Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement of a “historic” peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is certainly a turn-up for the books.
The US president doubtless hopes it will help his struggling campaign for re-election in November. Similarly, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who faces the possibility of a fourth general election in two years, will hope this turns attention away from his own problems: his trial on three charges of corruption; gathering public anger at his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic; and, not least, his failure to deliver on a repeated promise to annex unilaterally up to a third of the occupied Palestinian West Bank.
Jewish settlement of Arab land seized and occupied by Israel in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 is a neuralgically sensitive issue for Arab populations — even if increasingly less so for many of their rulers. The UAE-Israel deal, which envisages mutual diplomatic recognition and strengthened trade and technology ties, is the third that Israel has struck with an Arab state.
After decades of warring, it signed peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Israel also reached the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993-95, which gave a semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority conditional control of 40 per cent of the West Bank. However, the Oslo vision of a Palestinian state existing side by side with Israel proved a mirage in the face of continuing violence and relentless Israeli occupation. The number of Jewish settlers increased by 50 per cent in 1992-96, the halcyon days of Oslo. They now number nearly 650,000, including occupied Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after 1967 and enlarged with land from the West Bank.
The deal with the UAE, a federation of seven Gulf city-states led by oil-rich Abu Dhabi and showcased by Dubai, is undoubtedly a breakthrough for Israel. Mr Netanyahu has made much of his ability to build relations with a new generation of Arab leaders such as Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Both share Israel’s enmity towards Iran.
It is unlikely the deal will help resolve the seemingly eternal Israeli-Palestinian dispute over sharing the Holy Land. Yet it does demonstrate Iran’s ability to goad others into forging alliances against its interference in the Arab nations that Tehran so often assists cynically into failed statehood: from Iraq to Lebanon, and from Syria to Yemen.
Under Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE has become militarily more assertive. It is not just antagonistic towards Iran but viscerally opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Islamist movement that it sees as undermining the Arab status quo. With Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the Brotherhood was briefly in power until toppled in the 2013 coup, it has also blockaded Qatar since 2017. That is mainly because of Doha’s championing of political Islam and its alliance with Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is seen as another Islamist interloper in Arab lands.
Unsurprisingly, Iran and Turkey loudly condemned the deal, alongside the Palestinians.
Even so, the dealmakers already have sharply different interpretations of what they have agreed. That is especially so of Israel’s supposed commitment to suspend the annexation that was greenlighted by Mr Trump’s purported “deal of the century” in January. Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, called it “a stoppage of the annexation, not a suspension”. Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu said he had only “delayed” enlarging Israel’s border, which is still “on the table”.
The real prize for Israel would be to secure a deal with Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam as well as the US’s chief Arab ally. But that looks problematic. While Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised support for the Trump plan, his father King Salman publicly repudiated this, sensitive to Israel’s US-recognised sovereignty over all Jerusalem. The city is home to Islam’s third holiest site.
Meanwhile, Emirati credibility will soon be put to the test of whether it opens its new embassy in Jerusalem, following the US and widely seen as an infringement of international law, or Tel Aviv, as nearly all other countries do.