The surprise U.S.-brokered agreement last week to establish normal ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates wasn’t the grand bargain that President Trump hoped might make him the American president who finally achieved Middle East peace.
But it was a powerful example of how the very notion of Middle East peace has shifted with his administration’s enthusiastic backing. Arab states are increasingly willing to leave aside the question of Palestinian land and rights to seek a variety of relationships with Israel, the region’s dominant military force and economic powerhouse.
Those ties don’t negate Palestinian demands, which Arab states have backed as a bloc, but represent a growing view of the decades-long conflict as a drag on the region’s economic opportunity and political clout.
The UAE agreement grew out of commercial and other contacts between Israel and the wealthy Persian Gulf nation that predate Trump’s presidency and are mostly rooted in regional concerns.
“We saw an opportunity to take a bold step, one with the potential to fashion a new regional paradigm and introduce a new way of thinking — pragmatic, practical and solution-oriented,” said Omar Ghobash, the UAE assistant minister of public diplomacy. “The paradigm is also one of substantially greater collaboration across critical areas, including but not limited to technology, trade and education, and a strong reduction in the level of tensions. We believe Israel is keenly aware of that same potential.”
Palestinian leaders were not informed of the plan and accused the UAE of selling them out. They reject the UAE assertion that the deal protects Palestinian interests by conditioning it on Israel’s agreement not to go forward with annexation of West Bank land.
Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and the adviser he picked to lead Middle East peace efforts, said other agreements normalizing ties are expected soon. Oman and Bahrain, with similarly established unofficial relationships with Israel, are considered the most likely to do so. They could follow the UAE’s lead before the U.S. election, giving Trump further bragging rights.
For Trump, the piecemeal approach makes a virtue of his inability to launch the face-to-face talks between Israel and the Palestinians he had hoped could come early in his presidency. Palestinians walked away from the Kushner effort at the end of Trump’s first year in office, when he announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the U.S. Embassy there.
Arab states opposed the Jerusalem embassy move because of the Palestinian demand for a capital in East Jerusalem. But they continued to engage with Kushner, and in the case of the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, among others, continued to engage with Israel.
A gulf state official who asked not to be identified by name or nationality to speak freely said the deal recognizes that the Middle East is different than it was when Saudi Arabia put forward a bloc proposal for peace with Israel in 2002.
“The realities in the Middle East have changed tremendously since the Arab Peace Initiative,” the gulf state official said. “The threats against our nations have increased, we have gone through severe turmoil, and people in the region understood that even if people call us their allies today, tomorrow they might forget about all of their promises, and we are left alone.”
The official listed Iran, Turkey and Qatar as aggressors and the political uncertainties in the United States as a factor many gulf states are considering. Trump withdrew the United States from the international nuclear deal reached with Iran under former president Barack Obama, but Joe Biden might reinstate it if he wins the presidency. Or, if Trump is reelected, he has said he would be open to a new deal with Iran that he predicted last week could be reached in “one month.”
Israel was as eager as the United States to isolate the Palestinian question, but for its own reasons. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trumpets his contacts with Arab gulf neighbors, saying those states are ready markets for trade and tourism. Other Israeli officials acknowledge intelligence sharing going back years, mostly about Iran.
“Many people believed that the road to peace with the Arab states must go through Ramallah,” the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, said in an interview. “It does not. The road to peace with the Palestinians goes through Ramallah, but the road to peace with the Arab states goes through Cairo, Amman, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.”
Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, in 1979. Jordan followed in 1994. Both agreements were under U.S. auspices.
“This is a historic step forward, and things like this don’t happen every day,” Kushner told reporters Friday. “So we’re very, very proud of the accomplishment and of the step forward, and we hope that it really inspires a lot of people in the region to see the potential for what can be, if you’re willing to be creative and take a little bit of risk.”
The Palestinians will have to decide for themselves how they respond, Kushner said later.
“Kushner as usual misreads the whole situation,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime Palestinian adviser.
“I think if he wants, or if they want, to move on, then the better move is to comply with international law,” she said of the United States and Israel. “Withdraw from territories that were occupied and stolen from the Palestinians. This is how you move on.”
Ashrawi dismissed the UAE description of the agreement as a way to salvage the potential for a more viable future Palestinian state. Annexation is shelved as a price of the agreement, but not off the table.
Kenneth Katzman, a Congressional Research Service analyst focused on the Persian Gulf, called the deal “an evolution.”
“We’ve seen over the last six or eight years a clear, growing set of ties between the two countries,” he said. “More and more visits, more and more discussion of security issues, Iran obviously being the focus of that.”
Middle East analysts agreed with Trump that the accomplishment is genuine and historic and probably could not have happened now without the U.S. imprimatur. But it also fits a pattern for Trump of claiming more credit than may be deserved.
“The UAE-Israel strategic relationship was fueled by mutual fears of Iran and formalized by the United States,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s an example of Trump slapping his name on a hotel that was essentially already built.”
Ashrawi called it a marriage of convenience on all sides but that of the Palestinians. Netanyahu can distract from his legal problems and protests over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“The same thing with Trump, who is trying very hard to distract attention” from his own problems with the virus, she said. “To show he can be a peacemaker even with something so minor as the UAE-Israeli agreement.”