Examining Israel-U.A.E. Peace

The following is an adaptation of my talk on Sept. 1 at a Zoom session of the NYC Political Forum, a “Meetup” group.  Some of what I’ve learned came from Dr. Nimrod Novik in an Israel Policy Forum webinar.  I began by thanking the organizer for providing some helpful news links:

. . . The link that I found most interesting was from Al Jazeera, which was a fairly comprehensive survey of international reactions including much of the Arab world, several countries in Europe, in Israel, the US and even among American Jews.  My basic reaction is in line with those of J Street, the left/liberal Jewish activist group and lobby that supports a two-state peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and from the Biden campaign; both welcomed the agreement, and especially the part in which Israel has agreed to temporarily set aside any imminent plan to unilaterally annex territory within the West Bank, and both hope that this temporary brake on such a move would become permanent. 

This seems like a done deal with the only possible fly in the ointment being if the Emiratis insist upon a public commitment by Israel not to annex parts of the West Bank for a given length of time.  This could cause a political dilemma for Netanyahu who has recently run on a platform plank that pledges to annex the Jordan Valley and/or other West Bank territory.  But Netanyahu would likely have no problem making such a commitment in a secret side letter.  Interestingly, since the Trump administration wants this deal to go through — at the very least to tout as an achievement that helps their reelection effort — they seem to be restraining Israel from any rapid move toward annexation.

I know a lot more about Israel than the United Arab Emirates, but I’ve learned that the Emirates has about 10 million in population, with fewer than 2 million being citizens.  Most are people from South Asia (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) and other places who came there to work.  Israel has about 9 million citizens, of whom 75-80% are Jews, and most of the others are Arabs.  In addition, there are about 5 million Palestinian Arabs who live under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but are severely restricted by Israel’s military occupation and by the presence on the West Bank of nearly 500,000 Jews whom we know as “settlers” (these include families who have lived there for three generations). 

There obviously was a Trump administration role encouraging the deal, but relations between Israel, the UAE and other Gulf states have been an open secret for quite some time — so Trump, Kushner and Pompeo may not have had to work very hard. Both the US and the UAE want to facilitate a sale of top of the line F-35 fighter planes to the UAE; a formal treaty with Israel would likely help that happen by softening Israel’s opposition and that of Israel’s supporters in the US. 

Israel’s been quietly engaged with Arab Gulf countries for years, even including a visit to Oman by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2018. The new regime in Sudan has publicly hinted at making peace with Israel; their main incentive is to get off of the US and Western list of terror-supporting regimes. Rumor has it that Bahrain and Oman (and possibly even Morocco in North Africa) may follow suit in short order. Saudi Arabia is said to be looking on approvingly, but it is not yet ready to risk the wrath of its ultra-conservative Muslim clergy to take the plunge.

Winners & Losers:

The Gulf states would strengthen their alliance with Israel to counter the aggressive policies of Iran, making more overt the covert alliance that already exists. Taken as a whole, most Arabs in the region hate this deal — including most people in Egypt and Jordan, which have long standing peace treaties but remain largely hostile toward Israel; still, their governments have indicated support of this agreement, mostly because of its halt to any immediate annexations in the West Bank, which is a major component of the deal.  

In its immediate aftermath, it may make Palestinians less likely to return to negotiations out of their anger over what they see as betrayal by the UAE.  And it weakens the Palestinian bargaining position because it begins to remove a bargaining chip they had, which is the belief (no longer evident) that Israel needs a peace agreement with the Palestinians to further normalize relations with the Arab world.

The peace camp in Israel is weakened for the same reason that Israel will be obtaining normalized relations with an additional Arab country and possibly more, despite not having achieved a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. And Netanyahu undercuts his frenemies in the Blue and White party, formerly Netanyahu’s main moderate opposition, because Blue and White entered into Netanyahu’s mostly rightwing coalition partially to block any imminent annexation of West Bank Palestinian territory as Netanyahu had promised his voters; now this rationale or excuse for Blue and White being in Netanyahu’s government has been undercut.  Paradoxically, this also weakens Netanyahu with far-right voters and parties, who favor immediate annexation.

This new Blue and White party didn’t exist until 2019, when Israel’s recent spate of three consecutive elections began; and Israel’s just narrowly averted a possible fourth election in November.  Blue and White emerged as Israel’s second largest party, but its leader’s sudden decision to join Netanyahu’s government immediately caused it to split in half.

Israel’s almost unique system of proportional representation makes it virtually impossible for any one party to win an election with the majority of seats in parliament, so it requires coalitions of several parties or blocs of parties to form a government.  Governments have to be coalitions, so placating relatively small minority interests — such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, or nationalistic settlers — becomes very important.  And this system also makes for the sudden emergence of new parties, which has been happening with dizzying frequency.  

Further dynamics of Israeli politics, mostly relating to the bloc of Arab parties in Israel:

In the past few years, a major political force has emerged among Arab citizens of Israel, a bloc of four parties called the Joint List, which is now the third largest party in Israel’s parliament. Most Arab voters now support this bloc and a small but growing minority of Jews on the left vote for the Joint List as well.  Currently, one of its 15 members of parliament is a Jewish-Israeli leftist.  There is some sentiment for the one remaining leftwing party with some viability, Meretz, which is mostly Jewish but also has some Arab support, to possibly join the Joint List in a future election.  

The political and cultural divide between most Israeli Jews and most of its Arab citizens is far more severe than it was in the 1990s, when Rabin and Barak owed their terms in office as prime ministers to the pivotal support of Israeli Arabs.  If all of Israel’s many opposition parties in the last election had agreed, a tiny majority of the parliament (61 of 120 seats) could have formed a new government without Netanyahu as prime minister; traditionally, there is resistance among both Arab and Jewish politicians to this degree of cooperation, but in this case, most of the Jewish party leaders didn’t want to go there.  This would not have been a stable coalition, with so many parties and a government that could have fallen with the defection of one or two members of the Knesset; but it might have remained in power long enough to make sure that Netanyahu finally goes to trial on the three major corruption charges that he’s been indicted for, without the temporary immunity that he’s negotiated for himself.  In my opinion, this should have been their agenda, and from that, maybe Arabs and Jews in Israel could have learned that they could trust each other better in their common country.  

Asked to compare the new peace deal with Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, I’ll conclude with this: The Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties, 1979 and 1994 respectively, formally ended their state of war with Israel.  Both involved Israel ceding territory.  In the case of Egypt, Israel withdrew from the entire Sinai Peninsula captured during the Six-Day War of June 1967; Egypt refused to take back the Gaza Strip which Egypt had held under military occupation since 1948 when it invaded the former Palestinian Mandate territory in an unsuccessful effort to destroy Israel at its birth (Israel had held the Sinai and Gaza Strip briefly during the 1956 Sinai war and Suez Crisis, returning these territories to Egypt in 1957, but without a peace treaty at that time).  The treaty with Jordan included a minor adjustment of the border along the Jordan River.    

By contrast, the UAE has never been at war with Israel, and is nowhere near Israel’s borders; the two countries are 1270 miles apart as the crow flies, with transport by a land route adding another 300 miles.  Even though there hasn’t yet been a ratified peace treaty, commercial air links are being initiated, and the UAE has formally ended its participation in the official Arab League economic boycott of Israel — which they increasingly hadn’t been observing anyway.  Emirati and Israeli business people have visited each other, some even speak the other’s language.  They are chomping at the bit for ties to be fully normalized.  

By contrast, Egypt and Jordan have what is known as a “cold peace” with Israel, with few commercial and personal ties.  But Egypt in particular, values a close relationship with Israel’s military, because both share common threats from ISIS and other Islamist extremists.  Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement; we should remember that when the Egyptian military overthrew Pres. Mohammad Morsi in 2013, they were overthrowing a government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.  I’ve heard [from Dr. Novik] that Egyptian intellectuals are beginning to warm up to Israel in recognition of the fact that both are battling branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ISIS.