Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 14, 2020
The multiple moving cogs of the Israel – UAE normalization agreement  On August 13, US President Donald Trump announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were going to normalize relations between them, a significant moment for the decades old crisis between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. UAE, of course, is not the first one to do so, with both Egypt and Jordan also developing official relations with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively. Both, Israel and the UAE have had back channels of cooperation, debate and political discussions active for years now. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit in 2018 to Oman, brokered by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, offered a glimpse of an increasingly fast rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. More recently, on the sidelines of the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel earlier in June had announced a partnership with the UAE to work together on a Covid-19 vaccine, with Abu Dhabi at that time throwing cold water on that public statement, as Netanyahu pushed for the annexation of the West Bank and Israel tethered around another general election. However, now it is in the open on what was brewing in the kitchen. While the official movement towards a rapprochement between UAE and Israel is most welcomed within the fraught politics of the Middle East, the timing of this announcement should be taken into consideration. The US elections, slated for November this year, are going to be a decisive, and divisive practice. In the Gulf monarchies, and in Israel, Trump has been a boon, with his hardline approach towards Iran being the single-largest support factor behind his popularity amongst the capitals in the region. This thought process in the White House enabled the Arab world and Israel to build stronger, and more public bridges, with the aim of containing Iran being the pilot. While many credit Trump and the anti-Iran push, it is important to remember that the designs of the Gulf – Israel rapprochement started to take shape during the administration of President Barack Obama, nudged through even more proactively due to the Arab Spring movements that engulfed the region from 2010 onwards. This was also when Israel – UAE ties were at a low, as Israel had assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, co-founder of the military wing of Hamas, in a hotel room in Dubai. While the official movement towards a rapprochement between UAE and Israel is most welcomed within the fraught politics of the Middle East, the timing of this announcement should be taken into consideration However, many questions still remain on the larger designs of this deal from a regional perspective. It is no secret that the UAE and its leader, Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), have risen to become the most influential state, economy and leadership in the region, arguably even eclipsing the traditional powers of Saudi Arabia, home of the Two Holy Mosques, and its ruler in waiting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). MbZ’s outreach to Israel is not a zero-sum game, and unlike others, the UAE maintains a direct and open channel with Iran as well. This is a similar diplomacy design to another Arab state, Oman, as mentioned earlier, playing a neutral role in the region’s geo-politics. Earlier in June, the UAE sent multiple flights of aid materials to Iran to help the seat of Shia Islam fight the Covid-19 virus. On August 2, the foreign ministers of both the UAE and Iran held talks via videoconferencing on fighting the global pandemic. While this was the front argument, there is no doubt more substantial issues relating to regional political stresses were also tabled, perhaps even the upcoming UAE – Israel deal. While Iran may well be the nucleus argument on Israel and the UAE bringing out their relations in full public view, there are other factors that should be highlighted as well. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) itself is fractured, and Qatar, which is still under a UAE – Saudi orchestrated blockade, had upped its game in Palestine as a counter to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s arm-twisting against Doha. These events also pushed Qatar closer to Iran, as the small, but rich state looked to prove its political and economic self-sufficiency (which it arguably did successfully). While also developing deep ties with Turkey, Saudi Arabia’s regional challenge, the Qatar – Turkey – Iran trifecta could now attempt to influence a fairly alienated Palestinian political, economic and militia ecosystems. Despite reports of Israeli intelligence attempting to reach out to Doha, the internal GCC kerfuffle poses a separate challenge to this UAE – Israel partnership itself, and is perhaps MbZ’s new crisis to fix. While Iran may well be the nucleus argument on Israel and the UAE bringing out their relations in full public view, there are other factors that should be highlighted as well. Amidst all of the above modalities, finally, it is the question of the Palestine state and the cause of the Palestinian people being once more, portrayed as the King of the Middle East’s chess board, but ultimately demoted to a pawn when the convenience arises. The Palestinians, expectedly, reacted with remorse. “Israel got rewarded for not declaring openly what it’s been doing to Palestine illegally and persistently since the beginning of the occupation. The UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalization with Israel. Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”, tweeted Dr Hanan Ashrawi, prominent Palestinian legislator and executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Others, more on the fringes, such as militia group Hamas, criticized the agreement as further encouragement for Israel to continue its Zionist agenda and occupation of Palestine. Prior to this announcement, Israel was also on the block. With a new, unstable power-sharing government between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the former was ready to annex parts of the West Bank. Through this deal, the Israelis have now said that those plans stand “suspended”, but not off the table, despite the UAE’s narrative which sounds more concrete over the cancellation of Israel’s plan. This deal also has provided relief over tensions between Jordan and Israel, which had been brewing over Jerusalem’s annexation blueprints. Overall, this outcome could provide a strong tailwind towards a faster normalization of Israel – Arab relations, however, it keeps the Israel – Palestine conflict almost intact to what it has been, raising questions over the long-term institutional veracity of this agreement. The next two to three months, up until the US elections, will be crucial to both understand and witness the growth of the ‘normalization’ between Israel and the UAE as we still have to wait for the details of what this normalization entails. Will the two countries expedite opening of embassies? Will the UAE open its embassy in Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv? Even a basic operational parameter, such as direct flights between the two states, is made complicated by the politics of using a largely Arab airspace to reach Israel. Even when the UAE sent medical aid to Palestine for the first time via Israel in May, the Palestinian Authority had rejected the aid, saying that the consignment coming in via Tel Aviv was ‘a cover for normalization of ties’ with Israel. An almost prophetic take, two months later.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

Read More +