West Asia

Tension over the ‘peace deal’ between Israel and the UAE

Print edition : September 25, 2020

President Donald Trump, flanked by Israel and United Arab Emirates leaders and White House officials, announces a peace deal “leading to the full normalisation of relations” between Israel and the UAE, in Washington on August 13. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Palestinian protesters holding a poster of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE’s Crown Prince, in a demonstration against the UAE’s decision to normalise ties with Israel, at Turmus Aya village near the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on August 19. Photo: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump, in an apparent bid to woo Christian evangelicals and the Jewish lobby in the presidential election, brokers an agreement between Israel and the UAE. Many in the Arab world are unhappy about UAE’s betrayal of the Arab cause.

It has been dubbed a “historic peace deal” similar to the peace deals Israel had signed earlier with two other Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. In the second week of August, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) surprised the international community by signing an agreement “leading to the full normalisation of relations” between Israel and the UAE in exchange for the Jewish state temporarily suspending its plans to formally annex a major portion of the occupied West Bank.

“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East [West Asian] 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 of the region,” a joint statement issued by the United States, Israel and the UAE said. The statement was released in the White House.

The agreement came in for immediate criticism in the Arab world, with many commentators objecting to it being described as a “peace deal”. They pointed out that Israel and the UAE had never been in a state of war. The criticisms did not stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from claiming that it was the first time that his country had achieved “peace in return for peace”.

The timing of the announcement by the White House was obviously intended to coincide with the campaign for the November 2020 presidential election in the U.S. President Donald Trump, trailing by a wide margin in opinion polls, desperately wants to retain the Christian evangelical votes and hopes to get more support from the influential Jewish lobby in U.S. politics. The announcement of the deal has also helped divert the attention of the American people from the raging COVID pandemic that has claimed a record number of lives and caused mass unemployment.

At the Republican Party’s National Convention in August, Trump thanked Israel and the UAE for helping his administration achieve “the first Middle East peace deal in 25 years”. He claimed that the region was “in total chaos” before he had taken over. Trump has christened the deal the “Abraham Agreement”, which he claimed would pave the way for more Arab countries to recognise Israel diplomatically.

The peace plan to end the Israel Arab conflict was immediately and forcefully rejected by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and all the other Palestinian groups. For that matter even the Saudis had refused to openly back the Trump administration’s plans to grant the Palestinians an even more truncated state. The 2002 Arab Peace Plan, a brain child of the Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, clearly stated that peace with Israel was only possible after the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The Trump administration had hoped that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would also sign the peace deal with Israel. But despite the intense lobbying by Washington and the close relationship the two countries have with the Emiratis, that goal remains elusive. The U.S. is trying to capitalise on the Gulf monarchies’ fears of Iran’s growing influence in the region. The Gulf monarchies and the Egyptian government feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains influential despite the mass incarceration of its leadership and supporters across the region. These governments are not averse to the U.S. game plan of making Israel an integral part of the anti-Iran alliance.

Trump despatched his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to West Asia and Sudan in an effort to sway at least a few governments to follow UAE’s example. Bahrain, which hosts one of the biggest U.S. naval bases in the region, refused to sign on. Pompeo is the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Sudan since the visit of Condoleezza Rice in 2005. The Sudanese are desperate to get out of the State Department’s “terror list” to escape the onerous U.S. sanctions on the country. Pompeo tried to bait the interim unity government in that country to recognise Israel in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But sensing the popular mood, the Sudanese government refused to bite the bait. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok politely requested Pompeo not “to link the subject of lifting Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the subject of normalisation of relations with Israel”.

Pompeo’s failure to drum up support in the region however did not stop him from addressing the Republican Party convention from Jerusalem while on an official trip. The Trump administration had moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, gladdening the hearts of the Zionists and the Republican Party’s evangelical base.

Within weeks of the announcement, the UAE decided to start implementing key aspects of the deal with Israel. The government in Abu Dhabi announced that it was lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Israel by the Arab states. A royal decree issued in late August gave the green signal to UAE business houses and individuals to sign agreements with Israeli companies. The burgeoning trade links between the two countries will be formalised. The first commercial flight from Israel to Dubai landed on August 31 carrying top aides of the U.S. President and the Israeli Prime Minister. The El Al flight flew over Saudi air space. Interestingly, the Saudis had until recently refused to give Israeli commercial aircraft permission to use its airspace. The Saudis had first given permission to Air India to use its airspace for its direct flights to Tel Aviv, saving considerable air time and fuel for the national air carrier in the process.

All these developments could be a precursor to the Saudis also formally recognising the Zionist state in due course. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, initially stated that the UAE-Israel deal “could be viewed as positive” while at the same time insisting that the Kingdom remained committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Plan. Trump said he expected Saudi Arabia to also be a party to the peace deal very soon.

The UAE has chosen to go full steam ahead with the implementation of the deal despite Netanyahu continuing to insist that he has not agreed to permanently freeze his plans for the formal annexation of the West Bank. The annexation plan anyway was put on the back burner owing to objections from the international community and the Trump administration.

Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is trying to force a two-state solution on the Palestinians. The Palestinian state envisaged by the Trump administration will be an even more truncated one, with Jerusalem and the best land on the West Bank being handed over to Israel.

The Israeli government has also objected to the sale of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, touted as the world’s best flying machines, to the UAE. The Trump administration had promised to lift the veto on the sale of “smart weapons” to the UAE in exchange for the recognition of Israel. Many observers feel that it was the promise of the sale of the F-35s that made the UAE sign up to the deal with Israel with such alacrity. Abu Dhabi continues to claim that it was the Israeli decision to stop its West Bank annexation plan that prompted the decision.

The fact of the matter is that the UAE and Israel have been close for some time now. Five years ago, the UAE allowed Israel to open an office in the International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters in Abu Dhabi. The relationship started flourishing after the U.S. signed the nuclear deal with Iran and the Barack Obama administration’s “military pivot to the East”. There was a real fear among Washington’s allies in the region that they were being abandoned by their protectors.

Strengthening relations with Israel not only provided the Gulf states a new guarantor but also influence in the corridors of power in Washington. The powerful Jewish lobby groups have been acting in tandem with the Saudis and Emiratis in Washington since the last decade. They played a big role in the 2016 Trump campaign than the one attributed to Russia. Israeli and UAE intelligence agencies have been closely cooperating for years, with Mossad agents slipping freely into Dubai to target Palestinians. In 2010, a prominent Hamas leader was assassinated by Mossad in Dubai. The current Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, has been regularly visiting the capitals of many Arab kingdoms, including the UAE.

The UAE has become the third Arab country to recognise the state of Israel. Egypt had signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 after breaking ranks with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world. Jordan became the next Arab country to recognise Israel by signing a peace treaty in 1994. Both Egypt and Jordan have become indebted to the U.S. for their economic sustenance and political survival since signing separate peace deals with Israel. The UAE hopes to be suitably rewarded for its betrayal of the Arab cause. As Phyllis Benning, an expert on the region, notes, the deal does nothing to end the threat of Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories “as de facto annexation is already in place and de jure annexation is just being delayed for a while”.

The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) and most of the Arab and Muslim world were critical of the UAE’s move. The P.A. described the deal with Israel as “a betrayal of Jerusalem, al Aqsa and the Palestinian cause”. A controversial section of the agreement states that Jerusalem’s holy sites should be open to peaceful citizens of all faiths. Many Palestinians fear that the Israeli state would use the terminology in the statement to take control of the Temple Mount on which al Aqsa is situated. The al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site for Muslims while the Temple Mount is equally revered by Jews.

The P.A. recalled the Palestinian ambassador to the UAE in protest against the decision. Hannan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO’s executive committee, said the UAE’s deal with Israel was the equivalent of “being sold out by friends”. Palestinians across the occupied territories staged big demonstrations to protest against the UAE’s actions. Photographs of UAE’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed and that of Mohammed Dahlan, once a leading figure in the PLO, were burnt on the streets of Ramallah. Dahlan currently resides in the UAE and is said to enjoy a close relationship with the Crown Prince and Israeli security services. He is being backed by the West and the conservative Arab regimes to succeed P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

India welcomes deal

India was among the first countries to welcome the so-called peace agreement between the UAE and Israel. The Bharatiya Janata Party government has established very strong ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have not been openly critical of either India’s Kashmir policy or its Hindu nationalistic agenda.

Pakistan has not been too vocal in its criticism of the UAE-Israel deal. The official statement from Islamabad only noted that the agreement had “far reaching consequences”. At the same time, the Pakistan government has emphasised that there is no question of recognising Israel as long as there is no two-state solution to the conflict. Iran, on the other hand, strongly condemned the move by its neighbour, describing the deal with Israel as an “act of strategic stupidity”. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that the UAE had committed a “huge mistake” by thinking that the U.S. and “the Zionist regime” would improve its security and help the economy grow.

Turkey issued an even stronger statement which said that the “history and 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”. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even said that he was considering the possibility of snapping diplomatic ties with the UAE on the issue.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×