Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 09, 2020
Why the peace deal is more high stakes for the UAE than Israel A few days after the celebrated normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, the backroom details that led to this rapprochement started to unfold in the open as Jerusalem publicly pushed back on the possibility of Washington D.C. selling its top of the line F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. Israel inducted the F-35 in 2016, and the frontline fighter has already seen combat use in Syria. Induction of the F-35 by UAE could give it equipment equivalent to that of Israel, arguably challenging Israel’s air power edge in the region. Reports now also suggest that the signing of the normalisation agreement in presence of US President Donald Trump scheduled for 15 September is not going to be at the head-of-state level, already watering down some of the narrative around what is seen as a major regional shift. Beyond the ruffled feathers around the F-35, the lukewarm response in the Arab world to the UAE-Israel rapprochement was perhaps a little unexpected. Trump’s adviser for the region, Jared Kushner, led the American delegation to take the first Israeli commercial flight to the UAE using Saudi airspace. This symbolic event bridged not only decades of ideological and political strife but also formalised the backdoor diplomacy and cooperation that has been taking place between the UAE and Israel, pushed through by a mutual recognition of the threat posed by an increasingly assertive Iran. However, the events taking place around the periphery of this normalisation accord come across as disjointed where Abu Dhabi is concerned. Saudi Arabia, despite allowing Israel use of its airspace, has approached the deal cautiously. While Riyadh has acknowledged to the Trump administration that the kingdom is ready and “eager” to achieve a fair solution to the Palestine issue, giving some breathing room to Abu Dhabi, it remains an uphill climb for the Emirati leadership. This geopolitical gap would arguably call for Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s full wisdom and aplomb as the region’s most influential leader, to convince King Salman of Saudi Arabia in the short term and heir apparent Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in the long term on the benefits of such a deal. While MbS being on board is more probable, the success of the arrangement relies on short term and rapid consolidation of support in the region. Prior to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Jerusalem, reports suggested that states such as Sudan and Bahrain would follow suit and setup official ties with Israel. However, these expectations fell short. Bahrain announced that it would allow all Israeli commercial aircraft to use its airspace, but did not go further on a normalisation agreement. Sudan, instead, announced nothing to do with Israel, but instead announced a move to separate religion from state, taking a more secular posture by ending a 30-year rule via Islamic law. At the end of it all, the UAE being unable to take Saudi Arabia along in its normalisation with Israel as of today complicates its intra-Arab politics. It is fully plausible that the likes of Bahrain and others may follow suit if and when Riyadh commits to such an agreement. Even then, though, other Arab states and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) like Kuwait have publicly aired their view of standing with the Palestinians, with the Kuwaiti leadership going as far as to say that it would be the last one to normalise with Israel. However, while the UAE-Israel deal caught global headlines, another event within the region perhaps not only helps ease the pressures on Arab-Israel relations, but on intra-GCC fissures as well. In a press statement released on 31 August by the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the pro-Palestine militant group declared that it had come to an agreement with Israel, brokered by Qatar, to end the latest round of violence. Qatari representative Mohamed al-Emadi led the latest settlement, not only cementing Doha’s influence on what is the region’s most fracturing issue, but also undermining traditional authorities such as Egypt in such negotiations. The fact that reports surfaced last month highlighting that Chief of the Israeli Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was in touch with the Qatari leadership over Palestine, and asked Doha to continue its supplies of funds for Gaza in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, adds an interesting background to these events. Cohen had reportedly been sent to Qatar in February by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. along with representation from the Israeli military, to talk about Qatar’s financial aid to Palestine and Hamas. Amidst these meets, Israel asked Qatar to continue funding Hamas till September keeping in mind the pandemic and low living conditions in Gaza. The ceasefire, so to speak, announced on 31 August is a culmination of this six month-long diplomatic outreach, which not only saw Israel block Qatari-sponsored fuel supplies to Gaza, but Doha also voluntarily cut fuel supplies to Gaza by more than half, in a move that could be seen as pressure on Hamas to accept and operationalise a ceasefire. All of the above also led Israel to backtrack on its plans to annex the West Bank, a move that had more to do with Israel’s domestic politics. Here is where the politics of the normalisation agreement could get complicated for Abu Dhabi, considering the intra-GCC feud between the Saudi-UAE block and Qatar is well into its fourth year now. Further fallouts over normalisation with Israel, or a prolonged lack of consensus amongst the Arab capitals on the same, could hurt the momentum between both the UAE and Israel. It is this very ‘above its weight’ geo-political punching that has brought both the UAE and Saudi Arabia in confrontation with Doha, as the small yet hydrocarbon rich nation often challenged the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi direction for the Arab world and the GCC. The fact that Doha has a foot in the door with regard to the UAE-Israel deal as well via its engagements in Palestine begs the question whether Abu Dhabi and Riyadh would seek rapprochement within the GCC or try and elbow out Doha even further. It remains unclear as of now on how much room to maneuver Riyadh is offering to the US with regard to its ‘eagerness’ for a Palestine deal. It is Saudi’s nod that could act as the ultimate rudder for a wholesome Arab-Israel rapprochement. Nevertheless, in between all of these intra-Arab discrepancies, there is one common factor that binds them all together, from Jerusalem to Abu Dhabi, and from Riyadh to (arguably) Doha. All would want to see a second term for President Donald Trump, with enthusiasm around the potential of a Joe Biden White House being fairly cold in the region. The Trump affinity, of course, stems from the president’s hard stance on Iran, which has in fact helped to bring years’ worth of backdoor diplomacy between some Arab states and Israel to the forefront. The coming few months will add much more clarity on how strong or flimsy these major regional changes in the Middle East are going to be. Unlike Israel, the UAE has more than one ball in the air to juggle when it comes to normalising relations with its Jewish neighbour, because like it or not, Abu Dhabi will have to take the region along with it if this experimentation is to succeed in the long term. For Israel, if this falters tomorrow, it could well be just another day of the week.
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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 ...

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