In halting annexation, UAE paints its Israel peace deal as win for Palestinians
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In halting annexation, UAE paints its Israel peace deal as win for Palestinians

As Jerusalem and DC hail historic agreement on normalization, leaders of the Gulf nation portray that aspect as secondary to keeping two-state option alive

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 19, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 19, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

As it announced groundbreaking plans to normalize relations with Israel Thursday, in a move that opened it up to intense criticism by Palestinians and their supporters, the United Arab Emirates took pains to portray the move as an achievement for West Bank denizens, in that it halts in their tracks Israel’s plans to annex parts of the territory.

As Israeli and US leaders hailed a “historic” peace agreement, the UAE’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, issued a statement that led with the sides reaching an agreement “to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories,” and only then added that the sides “also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.”

The nation’s Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash also stressed first that Israel is “freezing the decision to annex the Palestinian territories,” characterizing it as “a great achievement for the future of the region, its people, and the world,” only then acknowledging that “the UAE is employing its decision for normal relations with Israel.”

Anwar Gargash said the country was doing so “With courageous initiative, to preserve the chances of a two-state solution,” and added that the nation “calls for the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, and is committed to working with friends to establish security and ensure the stability of the region.”

The Gulf country’s ambassador the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, said the Palestinians, too, need to benefit from the agreement, emphasizing that Abu Dhabi will continue to push for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

“The UAE will remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people — for their dignity, their rights and their own sovereign state,” al-Otaiba said in a statement. “They must benefit too in normalization. As we have for fifty years, we will forcefully advocate for these ends, now directly and bolstered with stronger incentives, policy options and diplomatic tools.”

Mohammad Issa Abu Shehab, UAE ambassador to the EU, told Emirates TV the step was most important for its success in “freezing all Israeli plans for Palestinian land.”

But the Palestinian reaction was swift and severe, with Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi tweeting that “The UAE has come out in the open on its secret dealings/normalization with Israel. Please don’t do us a favor. We are nobody’s fig leaf!”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called an emergency meeting in response to the agreement.

The Hamas terror group, meanwhile, called the deal “dangerous” and “a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause.”

Al-Otaiba’s statement was posted on the website of the UAE’s Washington embassy a short while after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and the Emirati de-facto leader, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, issued a joint statement announcing they agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

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 Photo/Jon Gambrell)

The joint statement noted that in return for the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Abu Dhabi, Israel “will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas” in the West it had said it wants to annex in accordance with Trump’s Vision for Peace plan.

However, a senior Israeli official said Netanyahu’s annexation was only “temporarily suspended” to allow for the signing of the agreement with the Emirates.

Netanyahu himself later insisted during a press conference that annexation remained on the table, though he acknowledged that Trump had asked that the issue be put off for now.

Al-Otaiba, in his statement Thursday, struck a somewhat different tone. “Today’s announcement is a significant advance for the region and for diplomacy,” he said. “It immediately stops annexation and the potential of violent escalation. It maintains the viability of a two-state solution as endorsed by the Arab League and international community. It creates new dynamics and possibilities in the peace process. It bolsters the stability of Jordan.”

According to Israeli sources, Thursday’s breakthrough was preceded by weeks of intensive talks between officials in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. These contacts were initiated in the wake of al-Otaiba’s unprecedented June 12 op-ed on the front page of an Israeli newspaper, in which he 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 on the front page of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, al-Otaiba acknowledged that Israel and much of the Arab world have grown closer in recent years and expressed hope that such cooperation in a wide range of areas would deepen in the future.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an IDF Home Front Command base in Ramle on August 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, he noted, Netanyahu’s plan to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank 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. (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 as 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 would “certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” the senior diplomat stressed.

Concluding his article — the first ever for an Israeli paper by a senior officials from an Arab Gulf state — al-Otaiba noted that much of the Arab world “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.”

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