Hosannas of historical significance followed the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have normalized relations with each other. The truth is, we don’t really know what this means for the long-term. History is best judged in hindsight.
In some ways, the mutual recognition is not a massive surprise. Israel has long had semi-secret good relations with some of the Gulf states. But, in the name of solidarity with Palestinians, the Arab states kept official relations off the table. It is a sign now that fear of Iran, rather than solidarity with Palestinians, is increasingly the priority guiding diplomatic decision-making in the region.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman made it sound like the accord is the greatest thing to hit the Middle East since hummus. Calling it a “geopolitical earthquake,” Friedman suggested this was the third most important event for the region after President Anwar Sadat visiting Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat shaking Yitzhak Rabin’s hand on the White House lawn. But Friedman’s choice of those two examples may exactly undermine his case that this is quite so tectonic.
Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, history in the Middle East does not have a consistently forward-moving trajectory. Relations between Israel and its neighbours have often been one step forward and two steps back. The anti-Zionist culture that permeates much of the Middle East and North Africa is not necessarily something that can be overcome simply by a recognition by top government officials on either side. Egypt’s peacemaking with Israel in the late 1970s can be seen as the most direct cause of the assassination of Sadat in 1981. When some extremists saw Jordan’s King Abdullah I as too soft on the Zionists, he was assassinated at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem by a Palestinian, in 1951. Extremism is not limited to the Arab side – Rabin was killed 25 years ago by an Israeli extremist opposed to concessions with the Palestinians.
Extremism could derail this progress, as well. Some voices in the Arab world are already warning of dire consequences for Arab figures working with Israelis. Even if, as we desperately hope, there is not retaliatory violence, and even if rumours that other Arab countries are ready to follow the UAE’s lead are true, it may be premature to see this one step as a guarantee of rainbows and doves.
When Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords and adopted a position of mutual recognition, it was perceived to be a future-changing moment. It certainly appeared that way at the time. However, relations with Egypt – then the unchallenged political, military and cultural superpower of the Arab world and the birthplace of pan-Arabism – never became chummy. What Israel has received in practical terms in the subsequent 40-plus years is mostly a cold peace. Similarly, after Israel’s parallel agreement with Jordan. There are mutual benefits and a state of comparatively benign adjacency but these relationships are hardly the stuff of great friendship.
Still, the Gulf states are different. They have not been involved in any conflagration with Israel. Their emergence as high-tech and financial powers in recent decades puts them on footing with Israel among the Middle East’s forward-looking economies.
Meanwhile, as part of the deal, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called off his annexation plan in part of the West Bank, though it was hard to see a way forward for the ill-advised initiative. It’s possible that Netanyahu’s annexation scheme was like U.S. President Donald Trump’s Mexican border wall – red meat to their respective far-right constituents but a promise that was never going to be kept. It may not have been a jagged pill for Israelis to swallow.
And, speaking of Trump, as he often does, the U.S. president is crowing that he (via his advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner) is responsible for this great unfolding. It seems undeniable that the U.S. administration played a role. Just 70-some-odd days out from one of the most important elections of our lifetimes, the agreement seems timed to bolster the image of the president as a statesman and appeal to Jewish and evangelical voters. However, the relationships between these actors are not entirely transparent and there are likely many moving pieces – and many lucrative business deals – to which we are not privy. Much of the excited coverage of the agreement fails to recognize the larger geopolitics in the region and how this agreement may best serve those currently in power.
Palestinian leaders are outraged by a deal that reduces their leverage in the region, and Israel and its supporters should be wary of unilateralism if there is any hope of keeping a two-state solution alive. That said, whatever the future holds for Israel’s relationships with the UAE and other Arab states, this is a time for cautious hope. While the Palestinian leadership and some of their ostensible allies, like Turkey and Hezbollah, are upset by the accord, it’s possible that they are among those who should be most enthusiastic.
Denormalization, the once-nearly-unanimous assertion by Arab states that Israel shouldn’t exist – and, in their official diplomatic worldview, doesn’t exist – was intended to harm Israel. But Israel’s economy continues humming along, even as the pandemic makes the outlook more uncertain. The biggest losers of denormalization have been neighbouring Arab people and states – most especially the Palestinian people – who are effectively quarantined from the economic engine of the region. The Israeli-UAE agreement could be a good thing for all people in the area, whether they recognize it right now or not. However, we shouldn’t let our excitement for a détente get in the way of other critical interests: a two-state solution and electing governments in the United States and Israel that are oriented to coexistence and fair play.