Author : Navdeep Suri

Originally Published 2020-08-17 09:32:23 Published on Aug 17, 2020
From India’s perspective, Israel and the UAE are undoubtedly our two closest friends in the Middle East. PM Modi has invested considerable energy in developing both relationships and they have stood by our side when we have needed their support. Normalisation of ties between them augurs well for us, opening up exciting new possibilities for collaboration.
Window of opportunity for India

The dramatic three-way announcement out of Washington DC, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv on August 13 had two visible dimensions — the intent to establish normal ties between UAE and Israel and the decision by Israel to suspend its plans for annexation of certain Palestinian territories. It also has a lot of subtext with important ramifications for the Middle East and beyond. To start with, the words used by each side matter. While ‘suspend’ was the word used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UAE Crown Prince described it as “an agreement to stop further annexation...”

Israel and UAE have had a longstanding but largely undeclared relationship that was built around shared interests such as their deep seated animosity towards Iran. Over the last few years, that relationship had slowly started to emerge out of the closet. Israeli diplomat Rami Hatan has represented his country at the Abu Dhabi based International Renewable Agency since 2015. In October 2018, Emirati media published photos of Miiri Regev, Israel’s Minister for Culture and Sports, visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi while leading her country’s delegation for an international judo competition. The two countries also announced plans in June this year about a collaboration to fight Covid-19.

But these were the tip of the iceberg. The more substantive moves — largely coordinated by Youssef Al Otaiba, UAE’s hyper-influential ambassador to the US — were taking place in Washington DC. He was present at the White House on January 28, 2020, when Trump outlined the distinctly lopsided Peace and Prosperity plan for Israel and the Palestinians. Abu Dhabi’s cautious endorsement of the plan and its back-channel contacts to normalise ties suffered a setback when Netanyahu announced plans on May 28 to annex parts of the West Bank by July. This prompted an unusual op-ed piece by Otaiba in Israel’s largest newspaper Yediot Ahronot on June 6. Published in Hebrew, it warned that “annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE.” He argued that “annexation will also harden Arab views of Israel just when Emirati initiatives have been opening the space for cultural exchange and broader understanding of Israel and Judaism.” He also pointed to the incentives for Israel from normal ties — “Greater security. Direct links. Expanded markets. Growing acceptance” — adding the warning that “normal is not annexation” and that annexation would be a misguided provocation.

Otaiba’s op-ed piece places the August 13 announcement in perspective. Normal ties between UAE and Israel would also open the door for some of the other Gulf countries. Oman had already received Netanyahu in a surprise visit two years ago, while Bahrain had hosted the US-sponsored Peace and Prosperity conference in June 2019 which was attended by Jared Kushner and senior officials and business leaders from the US, Israel and UAE. The Saudis, who have already allowed Air India to use its airspace for flights to Israel, could also be in line if things continue on their present trajectory.

The Palestinians have good reason to be upset. They had never accepted the Trump-Kushner ‘deal of the century’ and had refused to take part in the Peace and Prosperity plan that reduces Palestine to a piece of Swiss cheese with large holes caused by expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s proposed annexation was patently illegal and they feel that Israel is being unfairly rewarded for merely delaying the execution of an unlawful act. A spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas described the normalisation as a betrayal but the decision to recall Palestine’s ambassador to Abu Dhabi as a gesture of protest appear to be an emotional overreaction. They are also missing the ground realities. The UAE won’t be the first Arab country to have ties with Israel; Egypt and Jordan already have diplomatic relations and Egyptian President Sisi has welcomed the development. Egypt also hosts the League of Arab States and it would be interesting to see which Arab states come out strongly against the normalisation.

Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, has nevertheless tried to soothe some frayed nerves by clarifying that the UAE initiative is not aimed at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and that it would be up to the Palestinians and Israelis to do so. Drawing attention to the threat of imminent annexation, he added that UAE has tried to “defuse a ticking time bomb that was threatening the two-state solution.” However, Gargash himself has previously suggested that a viable and sovereign Palestinian state that stands alongside Israel may no longer be a realistic possibility. Several influential Palestinian voices have also begun to articulate the notion that struggle for equal rights within a democratic Israel may well be the only available option. But that begs several questions. What would equal rights for Palestinians do to the Jewish identify of Israel? Would ultra-orthodox Jewish groups in Israel agree to it? They have already voiced opposition to the plans to suspend/stop annexation. And are the Palestine Authority and Hamas ready to give up on their political aspirations? At the present juncture, these may look like a remote possibility. But the volatile politics of the Middle East teaches you to never say never.

Moving beyond the Middle East and returning to Washington DC, the announcement provides a much-needed boost to Trump’s flailing re-election campaign, offering something tangible that he can wave before the influential Jewish and evangelical communities in the US. Trump’s hardline stance on Iran also makes him the preferred candidate for both Netanyahu and the Emiratis and the timing of the announcement on the eve of the Republican and Democratic Party conventions wouldn’t be a coincidence. In fact, Vice President Biden has also hastened to welcome the development even as he reiterated his opposition to annexation, saying that “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognise the State of Israel is a welcome, brave and badly needed act of statesmanship... A Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress, and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace.”

From India’s perspective, Israel and the UAE are undoubtedly our two closest friends in the Middle East. PM Modi has invested considerable energy in developing both relationships and they have stood by our side when we have needed their support. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar received calls from the foreign ministers of the UAE and Israel on August 14 and India has formally welcomed the developments. A normalisation of ties between them augurs well for us, opening up exciting new possibilities for collaboration.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

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Navdeep Suri

Navdeep Suri

Navdeep Suri is Visiting Fellow. ...

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