Will the diplomatic breakthrough sharpen divisions in the region even further? How will it affect Palestine, Turkey and Iran?
The story so far: On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had reached a peace agreement. He tweeted a joint statement issued by the UAE, Israel and the U.S., and called the deal a “historic breakthrough” in Arab-Israel relations. Many countries, including the European powers and India, have welcomed it, while the Palestinian leadership as well as Turkey and Iran have lashed out at the UAE.
What does the deal say?
According to the joint statement, the UAE and Israel would establish formal diplomatic relations and in exchange, Israel would suspend its plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had earlier vowed to annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Trump administration, as part of the President’s peace plan announced in January, had backed the annexation plan despite international criticism. But now, as part of the agreement, Israel “will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas” of the West Bank and “focus its efforts on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world”. The statement also said delegations from Israel and the UAE would meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding “investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit”.
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How significant is the deal for Arab-Israeli relations?
It’s a landmark agreement given that the UAE is only the third Arab country and the first in the Gulf region to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Arab-Israeli ties have historically been conflict-ridden. Arab countries, including Egypt, Transjordan, Syria and Iraq, fought their first war with Israel in 1948 after the formation of the state of Israel was announced. The war ended with Israel capturing more territories, including West Jerusalem, than what the UN Partition Plan originally proposed for a Jewish state. After that, Israel and Arab states fought three more major wars — the 1956 Suez conflict, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. After the 1967 war in which Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria, Arab countries convened in Khartoum and declared their famous three “‘Nos’ — no peace with Israel, no talks with Israel and no recognition of Israel”. But it did not last long. After the death of Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser, his successor Anwar Sadat started making plans to get Sinai back from Israel. His efforts, coupled with American pressure on Israel, led to the Camp David Accords of 1978. A year later, Israel and Egypt concluded their peace treaty, as part of which Israel withdrew from Sinai in return for Egyptian recognition.
In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. In 1988, after an initial agreement reached between the two countries collapsed, Jordan abandoned its claims to the West Bank and said it would accept a deal between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel. Following the Oslo Accords, under which the PLO recognised Israel and was allowed to form the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, time was ripe for an Israel-Jordan deal. The enmity between the two countries came to an end in July 1994 with the Washington Declaration on the White House lawn by Jordan’s King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin under the watch of U.S. President Bill Clinton. The UAE-Israel agreement comes after 26 years. If more countries in the Gulf follow the UAE’s lead, it would open a new chapter in Arab-Israel ties.
Why did the UAE sign the agreement?
The old enmity between Arab countries and Israel has dissipated. The Sunni Arab kingdoms in the Gulf region such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE had developed backroom contacts with Israel over the past several years. One of the major factors that brought them closer has been their shared antipathy towards Iran. Both these blocs were wary of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Iran outreach. When Mr. Trump became the President, his administration brought these two blocs of West Asia, both American allies, together. In February 2019, the U.S. brokered a security conference in Warsaw to build a global strategy against Iran. The meeting brought leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several other countries. Following this conference, in August 2019, the U.S. arranged secret talks between the UAE and Israel. These meetings laid the foundations for the agreement.
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Arab countries have signalled that they are ready to live with Israel’s occupation of Palestine. What they do not want is a major change in the status quo which would put them under political and diplomatic pressure. Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to annex the West Bank would have drastically changed the status quo, further putting in peril the two-state solution. The UAE-Israel agreement has averted that outcome. It also allows Mr. Netanyahu to label the suspension of the annexation to his right-wing religious allies in the government as a victory. Further, this is an election year in the U.S. If a Democratic President comes to power and restores the Iran deal, both the Israeli and the Arab blocs in West Asia would come under pressure to live with an empowered Iran in what President Obama called “cold peace”. A formal agreement and enhanced security and economic ties make the Arab and Israeli sides better prepared to face such a situation. So there is a convergence of interests for the UAE, Israel and the U.S. to come together in the region.
Where does it leave the Palestinians?
Unlike the past two Arab-Israeli peace agreements, Palestinians do not figure prominently in the current one. When Egypt and Israel made peace, the latter agreed to return the Sinai back to Egypt and signed “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East” agreement, which promised the establishment of an autonomous self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza and called for the full implementation of the UNSC Resolution 242 that demanded Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The Jordanian-Israeli treaty came after Israel agreed to the formation of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza. But in the UAE-Israel deal, Israel has not made any actual concession to the Palestinians. The annexation plan was a threat. The withdrawal of the threat was packaged as a concession, which the Emiratis accepted. That is why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “Who would have ever dreamed there would be a peace agreement with an Arab country without our returning to the 1967 borders?” The Palestinians are understandably upset. They called the UAE’s decision “treason”.
What are the geopolitical implications of the deal?
The agreement could fast-track the changes that are already under way in the region. The Saudi bloc, consisting of Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and others, see their interests being aligned with that of the U.S. and Israel and their support for Palestine, which Arab powers had historically upheld, is dwindling, while Turkey and Iran emerge as the strongest supporters of the Palestinians in the Muslim world. This tripolar contest is already at work in West Asia. The UAE-Israel thaw could sharpen it further.