it is here to stay.
With nearly all the Sunni Muslim leaders on the southwestern side of the Gulf seeing Shiite Iran as a danger just across those strategic waters, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE forged secret contacts and cooperation with Israel. President Trump and Kushner pressed them to move from covert to overt.
Serious thinkers in the U.S. government reasonably believe that signed agreements and diplomatic relations create a much more enduring framework for confronting Iran. That is in America’s interest, and a signing ceremony is good for Trump. His supporters say that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, especially considering that President Barack Obama won it for far less in 2009.
Trump himself shows no sign of familiarity with the details of the strategy, but the overall contours appeal to him. He even jumped at the opportunity this month to host the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo, who icily signed an economic accord and pleased Trump by adding a pledge to open embassies in Jerusalem.
Trump is unabashedly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian, and he boasts that Christian Evangelicals love him for it. He has mentioned being puzzled that fewer Jews seem to appreciate him.
He certainly saw a profitable possibility to export American weaponry. Trump wants to sell F-35 Stealth combat jets to the UAE, as an apparent reward for publicly opening to Israel. Netanyahu claims he is opposed to that sale, but basking in a peace-signing ceremony sure to help his own ailing political fortunes, the Israeli leader is likely to back down from any clash with his friend Donald.
Foreign Policy Victory
Senior UAE official Hend al-Otaiba also issued a statement confirming Bin Zayed’s attendance, adding that the ceremony “will be a momentous occasion in the histories of our two countries and the region.”Sheilh Abdullah bin Zayad, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs (British Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
Numerous Arab diplomats, including from countries that don’t have formal ties with Israel, are expected to attend the ceremony, in a bid to show that the agreement enjoys widespread support, the Walla news site reported.
The ceremony will come just a month after the agreement to establish full diplomatic relations was announced on August 13. The deal delivered a key foreign policy victory to US President Donald Trump as he seeks reelection, and reflected a changing Middle East in which shared concerns about archenemy Iran have largely overtaken traditional Arab support for the Palestinians.
According to Walla, Israel and the US are still working toward a diplomatic breakthrough with another Arab state before the signing ceremony, though it is unclear if this will be possible.
The larger strategy
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincey Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera the deal and possible advanced weapons sales could further threaten regional stability, but not in Iran, and it remains unclear how enthusiastic UAE leadership can be, domestically.
“On the one hand, they want it, but … it doesn’t scream confidence when [Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan] isn’t going to show up to the signing ceremony in the US,” Parsi commented.
But normalisation could lead to an “emboldened” UAE in Yemen in Libya, he continued.
Parsi pointed to Saudi Arabia, which he claimed has achieved tacit approval for “reckless” military actions in Yemen by purchasing US weapons.
“They are operating under the impression they have the protection of the US… To this day, even when Congress has voted twice to stop the war in Yemen, the president has vetoed it twice.”
While the UAE has reduced actions in Yemen, it is still active there and concerns remain about military actions in Libya, Parsi warned.
Alterman, for his part, said normalisation was not a “get out of jail free card” for the UAE.
The upcoming election could shift US strategy towards the Gulf as a broader conversation about how much effort the US should spend on the region continues, which weighs on individual Gulf states, Alterman said.
“Ultimately, the US has a larger regional strategy that is [more important] than any of its individual relationships with individual” states, Alterman said, and “every country needs to figure out how it needs to shape its relationship” within said US strategy.
Normalisation “represents a beginning of the UAE’s answer” to that question, Alterman concluded.
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