When Benjamin Netanyahu began a fifth term as Israel’s prime minister this year, pledging to annex nearly a third of the occupied West Bank, his plans drew centuries-old criticism from the Arab world. But the United Arab Emirates, a powerful Gulf state that has enjoyed secret relations with Israel for years, has been surprisingly outspoken in its condemnation.
Senior Emirati officials including Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador to Washington, have warned that claiming Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian land will shatter the Jewish state’s hopes of improving relations with Arab nations and unleash violence. But with every warning came a carrot: lines of communication with the Jewish state “would work better for us.” There would be advantages to normalizing relationships.
The message resonated in the United States and Israel. In the weeks that followed, Israeli and Emirati officials held meetings that resulted in the US-brokered deal and announced on Thursday that the two powers had agreed to establish full diplomatic relations. In return, Mr. Netanyahu agreed to “suspend” annexation, although he insists that it is still his policy.
Israeli Prime Minister hails it as a victory for his diplomacy; Emirati officials are selling the deal as a bold move that put the brakes on annexation and kept the notion of a viable Palestinian state alive.
But analysts say the Palestinian issue is a secondary factor for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the UAE whose assertive foreign policy has earned the Gulf state the nickname. of “ Little Sparta ”. The UAE wants to consolidate its role as a leading regional power, strengthen alliances at a time of increasing competition, especially from Turkey, and gain credit with both the Trump administration and the Democratic Party as the United States United are heading for the election, analysts said.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates have long shared the view that Iran and Islamist extremism pose serious threats to regional stability, but during the coronavirus outbreak the cooperation between the two has become more public.
“I never thought it would get to this point, at least so soon. But if there is a trigger, it’s the last six months of the coronavirus. This has led to rethinking many, many issues, ”said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati commentator. “The UAE wants to make sure, loud and clear, that it’s a major player, it’s a regional leader. And that will keep the UAE’s momentum going [going]. “
In May, Etihad, Abu Dhabi’s national carrier, made its first flight to Israel, carrying aid to the Palestinians. In June, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel and the United Arab Emirates would cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus.
In July, it was announced that an Abu Dhabi tech company, Group 42, would collaborate with two Israeli companies, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, on research related to Covid-19. This was the first time the UAE – widely suspected of using Israeli security equipment – openly admitted to working with Israeli companies.
In the background, Israeli and Emirati officials held talks on broader regional issues. In July, Israeli officials were hosted at the US State Department for three-way talks with Emirati envoys, following a US-sponsored security conference in Warsaw last year on countering the influence from Iran, a former Israeli official familiar with the talks. said. Sheikh Mohammed and his Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Otaibi, both developed close ties with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law who led the Middle East plan.
A small delegation of Israelis has been welcomed to the United Arab Emirates over the past two months. Emirati officials have been told that Mr. Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank could be delayed if the UAE manages to convince Palestinian officials to commit to Mr. Trump’s peace plan.
Palestinian negotiators, who ridiculed the peace plan as being heavily biased in favor of Israel, rejected the Emirati demand, the former Israeli official said. Two Palestinian officials said they were unaware that their conversations with the UAE were part of a negotiation between the Emiratis and Israel.
Palestinian officials accused the UAE of treason for agreeing to a deal with Israel. This decision will be disheartening for Arab nationalists, including Gulf citizens passionate about the Palestinian cause.
But Sheikh Mohammed is unlikely to be dissuaded. “It is full of costs and benefits, and the UAE will try to minimize the costs, which could be huge politically and reputational in parts of the Arab world,” Abdulla said. “But there are a lot of economic, military and strategic gains.”
The United Arab Emirates under Sheikh Mohammed are no strangers to foreign policy risks. He intervened in the war in Yemen, is at the forefront of a regional embargo of more than three years against Qatar and was one of the most fervent supporters of Khalifa Haftar, the renegade Libyan general behind his latest civil war. Adventurism has drawn criticism in the United States, especially among Democrats.
It was also the first Gulf state to reopen its embassy in war-torn Syria, giving President Bashar al-Assad a boost.
“The deal with Israel is a classic MBZ. . . he will do whatever he thinks is right for him, ”an Arab official said. “It will give him a lot in terms of cooperation with Israel and he will be back in the good books in the United States. This could give him a free pass for certain things in the future.
Explaining the deal with Israel, while also offering an overview of broader UAE policy, Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said: “We came out and argued that in every difficult trial in the region, when you have bridges and you have contacts, you are more important and more influential. ”
But the Gulf’s tough foreign policy, backed by tens of billions of dollars in aid, has put it at odds with some regional powers. In recent months, tensions have become particularly acute with Turkey, which intervened in the Libyan war on the side opposite to the United Arab Emirates and which Abu Dhabi accuses of supporting Islamist groups.
The timing of the Israeli deal “reflects the shifting agenda and the shift in the balance of power in the Middle East,” said Emile Hokayem, senior researcher for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Turkey’s intervention in Libya has led to a series of humiliating defeats for General Haftar, resulting in a setback for the United Arab Emirates, and intensified tensions in the eastern Mediterranean where a race is on to secure the oil and gas resources.
“The competition is much more intense and this helps them to consolidate not only an anti-Iran front, but also a de facto alliance with Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean,” Mr. . Hokayem. The “so-called Israeli concession on annexation” provided political cover for the deal, he said. “The sad reality is that the Palestinian question is secondary.”