Two major changes that made the Israel-UAE peace deal possible

Why We Wrote This

The deal has rightly been lauded as historic, and a major shift in approach. Yet a fundamental issue bears watching: the political and value judgments that formed the core assumptions of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. 

Debbie Hill/AP
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bump elbows before making joint statements to the press, in Jerusalem, Aug. 24, 2020.

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The accolades for the Israel-United Arab Emirates peace deal – only the third formal treaty between Israel and an Arab state – were deserved. But in the Middle East, the political context is always complex.

In practical terms, the agreement makes public an increasingly open secret of cooperation. Still, for Israel, the public acceptance matters hugely.

Two major changes in political context made the deal possible. For many Sunni Muslim Arab states, the conflict with Israel has taken a back seat to concern over Shiite Iran. Israel’s strength in intelligence, cyberscience, and technology encourages cooperation. The Arab world’s commitment to the Palestinians has eroded.

Equally important has been the dramatic change in Washington’s approach. The United States began with an explicit message: The Palestinians were in no position to dictate a new deal. After testing reaction to moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (very little) and permission for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank (far more), the U.S. sought a relatively transactional arrangement with something for everyone.

Yet U.S. assumptions that long drove policy were not just the result of orthodoxy. They reflected value judgments about international law, precedent, and stability. U.S. policymakers will have to weigh whether those judgments still matter.

“Breakthrough. Historic.” Those were the headline-writers’ words of choice after this month’s U.S.-mediated accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – even among vocal critics of President Donald Trump’s iconoclastic approach to foreign policy.

The accolades were deserved. Not just because the public pledge of peace, if followed through on, would mean only the third formal treaty between Israel and an Arab state – and the first for more than a quarter century. It also followed a deliberate drive by the Trump administration to cast aside decades-old diplomatic assumptions about peacemaking in the Middle East.

It holds little surprise that Mr. Trump at this week’s Republican Party convention – or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has headed off to visit Israel and the UAE – seemed minded to a kind of “we told you so” victory lap.

Yet as so often is the case in the Middle East – a region I’ve covered since the first Arab-Israeli peace breakthrough, between Israel and Egypt in the late 1970s – the political context is complex. And key questions remain, above all about the still-unresolved conflict between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors, and the future of the West Bank territory it captured in the Six-Day War more than 50 years ago.

An open secret goes public

In practical terms, the Israel-UAE agreement doesn’t change much. It simply makes public an increasingly open secret. For some years now, the UAE and other Arab states in the oil-rich Gulf have been engaging quietly with Israel in multiple areas: politics, security, business, even culture and sports.

But for Israel, the public acceptance of normalization matters hugely. For decades since the founding of modern Israel in 1948, the Arab world hasn’t just rejected the idea of peace. It has questioned Israel’s legitimacy – a challenge with a deep impact on Israelis of all ages and political views. The most powerful moment during the first peace breakthrough was when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told the Israeli Knesset in 1977, “We used to brand you as so-called Israel. ... Now I tell you that we welcome you among us.”

But Sadat’s lead had, until this month, been followed by just one other Arab head of state: the late King Hussein of Jordan. 

Two major changes in political context made the UAE deal possible.

The first was in the Middle East itself. For many Sunni Muslim Arab states, the conflict with Israel has taken a back seat to concern over the growing political and military reach of Shiite Iran. That’s especially true for Gulf Arab countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, directly across from Iran. For them, moreover, Israel’s unparalleled regional strength in intelligence, cyberscience, and technology have made cooperation especially attractive.

At the same time, the major impediment to past normalization ­– the Arab world’s commitment to the Palestinians – has been eroding. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has effectively ended. The Palestinian leadership is divided, between the heirs of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement on the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza. Amid complaints of mismanagement and corruption, their popular support has been weakening. 

Yet equally important has been the dramatic political change in the United States – and in Washington’s approach to the region.

The U.S. initiative that led to the Israel-UAE deal began with an explicit message to all involved: The Palestinians, having turned down previous negotiating proposals aimed at creating a two-state peace, were in no position to dictate the terms of a new deal. Washington drove home the point two years ago by moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the holy city whose status, under decades of past U.S. policy, was to be resolved only as part of a final peace. The move triggered barely a murmur of opposition in the Arab world.

In its Mideast peace plan announced earlier this year, the Trump administration pushed this approach further. It green-lit the idea that Israel could formally annex parts of the West Bank – which did prove too much for many Arab countries, including the UAE, which pushed back both privately and publicly.

Going transactional

Yet that turned out to be the cue for the other key facet of Mr. Trump’s altered approach: the idea of seeking a more limited, transactional arrangement of the kind more traditionally employed by big business.

Everybody got something out of it.

The UAE got closer cooperation with Israel on security, intelligence, and cyber capability, and critically, the prospect of being able to purchase top-end American military equipment like F-35 fighter jets that have long been off the menu for Arab states. It also received some regional political cover in the shape of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s retreat from any annexation of the West Bank, at least for now.

Israel got the promise of its third peace with an Arab country, and the possibility of others eventually following suit. The UAE’s neighbor, Bahrain, is one candidate. So is Sudan, in Africa. Mr. Pompeo is visiting both this week.

The deal also came at a particularly apt time for Mr. Netanyahu. He was already backing off the idea of annexation, both because of Washington’s second thoughts and a cool response from most Israelis, who are a lot more preoccupied with the dire economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Mr. Netanyahu himself still faces trial on three charges of corruption for which preliminary hearings have begun.

Finally, the Trump administration itself got an undeniable diplomatic victory.

Still, beyond the question of what comes next for the Palestinians, a more fundamental issue about Middle East diplomacy will bear watching, especially should Mr. Trump lose the White House in November, bringing in Joe Biden and a more traditional approach to foreign policy.

The old core assumptions of American diplomacy in the Middle East – on the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank, or the future political dispensation for the Palestinians – were not just the result of ossified bureaucracy or hidebound orthodoxy.

They reflected political and value judgments. Permanent Israeli control over the West Bank and widening settlement of Israeli civilians there were viewed as a violation of international law and an unwelcome precedent for the wider world. A negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in spite of its ever-receding prospects, was seen as not only good for the Palestinians and Israel. It was part of a wider aim to bring more stability to a chronically fractious region and, to the degree the U.S. could help deliver it, further American interests as well.

With the huge recent changes in the Mideast – Iran, most of all, but also the war in Syria, the political and economic crisis in Lebanon, the growing assertiveness of Turkey, and the reentry of Russia into the fray – U.S. policymakers will have to ask themselves whether those other long-held judgments still matter.

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