President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participate in an expanded bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
One month after the UAE-Israel deal, there’s little sign of buy-in from other Arab states

A month after President Trump announced on August 13 that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to normalize relations, officials from the two states will participate in a signing ceremony for the so-called “Abraham Accord” at the White House on September 15.

Almost exactly 27 years to the day since then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the first Oslo Accord and shook hands as President Clinton looked on, supporters of the UAE-Israel deal have branded their own accord as a “historic breakthrough,” yet it appears anything but a peace agreement with any settlement of Israeli-Palestinian issues. Moreover, the fact that no other Arab states have (yet) followed the UAE in announcing moves toward normalizing relations with Israel has run contrary to White House expectations and left the UAE out on a regional limb.

Analysis of the Abraham Accord remains difficult because the full text does not appear to have been made public and, in the immediate aftermath of the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan made conflicting statements about whether Israeli annexation in the West Bank had been stopped altogether or only suspended temporarily.

Such differences may be mere semantics that reflect the careful choosing of words by officials with domestic Israeli and Emirati audiences in mind, or they may be a harbinger of deeper splits to come if the detail and obligations on each of the parties has not been pinned down with specificity.

Multiple leaks to media outlets about whether or not Netanyahu has consented to the Emirati acquisition of American-made F-35 jets and other advanced weaponry that might erode Israel’s qualitative military edge suggest that there may exist differences of opinion in what each side believes was promised. The leaks also raise questions about the extent to which the self-proclaimed “peace deal” was in fact a dressed-up arms sale.

Senior figures in the Trump administration embarked on a hard sell of the agreement in tours to regional capitals that aimed to persuade other states in the Arab world to follow the UAE’s lead. However, neither Secretary of State Mike Pompeo nor presidential adviser and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner succeeded, as leader after leader after leader restated their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia’s then Crown Prince (later King) Abdullah, which based Arab normalization with Israel on Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied since 1967.

Pompeo identified Sudan, Bahrain, and Oman as potential candidates for additional normalization agreements, but initial hopes failed to translate into reality, leaving the UAE alone as no other regional state chose to follow.   

Such responses may in part reflect viewpoints in Arab capitals, especially in the Gulf, that there is little need to formalize and bring into the open the pragmatic working relationships that have been established on an unofficial basis with Israel in recent years. Doing so could trigger domestic backlash if governments run too far ahead of public opinion resistant to normalization, as evidenced by the negative reactions from political societies, public commentators, and civil society groups across the Gulf to the UAE-Israel deal.

A lack of other states lining up to follow the UAE may also reflect a calculation that the Abraham Accord is neither about peace nor about the Palestinians but is instead an agreement made for purely national and bilateral interests, especially in regard to the UAE and its political positioning in Washington, DC ahead of the November 3 presidential and congressional elections.

By coincidence of timing, the UAE-Israel signing ceremony at the White House takes place a day after a Qatari delegation visits Washington for the third instalment of an annual U.S.-Qatar strategic dialogue. This began in 2018, shortly after Qatar was placed under blockade by four neighboring and regional states, including the UAE, and the September 14 iteration will focus on issues that range from trade and investment to regional security and defense cooperation.

While the continuing animosity that has blocked U.S. attempts to resolve the issues and end the blockade means the Qatari and Emirati visits will be kept separate. The irony is that whereas the emphasis on the UAE visit will be on the “peace” agreement, it is in fact the Qataris who are engaged in actual peace-related activity in the Israeli-Palestinian arena that has produced tangible results.

Within days of the Abraham Accord, on August 24 a delegation of senior Israeli defense and security officials, led by the head of the Southern Command of the Israeli Defense Force, Major-General Herzl Halevi, visited Doha to request that Qatar continue to provide financial and humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip. Over the past two years, the Israeli leadership has come to value the Qatari support, which enables the payment of civil service salaries and the provision of aid to thousands of families, and Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, made a point of thanking Mohammed al-Emadi, the Chairman of Qatar’s National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza, for his “intensive efforts to stop the escalation and to calm the situation” in Gaza.

As on so many other issues in recent years, the UAE and Qatar have managed to craft approaches to the peace process that are virtually diametrically opposite from one another, and analysis of the contrasting paths has itself become part of the polarization of narratives in and about the region.

The bilateral agreement between Israel and the UAE may eventually generate momentum that shifts the regional calculus and makes an “outside-in” approach to the peace process a viable way forward. Until that point is reached, however, the “Qatari way” of engaging pragmatically with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership on specific issues relating directly to the occupation may yield more obvious outcomes on the ground.

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