Annexation and normalization 'are a contradiction'

In first-ever op-ed for Israeli paper, UAE diplomat warns against annexation

Yousef al-Otaiba says much of Arab world wants to believe Israel ‘is an opportunity, not an enemy,’ but the ‘great potential of warmer ties’ is threatened by Netanyahu’s plans

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)
Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

In a first-ever op-ed for an Israeli newspaper by a Gulf diplomat, a senior ambassador from the United Arab Emirates warned Jerusalem against its plan to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, saying such a move would destroy any hopes for further rapprochement between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

In his piece, printed in Hebrew Friday on the front page of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Minister of State Yousef Al-Otaiba, the country’s ambassador to the US, acknowledged that Israel and much of the Arab world have grown closer in recent years and expressed hope that such cooperation in a range wide of areas would deepen in the future.

However, he noted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank starting next month would bury such dreams.

“Recently, Israeli leaders have promoted excited talk about normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. But Israeli plans for annexation and talk of normalization are a contradiction,” he wrote.

“A unilateral and deliberate act, annexation is the illegal seizure of Palestinian land. It defies the Arab – and indeed the international — consensus on the Palestinian right to self-determination. It will ignite violence and rouse extremists. It will send shockwaves around the region, especially in Jordan, whose stability — often taken for granted — benefits the entire region, particularly Israel.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk with reporters before a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, January 27, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Al-Otaiba was one of the three Arab ambassadors to attend the White House ceremony during which US President Donald Trump unveiled his peace plan for the Middle East. His country has long “promoted engagement and conflict reduction, helped to create incentives-carrots rather than sticks — and focused attention on the collective benefits for all parties,” he wrote. For instance, Abu Dhabi has listed Hezbollah a terrorist organization and condemned Hamas, he explained.

“We have conducted quiet diplomacy and sent very public signals to help shift the dynamics and promote the possible,” he went on.

However, an Israeli annexation “will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” the senior diplomat stressed.

“With the region’s two most capable militaries, common concerns about terrorism and aggression, and a deep and long relationship with the United States, the UAE and Israel could form closer and more effective security cooperation,” he said. “As the two most advanced and diversified economies in the region, expanded business and financial ties could accelerate growth and stability across the Middle East.”

Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi have shared interests in the fields of water and food security, technology and science, which “could spur greater innovation and collaboration,” al-Otaiba wrote.

“Annexation will also harden Arab views of Israel just when Emirati initiatives have been opening the space for cultural exchange and broader understanding of Israel and Judaism,” he went on. “The UAE has encouraged Israelis to think about the upside of more open and normal links. And we have done the same among Emiratis and with Arabs more broadly.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meet with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, in Amman, Jordan, July, 9, 2009.(AP Photo/Nader Daoud)

He noted the existence and religious freedom of a Jewish community in Dubai and the fact that Israel was invited to participate in the 2020 World Expo, planned to take place in the city this summer, but was postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“These are the carrots – the incentives, the upsides – for Israel. Greater security. Direct links. Expanded markets. Growing acceptance. This is what normal could be,” he wrote. “Normal is not annexation. Instead, annexation is a misguided provocation of another order. And continued talk of normalization would be just mistaken hope for better relations with the Arab states.”

Concluding his article, al-Otaiba noted that much of the Arab “would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an unmistakable signal of whether it sees it the same way.”

The UAE government made great efforts to publicize the ambassador’s op-ed far and wide.

Hend al-Otaiba, the director of strategic communications at the Foreign Ministry in Abu Dhabi, even tweeted about it in Hebrew:

Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lior Haiat responded, saying: “A Pleasant surprise to read a tweet in Hebrew.”

“Israel has extended its hand in peace to all its neighbors since its founding. Peace is an opportunity for the entire Middle East with great potential for all of us. The American peace plan is a real starting point to move toward that future together,” he tweeted.

In a video interview in English with The National, an UAE-based English-language newspaper, Al-Otaiba explained why he thought it was important to write an op-ed for an Israeli paper.

“We decided that Yedioth Ahronoth is probably the best place to run it to get a mainstream, broad Israeli audience,” he said.

“I don’t want there to be any confusion on what our position is. I think it’s important to be public, to be vocal, clear and direct,” he added.

“All the progress and the attitude shift that you have seen, people being less hostile to Israel, all of that could be undermined by the decision to annex. All the progress, and the exchanges and the openings could be undermined by one simple step.”

Al-Otaiba listed several recent indications of the Israel-UAE rapprochement — such as the fact that an Etihad flight landed in Tel Aviv this week or that Israel’s national anthem was played at sports events in the Emirates — but threatened that annexation “will make a lot of those things more difficult.”

An Etihad airlines cargo plane at Ben-Gurion airport on June 9, 2020. (Moni Shiffer/Israel Airports Authority)

The unprecedented nature of al-Otaiba’s op-ed was not lost on many analysts of Israel-Arab relations.

“This is a very significant piece in terms of the message, messenger and platform,” Ghaith Al Omari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former official on the Palestinian negotiating team, told The National.

“The message explicitly and effectively debunks one of the key arguments of the proponents of annexation – namely that the Palestinian issue has lost any significance in the region and that annexation will have no impact on Israel’s regional relations.

“It lends credibility that cannot be dismissed,” he said.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro participates in the Meir Dagan Conference for Strategy and Defense, at the Netanya College, on March 21, 2018. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel and a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the op-ed laid out the UAE’s genuine approach to the conflict.

“It is an attempt to communicate forthrightly with the Israeli public,” he told the paper. “It suggests that the UAE genuinely seeks to take additional steps toward normalization with Israel, but that their efforts would be dealt a significant setback by unilateral annexation in the West Bank.”

Added Shapiro, “That will help the Israeli public weigh the pros and cons of annexing territory, considering one of the costs as well as the alleged benefits.”

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