24 August 2020

The Israel-United Arab Emirates Agreement. The “fair price” paid by each side

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

If it turns out that the Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister did not know which will be the next move of its executive chief, in the same situation being also his political chief – theoretically, Netanyahu’s counterpart, only theoretically – it is clear that it does not come handy for everyone to be familiar, even a few minutes before, with the political plans and moves of the “security man”, Benjamin Netanyahu.And if Benny Gantz (the soundboard prime-minister, not officially though, who, most likely, will not get to ever control the other Benny) or Gaby Ashkenazi (the foreign affairs minister, who will find out, at the proper time, which are the next foreign policy decisions of the country) do not know everything, then there must be someone, maybe the US president, Donald Trump himself, to know what will the Israeli prime-minister do next. Or maybe he does not know either?

Image source: Hepta

The agreement is a surprise. It is also an event?

The announcement made by the Israeli prime-minister, after getting the confirmation from Washington, was unexpected, yet predictable. Committed in a risky bet by assuming the fact that the annexation of a part of the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea of West Bank entered a straight line, meanwhile, in fact, he was in a dead end, the Israeli prime-minister found a solution to get out of the trap, without leaving the impression of giving up something.

This situation was superficially presented by David Friedman, the US ambassador to Jerusalem: the annexation plans are only “suspended” through this agreement, not cancelled. “Now is the time” would be the translation of the US diplomat explanation, in fact, one of the most avid supporters of the Jewish community from Judah and Samaria, the Israeli name of the territory about to be annexed.  But applying the “Israeli sovereignty” on this territory is still not matching the normalization process of the relations Israel has with the Arab world. And that’s it.

Source: Mediafax

The ambassador was even more expressive: “we are putting our eggs into the basket of peace”.

The agreement with the Emirates is just the beginning. Other Arab states come next. No one knows how much the process will last. Only after that, the annexation will get back on the agenda.

Personally, prime-minister Netanyahu got a state man attitude that few of his predecessors have: he signed a peace agreement with a state from the enemy camp. Even if we are not talking about one of the neighbors and if there is not conflict ahead.

On the other hand, the sweetness of this agreement cannot hide the bitterness behind the idea of not accomplishing another promise: extending the borders of the state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea. And those who do not know how this decision tastes are his exact loyal voters.

The announcement, as paradoxical as it would seem, is eliminating the idea of anticipated elections, the fourth consultation in a year. His party, Likud, does not look good in polls, but gets condoled with the fact that his unnatural coalition partner, the Blue and White Coalition, has no optimistic perspectives either. The mediocre management of the second COVID-19 pandemic phase, as well as postponing the annexation of a part of the West Bank means a lot for the public trust of the current prime-minister.

The agreement with the United Arab Emirates does not bring additional votes to Netantahu’s pre-electoral results.

So far, our perspective is that the agreement is important, yet not an event. There is, however, an element that might bring it to this level. Even if only indirectly, the agreement acknowledges the catchphrase “land for peace” which should be the base of creating two states on the territory between the Mediterranean and Dead Sea.

Giving up the annexation means giving up the land in the exchange of a peace agreement signed with a state that’s 2000 km away. It is a consequence and a reality mostly felt by the supporters of Netanyahu, who are reproaching him: “you promised us annexation, yet you provided us direct flights to Abu Dhabi”.

Why now? Why the United Arab Emirates?

The Gulf state has been for years in talks with the Israeli business circles. And when doing businesses one also gets to political and security matters. The fact that on the emirates’ territory there is also a 3000 people Jewish community, enough if we are thinking about the regional context, is also contributing to that. And if we also mention that this community is new, recently added to the map, which means that the local environment is positive for such a presence, there is not that much left to prove.  

Since 2015, Israel was officially represented in Abu Dhabi, as member of the International Renewable Energy Agency/IRENA, which allowed many official Israeli visits in a country they had no diplomatic relations with.

The United Arab Emirates have similar position with Israel in terms of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter is the founder of Hamas, the main Palestinian group in Gaza Strip. Therefore, the position on this organization are, some might say, close in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

One of the most interesting fields there was collaboration between these two countries in is the cyber defense. It is quite special as digital cooperation involves a high level of trust and these things were taking place between two states which did not go through the first phase of a relation: the mutual diplomatic recognition. Top companies, DarkMatter and NSO Group, the first from the Emirates and the latter being Israeli collaborated for extremely sensitive files. It is actually normal, as both companies have among their employees’ former members of the 8200 Unit, a structure of the Israeli army specially trained to monitor the Arab and Palestinian terrorists.

This is an expertise that would work in the Gulf as well, possibly extended to include the Islamists, dissidents, possibly some local leaders as well.

Media sources, among the most documented in the region, are stating that there was also an indirect military cooperation, as Israeli reservists were hired by Emirate security companies and offered assistance in places like Yemen or Libya. Such a commitment cannot be materialized, however, without the agreement of the Israeli security structures, which involves that where these worked, the “former” Israelis continued to promote the interests of the Jewish state. As these operations were involving also the accomplishment of some of Emirates’ national objectives, one might say that there was, for a long time, a common approach in some regional problems, some of them extremely hot.

Is the Arab front broken?

Presenting the agreement in front of the media, Jared Kushner, president’s son-in-law, but also the coordinator of the negotiations for the other agreement/peace plan, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, has stated: “There is a good chance that another country could make a deal with Israel in the coming days”.

These statements were followed by speculations, ideas and analyses based on previous cooperation, similar to the United Arab Emirates. At this point, among the candidates for such a decision are Bahrain (which hosted the “economic” reunion of the negotiations for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, proposed by the Trump Administration) or Oman (a state visited two years ago by prime-minister Netanyahu, a first lacking the same diplomatic relations).

A few days after presenting the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Mauritania, a member of the Arab League, praised,  through a press release of the foreign ministry, the “wisdom and well-judgment” of the Emirates’ leadership, stating also that “Abu Dhabi has the sovereign right and complete independency to make such a decision which supports its national interests”. So, it is not actually against…

Sudan is not out of the discussion either, as an agreement to "normalize" relations could be signed just before the end of this year. But the surprise could come even from a close neighbor - although this option is hard to believe and much harder to achieve - the Lebanese president leaving the door open for a possible peace agreement with his southern neighbor, with whom Lebanon is still, technically, at war. Asked if Lebanon was ready to make peace with Israel, he replied: "It depends. We have problems with Israel, we must first solve them".

But that is negotiations’ purpose, to solve problems and conflicts. Or, as President Trump says, "Things that I can't talk about are happening ".

Nothing to very little about the Palestinians

Although the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is about them - especially about them, if we look at the political statements justifying the conclusion of the document - the Palestinians remain with denials and platonic support from the few states that still support their cause. The annexation of 30% of the West Bank, stopped by this agreement, according to Emirati officials, is already on standby thanks to the US interventions and the moderate wing of the Israeli governing coalition, led by Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. Not out of pro-Palestinian sympathies, but out of a pragmatic estimation on the consequences of this act, in the current regional situation.

Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said the agreement would help Palestinians gain statehood. Palestinians do not seem to agree with this good by force, especially the leaders of Gaza. But even in Ramallah, things are not seen differently: “Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!” wrote on twitter Hanan Ashrawi, one of the leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Palestinian ambassador in Abu Dhabi, retired, is a first collateral loss of good intentions.

“The fair price” paid by each side

Nothing comes for free in this world. Nor for the Jewish and or for the Arabs. Within the next three weeks, delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet to develop and sign agreements in various areas, most likely on investment, tourism, direct airlines, security, diplomatic missions. According to the text of the framework agreement, the Emirates will also join the US project "Strategic Agenda for the Middle East", which will also involve preferential relations between the US and the Emirates.

The "Abraham" agreement, named after the joint patriarch of the three monotheistic religions - Christianity, Islam, Judaism - is already being challenged and much appreciated, but the signatories, who will attend the White House ceremony, hope dividends to be higher than the political price paid by accepting it. Of course, peace comes first in the list of achievements. "Blessed are the peacemakers", said a statement signed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and sent immediately after the announcement of the agreement. The press release also refers to the economic cooperation between two of the most advanced economies in the region.

In detail, we can say that the idea of this document lies mainly in the economic openness that it allows and expands. In July, Israeli and UAE companies signed contracts for cooperation in the artificial intelligence field. Openness to Israel is, in fact, to the United States, and Israeli lobbying firms in Washington could promote US transfers of military technology hitherto inaccessible to Abu Dhabi. There is also talk of Emirati investments in the United States, such as the restoration of the port infrastructure of the city of New Orleans, still suffering the consequences of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, the initial proposal was made, the Emirates did not have a good image among local US politicians. The agreement could change that. Israel could open doors for the Emirates and access to classified information on, in particular, Iran.

Of course, the agreement is about peace and about supporting, with or without their will, the Palestinians. But the listed side benefits will not hurt either.

This will be an interesting autumn. In the Holy Land, but also in the Land of All Possibilities

The White House will hold the official signing ceremony of the agreement, with the unconfirmed participation of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince and informal leader of the United Arab Emirates. US President Donald Trump will be able to present himself as a promoter of peace in the Middle East. If in the meantime another Arab capital will make a similar gesture, it is all the better. A president who can, at the same time, bring the American military home, but also maintain peace where he withdraws them from, can look forward to the November elections.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably also consider the election on his first foreign visit since the onset of the medical crisis. At the elections, which it is not very clear if it will make sense to convene in advance, for the fourth time after April 19, 2019. Polls do not look good, and the conclusion of the agreement removed some of the most avid supporters, and the crisis management in the second phase of the epidemic proved to be a catastrophe. With his eyes on the percentages in the polls, the prime minister will estimate if the time has come.

It was not the moment of the promise annexation, but it might be the moment of election to get rid of this forces partnership with the generals’ alliance. The end of August will prove us if the agreement with the United Arab Emirates helps him decide something to help both the Potomac and West Bank’s coasts.

Translated by Andreea Soare