Thursday’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to establish full diplomatic relations merits all the “historic” epithets with which it was unveiled in Washington by US President Donald Trump and greeted in Jerusalem by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s foundational desire to establish good relations with its neighbors, and its strategic interest in widening peaceful ties in the region, has for the first time yielded an accord-in-waiting with a non-adjacent Middle East state — an influential and technologically advanced regional player. And it holds the promise of further warming relations with others prepared to break the taboo on normalization.
It bolsters Israel’s existing peace partners, Egypt and Jordan. It constitutes a blow to Israel’s enemies, led by Iran.
And it postpones Netanyahu’s counter-productive promise of unilateral West Bank annexation.
Trump’s plan comes to life
The announcement marks a resounding success for the president and his administration, notably senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, seven months after Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement was unveiled at the White House.
The UAE, as was noted in the joint statement issued by Trump on behalf of the US, Israel and the UAE on Thursday, was present when that vision was unveiled. Now, Abu Dhabi’s agreement to ties with Israel gives the administration’s plan tangible resonance.
The breakthrough, as announced Thursday, includes an Israeli commitment to “suspend” Netanyahu’s oft-declared intention to begin annexing the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel in the Trump plan. Instead, the joint statement specifies, Israel will “focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”
A Channel 12 report late Thursday suggested that a US, Israel, UAE signing ceremony, just a few weeks from now, might attract other regional participants newly prepared to publicly associate with Israel. Kushner, in a briefing, said further ties were now “more inevitable.”
Whereas unilateral annexation had every potential for complicating, at the very least, Israel’s existing peace agreements, therefore, Thursday’s breakthrough offers the tantalizing possibility of fresh partnerships. “The United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible,” the joint statement vouchsafes, “and will work together to achieve this goal.”
The UAE, indeed, formalizing and bringing into the public eye years of more secretive intelligence, trade and informal diplomatic contacts, on Thursday highlighted the quid pro quo of Israel suspending annexation as central to its readiness to normalize ties.
Vindication for Netanyahu
The breakthrough marks a stellar achievement for Netanyahu, who reportedly negotiated on the agreement without involving his Blue and White coalition partners. By stressing their concerns over unilateral annexation in talks with the administration, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi likely played a significant role, but the success is the prime minister’s.
As he stressed in a jubilant press conference on Thursday night, Netanyahu has worked tenaciously for years to nurture ties with some of the relatively moderate nations in the region, including making trips to Oman and meeting with Sudan’s president.
Leaving a cabinet discussion Thursday for a 16-minute conversation with Trump and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed was the culmination of those efforts to date.
For the first time, he was able to list himself alongside Menachem Begin, with the 1979 Egypt treaty, and Yitzhak Rabin, with the 1994 Jordan accord, and declare his sense of pleasure and privilege that “it has fallen to me… to establish the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state.”
Annexation ‘temporarily halted’?
It will be interesting to discover how much of the settler leadership the prime minister brought into the loop.
Delighted by the prospect of imminent Israeli annexation at the end of January, some settler leaders have become deeply disillusioned as the months dragged by and annexation fell off the agenda. While praising the Israel-UAE agreement, Naftali Bennett, the pro-annexation leader of the recently resurgent Yamina party, on Thursday evening lamented that Netanyahu had missed a “once in a century” opportunity to extend Israeli sovereignty into the historic Judea and Samaria region.
Netanyahu will be unfazed by such criticism, however.
At his press conference, he moved to disarm opposition from the settlers and their supporters… by insisting that he is their only credible champion. He said he remained committed to applying Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, that he always said it has to be coordinated with the US, that it only appears in the Trump plan because he asked that it be included, and that Trump had now merely requested “a temporary halt.”
Suggesting that skeptics take him at his word, Netanyahu also noted that he had been “ridiculed” for insisting that Israel would be able to broaden its ties with the Arab world without retreating to the pre-1967 lines, and now had been vindicated. It would be wise to take him at his word on extending sovereignty too, he suggested.
Time will tell whether the agreement also vindicates Netanyahu’s oft-stated conviction that new partners for Israel in the region could push the Palestinians toward engagement in a viable diplomatic process. It may be that Thursday’s announcement marks a first step in that direction. Or, more likely, it may be that the Palestinian Authority — which late Thursday was organizing an emergency meeting of its leadership, and then recalled its envoy from Abu Dhabi — insists on staying out of what Netanyahu said he believes will be a wider array of new allies.
For now, however, the breakthrough with the UAE is emphatic cause for celebration in its own right. Potentially the most significant diplomatic advance in a quarter century, it constitutes a major step in Israel’s core effort to cement and normalize its presence in this complex, challenging, constantly shifting neighborhood.