UAE ambassador: ‘Abraham Accords were about preventing annexation’

Envoy also confirms Netanyahu trip to Abu Dhabi next week, says bad blood between Emiratis and Palestinians can be overcome with show of good faith from Ramallah

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba speaks on a Zoom panel organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on February 1, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)
UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba speaks on a Zoom panel organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on February 1, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)

The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the US said Monday that the normalization agreement his country signed with Israel in September was primarily “about preventing annexation.”

Yousef al-Otaiba said that while many had sought to cast the agreement in different lights to suit their own narrative, for him it was mostly about stopping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to large parts of the West Bank.

“When the Abraham Accords were announced, everybody… looked at [it] through their own lens,” said al-Otaiba, explaining that both the Palestinians and the Iranians thought the normalization deal was meant as a message to their respective governments.

“The truth is that the Abraham Accords were about preventing annexation. The reason it happened, the way it happened, at the time it happened was to prevent annexation,” he said, speaking on a Zoom panel hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The ambassador recalled conversations with senior White House officials last year during which he tried to explain to them that Arab frustration over annexation would not blow over as it had with US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“It is going to have a profoundly negative impact on the region, specifically on our friends in Jordan, on the rest of us who have begun opening up with Israel. It’s going to have a negative impact on America and I think on Israel,” he continued.

Otaiba said this concern led him to pen an op-ed in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth last June, detailing his concerns and specifying how annexation would threaten the possibility of Israeli ties with the Arab world: “For me as the guy who negotiated this deal, this was really about stopping annexation and saving the two-state solution.”

Despite his apparent prioritization of the shelving of annexation, the envoy also spoke excitedly of the people-to-people interactions that have resulted from the normalization agreement, including a baseball game that has been scheduled between Little League teams from the UAE and Israel.

Otaiba also confirmed that Netanyahu himself will be visiting Abu Dhabi next week — something that only Jerusalem had spoken of thus far.

Commenting on the UAE’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, which called the Abraham Accords a “stab in the back” and temporarily recalled its ambassador from Abu Dhabi, Otaiba said, “I’m happy that the temperature has come down a little bit, and I think people realized that this was not a betrayal, [that] this was not selling anyone out.”

However, he expressed frustration with the PA’s refusal to accept medical aid from the UAE — which Ramallah said ha not been not coordinated with it — and said that the Palestinians would have to demonstrate that they’re serious if they want to move forward.

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

“If there’s a genuine desire, of course we can have a conversation about how to get past [the bad blood], but there has to be a genuine desire and that desire has to be demonstrated and displayed somehow,” Otaiba said.

He also said that the UAE would be willing to support and participate in a peace plan, but that one would have to be presented first, seemingly dismissing the proposal made by the Trump administration last year that envisioned Israel annexing all of its settlements in the West Bank.

“You can’t win the business if you haven’t competed properly and presented a good plan. And right now we don’t have that plan,” he said. “Can we go around the PA so we’re not obstructed by the PA? Of course we’d be interested, but we haven’t seen any of that.”

Asked for his reaction to US President Joe Biden’s decision last week to freeze the Trump administration’s sale of F-35s fighter jets and other advanced weaponry to the UAE, Otaiba was unfazed.

He called the decision a “routine, checking the box exercise.”

“They inherited one of the largest arms deals in the world, so, should they review it? They absolutely should. But they’re going to find what we already know — that it was done through a very straightforward negotiating process,” Otaiba said.

Palestinian businessman Samer Khoury speaks on a Zoom panel organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on February 1, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Advocating for the $23 billion sale’s ultimate approval, the envoy argued that “you can’t take tools away from partners who are expected to do more,” as the US seeks to pull back its involvement in the region to focus on combating Russia and China.

Also speaking on the panel was Samer Khoury, a prominent Palestinian businessman who heads the Consolidated Contractors Company, the Middle East’s largest construction company.

Khoury, who has close ties with senior Palestinian officials, expressed hope that Abu Dhabi would use its new ties with Israel to encourage the Jewish state to ease its restrictions on Palestinian businesses in the West Bank. He pointed out that Israeli restrictions on access to 4G and 5G mobile network technology, natural resources and freedom of movement prevent the development of the Palestinian economy.

Addressing claims of incitement in the Palestinian government and school system, Khoury said he had spoken recently to PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who told him that Ramallah would propose the formation of a US-Israeli-Palestinian committee that would look at the issue and provide recommendations for how both sides could address it.

Khoury expressed hope that Palestinian elections would be able to take place late this year, but clarified that Hamas would only be able to participate if it abides by the charters signed by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including ones denouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel.

“No one is allowed to enter the election… until they sign that document,” he said.

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