The Israel-UAE Deal Is a Diplomatic Attack on All Fronts | Opinion

Late Thursday afternoon, a news bulletin announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly left a meeting of the COVID-19 cabinet subcommittee, stating with an air of mystery that everyone would soon find out why he stepped away. I related this development to a friend I was with, a former intelligence officer, who replied it was a sign we were probably attacking somewhere. I looked at my watch. As the sun was still up, I was skeptical.

However, my friend was proven right. Notifications began to arrive, stating Israel was entering into a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates. (It is not, in fact, a full peace accord yet, but rather an agreement on a process of normalization.) This was an intervention of a completely different kind. Not one launched from a plane, but rather a diplomatic offensive.

This understanding is a strike against the idea that many in the international community have been saying for the past decade—i.e., that Israel would become isolated if it does not reach peace with the Palestinians. It is also a diplomatic attack on Iran, which now faces a pubic alliance of Israel and the Gulf States. And it is a slap in the face of the Palestinians, who have once again seen that most of the Arab world does not care about their fate. Furthermore, it is an attack on the dream of the Israeli far-right that, under the Trump administration, Israel would finally annex the West Bank.

For the past decade or more, those on the political left-wing in Israel, together with the myriads of Israel critics abroad, have exclaimed that Israel will become ever more isolated—unless it reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In light of the new agreement, they have clearly been proven wrong. The UAE is likely only the first Gulf state to normalize relations with Israel, with more to follow suit, despite the total lack of progress toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Israel is not becoming more isolated. Instead, its technological prowess has resulted in ever closer relationships with a long list of countries throughout the world, which might give lip service to the needs of the Palestinians, but care more about their own country's economic, strategic and technological needs. As OurCrowd CEO Michael Medved, who has visited Dubai and Abu Dhabi many times over the past few years, said to me Friday morning, "I'm look forward to helping to connect the thriving ecosystems and investor communities of Israel and the UAE for the benefit and prosperity of all."

The willingness of the UAE and possibly other Gulf States to normalize relations with Israel is a blow to Iran. Through its proxies, Iran has been in an ongoing fight against Israel, as well as the Sunni nations in the Gulf, and beyond. The old saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" could not be more accurate in this case. Iran's bellicosity has helped turn the secret liaisons between Israel and the UAE into a very public relationship. Both nations will benefit economically and strategically from the link. Thus, Israel and the UAE are strengthening the anti-Iran axis, at a time when Iran is staggering, with a country and an economy suffering deeply from the impact of both sanctions and COVID-19.

For the Palestinians, this is another uppercut to a strategy they followed since Yasser Arafat said no to the Clinton plan in 1990. They have continually refused to make the concessions (primarily regarding refugees) that would make a deal with Israel possible, holding out for international pressure that might force Israel to make even more significant concessions than those offered by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Instead, the Palestinian leadership has watched from the sidelines, as Israel has become ever more potent and forged relationships throughout the world. This agreement should be a wake-up call for the Palestinian leadership, who instead of agreeing to negotiate with the United States over the Trump plan, chose to walk away again—against the advice of the Gulf states.

Finally, there are the Israeli settlers, who believed they could have their cake and eat it too. They thought the Trump plan allowed them to annex a significant part of the West Bank, without agreeing to a Palestinian state. They might have gotten their wish—if they had learned to remain quiet and let the Palestinians say no.

Instead, they were compelled to repeat, at every opportunity, that they were happy to annex part of the West Bank, but would never allow a Palestinian state to exist. Right-wing Israeli leaders repeatedly asserted that there was now a historic opportunity to annex under President Donald Trump, and that doing so would be cost-free. It now clear that nothing is cost-free. U.S. Ambassador David Freedman, who sometimes seems more like a spokesman for the settlers than the U.S. ambassador, stated on Thursday, "We [the United States] prioritize peace in the region over West Bank annexation. You cannot have peace and annexation at the same time."

It is hard for critics of the Trump and Netanyahu governments (I am one of them) to give these administrations credit. However, there is no doubt that, this time, credit is due to both of them. While the Trump administration's management of foreign policy has been haphazard at best and disastrous at worst, the one area in which they have had a coherent plan—you don't have to agree with the plan to accept that it was coherent—has been on the Israeli-Arab dispute.

When Israel began talking about unilaterally implementing the parts of the U.S. peace plan that were most politically palatable to Netanyahu and his supporters, the U.S. (and especially Jared Kushner, who was responsible for the plan) understood that if Israel acted unilaterally, there was no chance of the plan ever working. Moreover, an unknown degree of chaos might ensue. They also realized that Netanyahu, who had been promising annexation, needed a tree from which to climb down.

At the same time, while the UAE wanted to strengthen its ties to Israel, it remained afraid of reactions in the Arab world. Thus, "Plan B" came together. The UAE would formalize its bilateral relations, in return for Israel freezing any plans for annexation, for the foreseeable future. Netanyahu understood that without American support, he could not go ahead with annexation.

Tel Aviv City Hall
The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag on August 13. Jack Guez/AFP/Getty

So Netanyahu made this 180-degree turn to transform his legacy from architect of annexation to peacemaker. And while his critics rightly chastise him for the abysmal management of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel, making secret agreements works to Netanyahu's core competencies as a leader. The fact that he is willing to walk away from his most definitive, longstanding commitment to his base, in return for this agreement, is to his credit. The exact negative consequences to him, which might be seen if elections are held, remain unknown.

Thursday night, after the agreement was disclosed, I discussed its implications with Ben Dror Yemini, a longtime columnist for Yediot Ahronot who could be characterized as to the right of center, on i24News. He warned about one of the effects of this new understanding, and potential of future agreements—i.e., that Israelis would be lulled into thinking we do not need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, a situation he says would be a disaster and lead to a one-state solution, which would put an end to Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state.

On the way to the studio, on my scooter, I passed through the beach and promenade area, just north of the Jaffa Port. There, I found myself amid hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians. They had crossed the border, as the Israeli army looked the other way. Palestinians were enjoying themselves on the Tel Aviv beach and along the park surrounding it. This could become our reality—if we and the Palestinians are willing to jettison our mutual narratives of suffering and find a way to live peace with one another.

Marc Shulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.