UAE envoy: Broad support for deal shows Israelis want peace more than annexation

Ambassador to US al-Otaiba confident West Bank sovereignty off table for ‘significant period of time,’ Israelis will see normalization deal’s benefits

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al Spokesperson's Office)
UAE delegates wave to the departing El Al plane at the end of Israel-UAE normalization talks in Abu Dhabi, September 1, 2020. (El Al Spokesperson's Office)

The UAE ambassador to the US said Sunday that he is not concerned about annexation returning to the national agenda in Israel, given the overwhelming support in the Jewish state for the normalization agreement with his country, which came at the expense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial plan to declare Israeli sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank.

“I saw something in Israel that I rarely see: 80 percent of Israel, a week after the announcement, supported this deal over annexation,” said Yousef al-Otaiba, citing a Channel 12 poll during an episode of the Podbridge podcast he produces in cooperation with the UAE embassy in Washington.

“Eighty percent of Israel doesn’t agree on anything together, so that tells me this is something they want more than annexation, and that’s why I’m not worried,” he said.

The podcast episode featured al-Otaiba in conversation with former US ambassadors to Israel Dan Shapiro and Martin Indyk, along with Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East adviser to four US presidents.

(Clockwise from top left) UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba, former US diplomat Dennis Ross, former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk speak on an episode of Podbridge on September 20, 2020. (Screen capture: UAE Embassy in Washington)

Shapiro asked the UAE ambassador — who was closely involved in brokering the normalization agreement with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner — to comment on reports in the Israeli press regarding concessions Netanyahu’s government had made regarding West Bank settlements in order to reach the deal.

“I’m very confident that annexation is off the table for a significant period of time,” al-Otaiba said. “That was the arrangement we have with the United States. It’s for a significant period of time. We agreed to keep that period of time private, between us.”

Last week, The Times of Israel reported that the Trump administration gave the UAE a commitment during normalization negotiations that Washington would not recognize Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank until 2024 at the earliest.

Sources with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel that Emirati officials, led by al-Otaiba, focused on seeking assurances from the US, rather than Israel, on the matter.

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

They were largely uninterested in receiving an Israeli commitment to an annexation freeze, the sources said, since they understood that Netanyahu would not move forward with the move without US support; the Israeli premier for months had said as much himself.

While he declined to disclose the exact timeline during Sunday’s episode, al-Otaiba said, “I also think that we kicked the can down the road far enough that Israelis are going to see tremendous benefits for Israel.”

“They’re going to see the benefits of these agreements in reality, very very soon. And I think annexation will be something most people do not address in the future,” he said.

The UAE envoy predicted that the agreement will usher in a “new way of thinking… for the way that young people in our part of the world are going to look toward the future.”

“A new way of  thinking… for the young people who are going to look at working, investing, trading, studying, researching with Israelis [because] it’s not taboo anymore,” he said.

“That’s probably going to be the most significant breakthrough [from] what we just did. Breaking through that ideological barrier and that stereotypical barrier we had in place, that I think, as far as the UAE is concerned, is no longer going to be there.

“People are going to say, ‘Yeah, we can work with them. We can disagree with them on certain issues, but we can certainly work with them.’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to plant a tree during an event on the Jewish holiday of Tu BiShvat, in the settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, in the West Bank near the Palestinian city of Jericho, February 10, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“This is why this moment is so special, and I’m very optimistic and very confident that this is going to be a win-win and a mutually beneficial relationship for a very, very long time,” al-Otaiba concluded.

Al-Otaiba has been credited for helping get the ball rolling toward last month’s normalization announcement with an op-ed he published in the Yedioth Ahronoth Hebrew daily last June in which he warned Jerusalem against annexation, saying such a move would destroy any hopes for further rapprochement between the Jewish state and the Arab world.

Netanyahu had for months promised to annex as much as 30% of the West Bank as early as July 1, but that plan was officially suspended as part of the normalization agreement with the UAE. The sides have not formally provided an exact time-frame for how long the matter has been “taken off the table,” as US President Donald Trump put it last month.

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