Israel-UAE deal: a geopolitical reshuffle?

While Netanyahu is capable of grand statesmanship on the global stage, at home his government is as dysfunctional as ever

August 20, 2020 10:23

Israeli diplomats were torn this week between talking up the great potential the new agreement with the United Arab Emirates has unleashed and their desire to claim that they have in fact been active in the UAE, and other parts of the Arabian Gulf, for years. 

This dissonance comes from the fact that the agreement announced last Thursday was achieved by circumventing Israel’s traditional diplomats. 

Some things never change. Bureaucratic infighting delayed the departure to Abu Dhabi of the official delegation to discuss the timetable and details of establishing diplomatic relations, with senior officials from the foreign ministry squabbling with members of the National Security Council over who will be in charge.

But Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, one of the two Israelis who had laid the foundations for the agreement, was already on a private jet to meet senior Emiratis. The professional diplomats had to make do with real estate, house hunting for a building to house the new embassy.

Petty matters perhaps, which should not obscure the major achievement for Israel — its most significant breakthrough to date in the strategically important Gulf. But it is testament to the fact that while prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is capable of grand statesmanship on the global stage, at home his government is as dysfunctional as ever. In the Israeli media, the agreement is already being overshadowed by a political furore over arms deals that the Emiratis will now be making with the United States (see adjoining report). 

Taking a step back, it’s important to realise what has just happened in the Middle East. The joint statement agreed last Thursday in a three-way phone call between Mr Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, was not a peace agreement as Israel and the Emiratis have never been at war. In many ways it was just another stagein a relationship that has been ongoing for at least two decades. 

But in agreeing to bring the hitherto beneath-the-surface ties out in to the open, MBZ, as the Crown Prince is widely known, is trying to assert his growing influence across the region by re-ordering its geopolitics. 

The Emiratis tried to portray the agreement as being in exchange for Israel being prepared to “suspend” its plans to annex part of the West Bank. There is a major element of lip-service in this portrayal. The Palestinians, who have recalled their ambassador from Abu Dhabi in response and accused the Emiratis of abandoning their cause, were certainly not impressed. 

We may never know for sure whether Mr Netanyahu had any real intention of carrying out annexation and the extent to which it was just a convenient excuse for the Emiratis to establish ties with Israel as they intended all along. One thing is certain, however: Mr Netanyahu and MBZ were working on this deal long before the annexation came along. Mossad Chief Cohen’s visit to Abu Dhabi this week is the first to be reported on in real-time but he has been there many times before. And his co-conspirator, Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has also spent years in Washington working on the project, both with allies in the Trump administration and Yousef Al Oitaba, the UAE ambassador there. 

Almost immediately after the deal was announced, PR flacks were on the phone to reporters to tell them how the tech companies they represent are already working in the Gulf. Lobbyists were already thinking about opening offices there in the hope of brokering new deals, and travel agents were planning package deals to Burj Khalifa for Israelis whose summer holidays were denied due to the covid restrictions. But the potential billions in Israeli-Emirati business are only a secondary gain from this deal. 

The UAE is now the third of the 22 members of the Arab League to establish diplomatic relations with Israel (both Lebanon and Mauritania have in the past but broke them off after brief periods), alongside Egypt and Jordan. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense for the West-looking technologically-aspirant federation of Gulf sheikhdoms to be the first Arab country to do so in over two decades. 

Under MBZ, the UAE has been increasingly open in pursuing an independent foreign policy which is bullish against Iranian aggression in the region and unapologetic in working with the Trump administration. 

But the Crown Prince wants to be a leader of more than his own country. He hopes to achieve a geopolitical reshuffle of the region in which like-minded countries will join his club. 

Reactions have been mixed so far. With the exception of the Palestinians, within the Arab world there has been limited criticism from governments. 

But at the same time, it may be wise to cool initial expectations of other countries coming out with similar initiatives. The foreign minister of Oman spoke with his Israeli counterpart on the phone on Sunday but was then suddenly replaced a day later. On Tuesday the spokesperson of the Sudanese foreign ministry, who said that there was no reason for Israel and Sudan not to establish diplomatic relations as well, was swiftly forced to recant and then fired.

And on Wednesday the Saudi foreign minister stiffly said that his country was still committed to the Arab Peace Initiative which conditions relations with Israel on its full retreat from all territories captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem. 

MBZ’s like-minded colleague, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has said in closed meetings with leaders of Jewish-American organisations that he is interested in better ties with Israel but that there is still opposition both in wider Arab public opinion and among the more conservative elements in his own kingdom. 

Change is coming to the Middle East but at its own pace.

August 20, 2020 10:23

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