United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to normalise relations with Israel is the most dramatic event since the historic Arafat-Clinton-Rabin handshake on the White House Lawns in September 1993. Though there were signs of a rapprochement between the two countries; the announcement, interestingly was made by US President Donald Trump. It unravels a new page in Israel’s overtures towards Arab countries of the Gulf. Within the next few weeks, a formal agreement will be signed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Emirates Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Washington.
The announcement comes with an exciting twist. In return for normalisation of ties, President Trump declared that “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas” in the West Bank outlined in his Peace Plan announced in January this year. For a host of domestic and international reasons, Netanyahu was not keen to annex parts of the West Bank as he promised before the Knesset elections held in March 2020. Though facing criticism over abandoning annexation, Netanyahu leveraged his position to secure the Emirati recognition. For its part, UAE sees and presents the halting of Israeli annexation as a tangible step to reiterate its support for the Palestinians. In short, Israel, UAE and the US are presenting normalisation as a win-win situation for all and importantly for the Gulf region.
The Emirati decision raises three main issues. The regional and international reactions are along expected lines. While Bahrain, Egypt and Oman have openly welcomed the Emirati decision, the Palestinians feel let down, betrayed and sold-out. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki ordered the recalling of the Palestinian Ambassador in Abu Dhabi. Turkey, which has formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish State, warned that people of the region “will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behaviour of the UAE.” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went a step further and warned of possible suspension of relations with the UAE. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called it a ‘huge mistake’ on the part of his Arab neighbour.
The Emirati move is another indication of the diminishing importance of the Palestine cause in regional affairs. At least for some countries in the region, relations with Israel are no longer conditional upon the resolution of the Palestine question or the Palestinian statehood. As President Trump announced, Israel has postponed and not cancelled annexation and this is seen sufficient by Emirates to establish its pro-Palestinian credentials and tide any major opposition from the region.
Saudi Arabia, the prised catch for Israel, is unlikely to follow immediately but its tacit support is critical for Abu Dhabi. Riyadh has not issued any immediate public statement on President Trump’s announcement but given the close personal rapport between Emirati Crown Prince al-Nahyan and his Saudi counterpart, Mohammed bin-Salman (MbS), the move would be a well-choreographed step signalling a new chapter in Gulf-Israel relations. The Emirati move could spur other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Bahrain and Oman, to follow suit. In recent years, these countries have been making pro-normalisation statements. The late Sultan Qaboos of Oman even hosted the Israeli Prime Minister in October 2018. Qatar is also not hostile towards Israel and has been cooperating with the Netanyahu government to provide financial and material assistance to the people of the Gaza Strip.
The timing of the move and its formal unveiling in Washington indicates President Trump’s electoral calculations. As a result of Washington’s unpopular handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic meltdown, the US President is trailing in all major opinion polls. President Trump hopes that Israel’s diplomatic success with UAE and other Gulf countries would shore up his support among the conservatives.
Since assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seeking to ‘normalise’ Israel in India’s overall Middle East policy. Now India’s close regional and strategic partner—Prince al-Nahyan—has moved closer to Prime Minister Netanyahu. The normalisation, therefore, is a welcome development for India to strengthen and consolidate its ties with Israel as well as the UAE.
Script: Prof. P R Kumaraswamy, Centre for West Asian Studies, JNU