What does the Israel-UAE agreement mean for the Middle East?

In a surprise announcement on August 13, President Trump revealed that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had reached a landmark agreement to normalize relations. The White House praised this deal as one that would lead to greater cooperation and investment between the two countries. In striking this deal with Israel, the UAE becomes only the third Arab state and first Gulf state to have normal relations with Tel Aviv — Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. 

In exchange for normalized relations, which involves mutual investment and reciprocal embassies, Israel agreed to temporarily halt its plans to annex portions of the West Bank. In July, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced international outcry for his plans to incorporate Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jordan Valley, something he hoped to achieve before the U.S. presidential election in November, which could see anti-annexation candidate Joe Biden elected into office. Following condemnation by neighboring states and the European Union, Netanyahu backed down from his plan and did not extend Israeli jurisdiction over the West Bank.

The UAE and Israel have had informal relations for decades, largely based on a mutual interest in countering influence from Iran in the Middle East, which both states see as a destabilizing, aggressive force in the region. Amid a rise in informal cooperation in 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic office in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi under the International Renewable Energy Agency. Incremental steps towards normalization shifted into overdrive after Netanyahu balked at the question of annexation in July; from that moment, six weeks of talks began, facilitated by the President’s Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. 

The August agreement, referred to as the Abraham Accord, saw criticism from parties on both sides of the contentious issues surrounding Israel and annexation, most strongly from Palestinians who see the normalization of relations as a betrayal of their cause. Palestinian leaders decried the agreement as a “stab in the back” and added that “we were blindsided. … It is a complete sell-out”, while in Israel, West Bank settlers and political allies of Netanyahu were disappointed in the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend annexation.

 Even with the looming threat of annexation temporarily lifted, Palestine still faces an uncertain future, especially if this Emirati decision sets a precedent for other Arab states to engage with Israel. A member of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee declared that “this agreement is a total departure from the Arab consensus. The Palestinian people have not authorized anyone to make concessions to Israel in exchange for anything.” 

Supporters of the agreement emphasize the benefits that both Israel and the UAE have to gain from greater cooperation and constructive efforts in the region. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “today, a new era began in the relations of the state of Israel with the Arab world,” while Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE announced that the agreement was going to “[set] a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

What happens next between Arab states and Israel has yet to be seen, but given that the UAE has the second-largest economy in the Middle East and plays an increasing role in regional affairs, other states are expected to soon follow suit. Potential candidates for normalization are Oman and Bahrain, two Gulf states that have close ties to the UAE, as well as African states like Morocco and Sudan. The most consequential decision will come from Saudi Arabia, the largest regional power and the state most invested in confronting Iranian influence in the Middle East. Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, have a close relationship and their two countries have made up the bulk of an anti-Iran coalition, but conservative forces in Saudi Arabia might prevent normalization with Israel in the near future. 

For many states in the Middle East, and especially those around the Persian Gulf, opposing Iran and its influence has become a more critical national security concern than continued support for the Palestinian cause. In the face of this threat, Arab solidarity with Palestine alone is no longer strong enough to justify continued non-engagement with Israel, which is a powerful military and technology force in the region. With several states weighing the benefits of formal cooperation with Tel Aviv, the concerns of Palestinians may be neglected. Long-held demands from Palestinian authorities, such as a return to pre-1967 borders with Israel and recognition of East Jerusalem as part of Palestine might go unresolved if Arab nations find an easier path in normalizing relations with Israel.

Middle East politics has been defined by the growing Saudi-Iranian rivalry for decades, with proxy conflicts between the two powers raging across the region, and in Yemen and Syria. The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel will only make this regional bipolarity more severe. In the likely scenario where additional Arab states follow the UAE and begin engaging with Israel, the two sides of this conflict will become further entrenched. On one side of this face-off are American allies like Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia; on the other is Iran and its partners in Syria, China, and Russia. In coming to an agreement, Israel and the UAE have set the Middle East on a new path, one that is sure to generate conflict and complicate regional relationships for the foreseeable future.

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