Q&A primer on the Israel-UAE normalisation agreement


What happened?

In a surprise announcement yesterday, Israel and the UAE agreed to full normalisation of relations with each other. The statement between US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed said: “This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region.” It added that Israel and the UAE will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements in investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.

Why now?

According to a report in Axios, talks had been ongoing for more than a year, but they gained new urgency ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s July 1 date to move ahead on plans to applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. In June, UAE ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, approached US special envoy Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz with a proposal: the UAE would agree to normalisation with Israel in return for an Israeli announcement that West Bank annexation was off the table. Netanyahu decided to take the offer after his coalition partners, Blue and White, and the Trump administration put the brakes on annexation.

Since 2010 Israeli-Emirati ties have covertly developed in business and trade, particularly in irrigation technologies, medical supplies and the diamond industry. For Israel, such trade deals are viewed as the vanguard of its “soft-power” diplomacy that promises not just financial return for Israeli businesses, but a wider security dividend too. In contrast to other Gulf states, Israeli-UAE ties have also grown due to ideological alignment. Both countries share concerns over the threat of Iranian hegemony and the rise of Islamism in the region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional offshoots, like Hamas.

What has been the reaction inside Israel?

The agreement was welcomed by the majority of Israelis across the political spectrum.

Prime Minister Netanyahu described the agreement as “the greatest advancement toward peace between Israel and the Arab world in the last 26 years”. He added that there had been no change in his plan to impose Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank in full coordination with the US, but that US President Donald Trump had asked him to wait for a time with its implementation.

Blue and White leader and Defence Minister Benny Gantz said: “This agreement demonstrates the alliance between countries in the region who are interested in prosperity and regional stability, and it stresses Israel’s eternal ambition for peace with its neighbours”.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid called it “an important step toward normalisation of relations with the United Arab Emirates. This step is proof that negotiations and agreements, not unilateral steps like annexation, which would harm Israel’s security, are the way forward for our diplomatic relations”.

Labour Party leader Amir Peretz said the agreement represents “the path of political negotiations for a comprehensive peace agreement that will lead to a comprehensive peace accord, which will bring about economic and political prosperity — and, of course, preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

However, Netanyahu has come under criticism from many of the settlers and their supporters in the Israeli right-wing by sacrificing annexation for normalisation. In a move likely to capture voters from the extreme parts of the Israeli Right, Yamina leader Bennett said: “It’s unfortunate that Netanyahu has squandered the chance to extend sovereignty [to] the Jordan Valley, Ma’ale Adumim, Beit El and the rest of the settlements.”

Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan said: “Netanyahu was elected three times last year on a platform of sovereignty. That’s the only thing he had against the left’s case that his [legal] situation rendered him unfit. If Netanyahu sells out Judea and Samaria, he’ll be cutting off the political branch he sits on and his government’s future. I call on the prime minister and plead with him to clarify in his own voice that this isn’t true, that it’s spin and that he isn’t conceding sovereignty, because the Israeli public elected him for that. There’s a limit to cynicism. With all due respect for Jared Kushner’s intrigues in Washington, our prime minister is Netanyahu. Nothing will threaten the prime minister’s government more than turning [the pledge to apply] sovereignty into the fraud of the century.”

The Sovereignty Movement of settler activists also condemned Netanyahu for choosing peace with the UAE over annexation of West Bank lands. “The Prime Minister has turned to the Left – perhaps due to his legal troubles. Under his leadership the Land of Israel has become a currency for trade,” it says. It further called for him to be pushed out of office and replaced with someone who strongly supports settlements.

What is the reaction from around the world?

Palestinian Authority (PA): Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki announced that the PA would immediately recall its representatives to the UAE because of the agreement with Israel.

Hamas: “The declaration of normalisation between Israel and the UAE is a free reward for the occupation for its crimes and violations against the Palestinian people. The normalisation is a stabbing in the back of our people.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “The UAE and Israel’s decision to normalise relations is hugely good news. It was my profound hope that annexation did not go ahead in the West Bank and today’s agreement to suspend those plans is a welcome step on the road to a more peaceful Middle East.”

Presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden: “Today, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have taken a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East. The UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship. And it is a critical recognition that Israel is a vibrant, integral part of the Middle East that is here to stay. Israel can and will be a valued strategic and economic partner to all who welcome it … a Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress, and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry: “History and the conscience of the region’s peoples will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behaviour of the UAE, betraying the Palestinian cause for the sake of its narrow interests. It is extremely worrying that the UAE should, with a unilateral action, try and do away with the (2002) Arab Peace Plan developed by the Arab League. It is not in the slightest credible that this three-way declaration should be presented as supporting the Palestinian cause.” Turkey’s President also announced that he is considering suspending diplomatic ties with the UAE.

Bahrain: “The Kingdom of Bahrain expressed its sincere congratulations to the AUE and its wise leadership for announcing with the US and Israel an agreement halting the annexation of the Palestinian territories, as a step toward the achievement of peace in the Middle East. It commended the sincere diplomatic efforts made by the UAE and stress that this historic step will contribute to the consolidation of stability and peace in the region. It hails, at the same time, the great efforts made by the US to read this deal, in continuation of US efforts to strengthen the foundations of world security, stability and peace, and looks forward to more efforts to reach a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi: “The region is at a crossroads … continued occupation and denial of the Palestinian peoples’ legitimate rights won’t bring peace or security.”

Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi: “I followed with interest and appreciation the joint statement between the United States, United Arab Emirates and Israel to halt the Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands and taking steps to bring peace in the Middle East.”

Iran’s Foreign Ministry: “The shameful measure of Abu Dhabi to reach an agreement with the fake Zionist regime (Israel) is a dangerous move and the UAE and other states that backed it will be responsible for its consequences. This is stabbing the Palestinians in the back and will strengthen the regional unity against the Zionist regime.”

French Foreign Minister: “France welcomes the announcement of a normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which are for it two essential partners in the region. The decision taken in this context by the Israeli authorities to suspend the annexation of Palestinian territories is a positive step, which must become a definitive measure. The new state of mind evidenced by these announcements should now allow the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with a view to establishing two States within the framework of international law and agreed parameters, which is the only option to allow a just and lasting peace in the region.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: “The secretary-general welcomes this agreement, hoping it will create an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in meaningful negotiations that will realise a two state-solution in line with relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements. The secretary-general will continue to work with all sides to open further possibilities for dialogue, peace and stability.”

What do the Israeli commentators think?  

Yedioth Ahronot’s Nahum Barnea writes that Netanyahu deserves credit for the historic agreement with the UAE, but warns that the Israeli Right will have to recalculate its course, “just as it was forced to recalculate after the peace agreement with Egypt”. He says the anger of the settler leaders in the West Bank is understandable as “not only did Netanyahu break an election promise — breaking election promises is routine, predictable, sometimes mandated by reality — but he veritably took the food out of their mouths. Just a few weeks ago, they were quarrelling over the question of how much and where to annex. Now they feel like suckers. Netanyahu duped them and they duped their voters. Soon they will start demonstrating on Balfour Street.”

Ben Caspit in Ma’ariv echoes Barnea’s warnings for Netanyahu. Whilst Caspit says Bibi has gained a few points with the center-left, he lost many more points with his base of right-wing voters. The reason is simple, Caspit writes: “they’ve all realised that the promise of annexation has expired. The dream has vanished. No sovereignty, no nothing. The parties, the popped champagne, the pompous declarations from that evening at the White House — they were all empty words. Instead, we got a vague declaration from the UAE about contacts that in a few weeks will develop into a ‘road map’ that will lead to normalisation.”

Writing in Israel Hayom, Boaz Bismuth attempts to downplay the anger in the Israeli Right over sacrificing annexation for normalisation with the UAE, writing that that applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and establishing our eastern border is just as important as raising the Israeli flag in Abu Dhabi. Instead, Bismuth says the blame should be directed at the Blue and White party, which “played a role in delaying the plan after completely flummoxing the Americans, who believed there was a consensus in Israel surrounding their initiative. Yes, if Gantz and Ashkenazi had adopted the historic initiative without reservation, perhaps we would be in a completely different and positive situation right now. First sovereignty, then the Emirates.”

Yossi Verter in Ha’aretz assess whether the agreement will impact Israel’s political scene and avert the slide toward fourth elections. “If, in another election, the disappointed right wing votes for Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party or stays home, the outcome would be critical for Netanyahu. His haters on the centre-left won’t vote for him in any case. At best, his political situation won’t change. At worst, for him, the next poll will indicate another rise in Yamina’s power at the diminishing Likud’s expense.”

Yedioth Ahronot’s Ben-Dror Yemini says the agreement with the UAE highlights the question: “Is it possible to reach peace with the Arab world without resolving the Palestinian issue, based on the formula of ‘peace in exchange for peace?’ He answers in the affirmative, by saying the central theory of the Israeli Left (and advanced by former US Secretary of State John Kerry), “If you don’t make peace with the Palestinians, Israel will become an isolated country,” is on the verge of collapse with the normalisation agreement. As for the peace process itself, Yemini concludes: “The isolation theory did not advance peace. It distanced it. The threats of isolation strengthened Palestinian rejectionism. They believed that the entire Arab Middle East revolved around them. That works well on American university campuses, where the Palestinians are the diamond in the intersectionality crown. It’s not that we should make light of what happens there. But in real life — the Arab world cast them off. Stop with the rejectionism, the Saudi ambassador to Washington told them back in early 2001, when he pressured them to accept the Clinton plan. It didn’t help.”

Anshel Pfeffer writes in Ha’aretz that that Netanyahu has achieved something that his predecessors, who were prepared to make major concessions to the Palestinians, only dreamed of – and he paid nothing for it beyond what he called the “temporary suspension” of the annexation he was never going to carry out anyway. He argues that the biggest losers in the agreement are the Palestinians. “Neither the Arab world nor the international community has much time or appetite right now and for the foreseeable future for exerting any serious pressure on Israel … An entire new case for peace with the Palestinians must now be assembled.”

Will other Arab countries follow the UAE?

US special envoy Jared Kushner said the administration had been in talks with other Arab states to normalize ties with Israel, too. He suggested that more announcements will come over the next few months

Senior Israeli officials reportedly said that they are in advanced talks with Bahrain about normalising ties with the Gulf state. A senior American official told Palestinian media that Bahrain and Oman are expected to normalise ties with Israel in the near future.