Since the agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was announced, Western media and politicians have used different phrases to describe this development including “historic,” “breakthrough,” “strategic realignment,” and “a path to very bright future.” Some senior aides to President Trump suggested that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the deal and even Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, praised the normalization deal.
The well-documented truth is that the two sides have been closely working together for decades and for electoral reasons in Israel and the United States and concerns about regime survival, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) decided to give a public face to their deep and growing cooperation. Each of the three leaders has his own reasons to formalize the Tel Aviv-Abu Dhabi agreement.
The election in the United States is less than three months away and the fact that the U.S. has been among the worst in containing COVID-19 has complicated Trump’s chances for re-election. Furthermore, the President has almost no foreign policy success he can claim. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is fighting charges of corruption and bribes and the coalition he formed with his rival Benny Gantz is on a shaky ground. The initial praise Netanyahu received for containing COVID-19 has evaporated as the country faces a second wave.
MBZ: Political Islam and Iran
Members in the UAE ruling family perceive political Islam and Iran as an existential threat to their regime and country. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, or MBZ, had fiercely opposed the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt (June 2012-July 2013) and has since been the strongest backer of President Al-Sisi. In recent years, MBZ has also extended his fight against political Islam to Yemen, Libya, and other countries. A major drive for the rift between the UAE on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other is their support to regional Islamic political parties and movements.
The UAE leaders have never trusted Iran. They accuse Tehran of occupying three islands (Lesser and Greater Tunbs and Abu Mosa) and have been suspicious of the Islamic Republic’s role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Given the huge disparity between the two adversaries in terms of population and size, the UAE leaders have never been sure on how to deal with Iran. They support Washington’s maximum pressure strategy but occasionally, senior Emirati officials visit Tehran and meet with their Iranian counterparts. The UAE leaders, and other Gulf leaders, are suspicious of U.S. intentions. They accuse Washington of “throwing former Egyptian President Mubarak under the bus” and of negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran behind their back. They see that President Trump is trying to withdraw American troops from Syria and Iraq. Russia, China, and Europe lack the will and capabilities to fill the perceived security vacuum.
Meanwhile, Israel shares similar security perceptions with the UAE and other Gulf states. For decades, the country has been fighting Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and helping Egypt in its campaign against Islamists in Sinai. In addition, since the early 1990s Netanyahu has been the world’s most outspoken leader against Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has been accused of sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities, assassinating nuclear scientists, targeting its troops and allies in both Syria and Iraq and carrying out cyberattacks against the Islamic Republic.
The reaction to the Israel-UAE normalization agreement has been mixed. Bahrain, Oman, and Sudan, among others, were reported to be likely to follow the UAE’s lead but each government will decide the course of action it would like to act based on its leaders’ perception of regional security dynamics. The agreement, however, underscores several trends that should be taken into consideration. First, the Palestinian cause might no longer unite Arabs across the region in the way it used to some time ago, but Israel remains deeply unpopular. Many Muslims and Arabs are opposed to Israeli control over Muslim holy sites. Jerusalem does matter to millions of Muslims around the world.
Second, the agreement broke the consensus among Arab leaders, led by Saudi Arabia that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is the framework to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The API was endorsed by the Arab League and calls for a full normalization in return for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a fair solution to the refugees.
Third, the two agreements Israel had previously signed with Arab countries (Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994) were based on land for peace, meaning Israel agreed to return territories it had occupied in return for normalization with Cairo and Amman. MBZ has offered normalization for free. Netanyahu only agreed on a temporary suspension of the annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Fourth, by bringing Israel officially and openly to Iran’s backyard, the agreement is certain to increase tension in the Persian Gulf. Iranian General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces, warned that the UAE bears the responsibility for any infringement on Iran’s national interest and stressed that Tehran will fundamentally change its approach toward Abu Dhabi.
Fifth, establishing an Arab-Israeli axis against Iran is certain to heighten regional tension. The broad Middle East increasingly looks divided between two major blocs: one includes Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and supported by the United States and the other includes Iran, Turkey, Qatar and supported by Russia and China.
A better approach to promote peace and stability is for all regional powers, in cooperation with international ones, to engage in security dialogue and recognize the legitimate concerns of each other and create a mechanism to facilitate a peaceful diplomatic settlement to the regional conflicts based on mutual respect.
Finally, for many years the rulers of the UAE (and other Arab countries) have been buying Israeli spyware to collect data on dissidents inside and outside their countries. Such practices are not likely to contribute to regime survival and national security. Rather, implementing broad and genuine political reform based on transparency and good governance is certain to improve the legitimacy of governments and consolidate domestic political stability.