What is striking about the fast-moving pace of Israel’s normalization process with the United Arab Emirates is the public enthusiasm with which the UAE is going about it.
Israel’s ongoing relations with its two neighboring partners, Egypt and Jordan, are conducted behind closed doors. Security, intelligence, technical and commercial interaction is deep, ongoing and vital — but is conducted out of the public eye. Our ambassadors work in the most constrained environments. Leaders and officials have limited open contact. Local media is full of hostility.
Our new, third regional partner, with whom we have no blighted history of bloodshed, however, is openly embracing Israel. There’s realpolitik in that embrace, of course — notably including shared concerns about Iran, and the UAE interest in F-35s and other US military hardware that a non peace partner could not hope to obtain.
But our diplomatic correspondent Raphael Ahren, who flew home Tuesday from the Israeli and US delegations’ unprecedented normalization trip in Abu Dhabi, found a host nation thoroughly confident in its strategy at the start of its new relationship with Israel and determined to show that this will be a warm peace. In stark contrast to what have sadly become our shadowy, almost furtive dealings with Cairo and Amman, Abu Dhabi is showing itself happy to be publicly seen in our company.
These are the earliest days of the new relationship. Only our officials and our journalists are in contact; we’re not yet visiting each other’s hotels, historical sites, beaches, and places of worship. The UAE is said to be a little ticked off that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been talking up the benefits of Israeli innovation combined with Emirati investment, when the UAE considers itself the Gulf’s startup nation. And an exchange with the guide who escorted Ahren and his colleagues around an Abu Dhabi museum on Tuesday is worth internalizing: “She also told us the biography of the UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, and when we asked her what he would think about the normalization with Israel, replied: ‘He’d be very happy. He was a man of peace.’ And how does she feel about it? ‘We follow our leaders. Whatever they decide we support, blindly,’ she said.”
Nonetheless, the fact is that for the first time, an Arab state — and a thriving, influential Arab state at that — is telling its people, ours, and the world that it is not merely resigned to our existence, or prepared to tolerate us, but inclined to actually like us. Israel. The Jewish state.
A most unfamiliar pleasure.
Just saying no
What is also striking about this fast-moving process is the intransigence and dysfunctionality of the Palestinian Authority’s response.
It keeps just saying no. And not even “no, but…”
This isn’t surprising. PA President Mahmoud Abbas notoriously chose not to so much as respond to prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of just about everything the Palestinians ostensibly seek. But it is lousy leadership, that runs against his people’s interests — and ours.
Last time I checked, Israel had not delivered a blanket agreement to every aspect of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” proposal, but had accepted it, including its conditional provisions for a Palestinian state, as a basis for negotiation. Abbas’s PA rejected the plan before it had even been presented — even though the Authority was and is invited to submit the amendments and reservations it considers crucial to its interests. This preemptive stance echoed its behavior in 2017, when the PA rejected US President Donald Trump’s recognition of unspecified borders of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and broke off all ties with the administration, rather than negotiate for its demands in the holy city.
Now, fulminating against the despicable UAE and its heinous act of “betrayal” — even though the normalization agreement delivered the indefinite suspension of unilateral Israeli annexation of some 30 percent of the West Bank — Ramallah reached out to the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for anticipated backing. And, as of this writing, got nowhere.
Jared Kushner is publicly hoping that all 22 Arab states will ultimately make peace with Israel, stating on Tuesday, “it is logical for them to do it.” But the Abbas-misled Palestinians — themselves one of those 22 Arab League states — are instead allying themselves with Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and, dismally, the Hamas Islamist terrorist organization, on the extremist axis.
Interviewed in the UAE media during the trip to Abu Dhabi, Kushner said he hoped it would be mere “months” before the next Arab state follows the UAE’s lead. That timing is crucial: A tentatively planned Israel-UAE signing ceremony at the White House this month would make for a nice electoral boost for Trump. A stream of Arab states moving to normalize with Israel would vindicate Kushner’s declaration here on Sunday that his father-in-law has been “writing a script for a new Middle East” since setting out on his first foreign trip as president in May 2017 to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican.
As of this week, the Saudis are holding back — restating their commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative they formulated. But far from condemning the new normalization, as Abbas would have hoped, they have signaled clear support for the UAE, and by extension Israel.
On Monday, they allowed El Al LY971 to overfly their airspace, purportedly making an exception because Kushner and the US delegation were on board. On Tuesday, they let the same plane, flight LY972, return by the same route — even without the Americans. And on Wednesday, they announced that their airspace will henceforth be open to “all countries” flying to and from the UAE, which Netanyahu understands to mean that flights from Israel can also use the route when heading further east, slashing flight times and airfares. Riyadh, too, is doubtless making its US presidential election calculations, perhaps wary of alienating a President Joe Biden, but wary, too, of an Obama-style conciliatory approach to Iran.
Trump’s first overseas trip, it is often forgotten, didn’t only take him to Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Rome. He visited the Palestinian territories too, meeting with Abbas in Bethlehem on May 23, 2017, and insistently telling the Israeli audience, Netanyahu included, at his final event here hours later that Abbas and the Palestinians “are ready to reach for peace… I know you’ve heard it before. I am telling you. That’s what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.”
On August 13 of this year, hours after he announced the Israel-UAE diplomatic bombshell, Trump said much the same thing: “I think the Palestinians … very much want to be a part of what we’re doing… I see peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I see that happening. I think as these very big, powerful, wealthy countries come in, I think the Palestinians will follow, quite naturally.”
For now, the Palestinians are showing every sign of resisting such ostensible logic. Urged by the UAE to seize the moment, with annexation off the table, and re-engage, they are instead branding Abu Dhabi a new enemy and encouraging boycott action against it. Assured by the US that the Trump plan is not set in stone, they insist on treating it as though it is all a fait accompli.
It is wonderful that, a quarter of a century since our last accord, with Jordan in 1994, a thriving Arab nation has become our third peace partner, and that others may follow suit. But the UAE is a three-hour flight away… even over Saudi airspace. The Palestinians, who are calling the peacemakers traitors and lining up with the region’s rejectionists, are right here. The full “script for a new Middle East” cannot be completed without them.
An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.