UAE diplomat’s historic op-ed shows normalization can thrive in the status quo

Annexation will undermine all progress in Arab-Israeli ties, Yousef Al-Otaiba warned in Yedioth. But if Netanyahu calls it off? Then the sky is the limit, Palestinians be damned

Raphael Ahren

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

Concept art showcasing the Israeli pavilion at the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai. (Screenshot)
Concept art showcasing the Israeli pavilion at the upcoming Expo 2020 in Dubai. (Screenshot)

During a rare press conference last Thursday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked if, when, and how he intends to implement his plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

“I’m trying to get the optimal result,” he replied. “The less I talk about it at this point, the higher the chances that we can achieve the best possible result.”

It is unclear what exactly Netanyahu meant and how secrecy would help him in applying Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all settlements across the West Bank — his oft-promised goal. Presumably he was referring to reports that the US administration is no longer very enthusiastic about the idea.

But, ironically perhaps, an unprecedented Hebrew op-ed published Friday in Israel’s biggest-selling daily, in which a senior United Arab Emirates official warned that unilateral annexation would jeopardize the rapprochement between the Arab world and the Jewish state, indicates that the opposite may be the case — the more Netanyahu talks about it, and the more people believe he will actually do it, the higher the benefits if he does not end up doing it.

Because if the “watershed article,” as The New York Times called it, showed one thing, it is that the prime minister’s constant declarations of intent about annexation have moved the goalposts so dramatically that the Arab world seems happy to continue improving relations as long as Israel doesn’t change the status quo in the West Bank.

Gulf will never admit ties with Israel until there’s peace? Well, no

For the longest time, Arab officials refused to openly acknowledge their clandestine relations with Israel. Analysts were adamant that these ties, while varied and deep, would have to remain officially hush-hush, as long as there was no formal Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Arab leaders, they argued, were too fearful of their own publics to come out of the closet regarding Israel before then.

Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Minister of State Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, on Friday seemingly upended this thesis.

If you go ahead with annexation, the increasing signs of our budding friendship will have to stop, he warned. But if you do nothing, ran the implicit subtext, the sky is the limit.

Progress on the peace process? That would be great, but his op-ed suggests that this is no longer a prerequisite for deepened normalization.

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)

Al-Otaiba’s op-ed was remarkable for various reasons, including, but not only, the fact that it was the first time a senior Gulf diplomat reached out to the Israeli public through an Israeli newspaper, in Hebrew.

Even more stunning than the medium was the actual message. Between stern warnings over the impact of annexation was, for the first time, an explicit acknowledgement of UAE-Israel rapprochement thus far. That Israel and many Gulf states have extensive security and business ties was the Middle East’s worst-kept secret, but Arab leaders until Friday always maintained a degree of deniability. That is now history.

“We have conducted quiet diplomacy and sent very public signals to help shift the dynamics and promote the possible,” al-Otaiba wrote. “For example, Israel has been invited to participate in Dubai’s World Expo now planned for next year. Israeli diplomats have an ongoing presence in Abu Dhabi at the headquarters of the United Nations International Renewable Energy Agency.”

His country opposes Hezbollah and Hamas, tolerates a growing local Jewish community and is even building a new synagogue for it, he added.

The Abrahamic Family House, to be built in Abu Dhabi, UAE (courtesy of The Higher Committee for Human Fraternity)

Summing up the many benefits further normalization with the Gulf states would bring to Israelis, the Emirati ambassador promised: “Greater security. Direct links. Expanded markets. Growing acceptance.”

Al-Otaiba’s list of pro-Israel and pro-Jewish overtures was so long that pro-Palestinian blog Electronic Intifada called his op-ed a “love letter to Israel.”

While the diplomat offered many carrots, indeed, he did not wield any remotely heavy sticks.

Yes, annexation would be “a misguided provocation” that would doom all prospects of continued normalization, he warned. But the rapprochement would be put on hold — nothing less, nothing more. Al-Otaiba did not threaten to arm the Palestinian resistance, nor promote another pan-Arab boycott movement.

‘Disputed land’ versus ‘occupied territory’

In an interview to the UAE-based The National, published soon after his op-ed appeared Friday, al-Otaiba said that unilateral West Bank annexation would be far worse than the US administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem two years ago. “They have the sovereign right to put their embassy wherever they like, but this land is disputed land,” al-Otaiba said.

But even this choice of words was telling: Arab officials usually don’t talk about “disputed land,” but rather condemn Israeli for having illegally occupied land stolen from the Palestinians.

“This is supposed to be part of a negotiation, part of a two-state solution, and by moving unilaterally you’re basically saying I don’t believe in the negotiation or the two-state solution, or I am doing something to undermine it,” he went on.

The message was clear: All it takes for Israel-UAE relations to continue to thrive is cancelling unilateral annexation. Not the creation of Palestinian state, or any other concessions for that matter. Just nothing to upset the status quo.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center left) and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani seen during a tree planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in the West Bank settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, in the Jordan Valley on February 10, 2020. (Flash90)

There are some who believe that Netanyahu never really intended to go ahead with his annexation plan. That it was all a pre-election ploy to win the sympathies of far-right voters, or a ruse to distract public opinion from his corruption trial.

Others, including those working closely with him on this file, are convinced that he is hellbent on extending sovereignty, as he considers annexation a once-in-a-life time opportunity to finally determine Israel’s eastern border.

Time will tell which camp is right. Netanyahu says he wants to start moving on annexation barely two weeks from now, but the White House currently appears less than thrilled to green light the process, especially in the absence of a unified position within the Israeli government.

If Netanyahu were to backtrack and cancel his annexation plan, the disappointment of some pro-settlement activists would be far outweighed by a collective sigh of relief shared by the Palestinians and many Israelis, the Arab world, Europe and the rest of the international community.

As Al-Otaiba’s historic op-ed made plain, Arab-Israeli rapprochement would proceed at an accelerated pace, even if peace with the Palestinian remained a distant dream.

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