The Normalization of UAE-Israel Relations

On August 13, 2020, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced they will normalize relations and forge a new relationship. President Donald Trump helped broker the deal, which includes an agreement from Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel will suspend plans to annex areas of the West Bank.

Q1: Why did this happen?

A1: In many ways the seeds were in the Arab Spring, when Arabs and their governments decided that their principal threats were internal and not external. An increasing number of Arabs seemed to feel that the Arab-Israeli conflict was a political distraction.

In addition, the Israeli and Emirati governments share a wide range of security concerns. They both see Iran as a serious and enduring security threat. They both are hostile to political Islam, and skeptical that greater democratization in the Arab world will lead to better outcomes. Because they see eye to eye on many adversaries, they share an interest in deeper intelligence sharing.

This also drives a change in U.S. attitudes toward the UAE. In the context of bipartisan support for reducing the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, and many Democrats’ skepticism toward the UAE because of the country’s closeness to Saudi Arabia, its role in Yemen, and human rights conditions in the UAE, this move will cement enduring bipartisan support for close U.S.-UAE ties.

Q2: What is the immediate impact?

A2: First, it stops, at least for now, what many thought would be the immediate Israeli annexation of areas of the West Bank that it seized in the 1967 war.

Second, it completely upends Israeli politics. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political fortunes had been waning, and there was increasing speculation that he soon would have to call a fourth round of elections after he had only recently assembled a government. Now, Netanyahu is an Israeli hero who has taken a huge step to end Israel’s historic isolation. His personal development of ties with Russia, China, and India was one thing. The imminent prospect of formal ties with the first Gulf Arab state give Israelis tremendous hope of a “New Middle East,” as former prime minister Shimon Peres called it, without making the deep concessions Peres thought would be necessary.

It is also a huge diplomatic victory for the Trump administration, which hasn't had a lot of them. The president has attempted diplomacy with North Korea, which led to talks but no agreement, and Iran, which led to no talks and no agreement, and has seen increasing tensions with allies in Europe. This agreement represents the product of a long-term effort to get two countries to do what, at the outset, neither seemed likely to do.

Q3: What are the dangers?

A3: One is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) could decide to dissolve itself. The PA was set up as a transitional institution leading toward Palestinian statehood, and the leadership could decide that, absent Arab solidarity, hoping for any kind of statehood is a fool’s errand. The dissolution of the PA would force Israel to assume directly significant security responsibilities now carried out by the PA, and that could increase tensions.

This step also could lead a terrorist group to seek to carry out a large-scale terrorist act inside the UAE. The UAE intelligence services have prevented such an attack up to now, and they will surely have more help as a consequence of this agreement. It would be a mistake, however, to systematically dismiss the passion with which some people still view the Palestine issue.

Q4: Where will this lead?

A4: We should expect some countries to follow the UAE, and some to stay back. Saudi Arabia, in particular, may be quietly supportive but is unlikely to normalize relations. The clerical establishment has had a privileged role in the Kingdom since the eighteenth century, the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques, and Saudi Arabia is the founder of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Most Arab governments are likely to take this in stride, in part because many are sympathetic to the Emirati calculus here and because those who are not sympathetic to the calculus do not want to alienate such a wealthy country with a rising regional profile. Iran is likely to seek to advance its regional reputation as the only country willing to stand up to Israel, which will gain it some popular regional support. Iran is likely to try to deepen the already deep rift between most Arab governments and populations. Many Arabs continue to see Palestine as a moral issue, even if they don’t necessarily see it as a political one.

Israelis could feel vindicated that they can normalize relations with the Arab world without resolving Palestinian claims, which could lead to increased resistance to Palestinian negotiations, bolder language on annexation in the future, and a more difficult time managing Palestinian aspirations.

On the positive side, it could lead the region firmly in the direction of regional dialogue. Three of the region’s most powerful countries are non-Arab (Israel, Iran, and Turkey), and ties have often been nonexistent. A more robust and inclusive regional dialogue could be a constructive way to reduce tensions.

In that vein, the UAE may also take this as an opportunity to pursue more vigorously the reintegration of Syria into the region. The view of many in the UAE government is that the country’s civil war is over and that it is time to move on. The U.S. government is unlikely to throw up a roadblock in current circumstances, and the UAE may use gestures toward Syria—traditionally the heart of Arab nationalism—as a way to talk about the importance of Arab unity going forward.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program