UAE envoy: De facto West Bank annexation unfolding, but our ability to stop it wanes

Israeli commitment not to enact its sovereignty over settlements in exchange for normalization with Abu Dhabi only extends until 2024, Yousef al-Otaiba says

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

Israeli soldiers and settlers stare at the Palestinian village of Beita before evacuating the newly-established wildcat outpost of Evyatar near the northern Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank, on July 2, 2021 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)
Israeli soldiers and settlers stare at the Palestinian village of Beita before evacuating the newly-established wildcat outpost of Evyatar near the northern Palestinian city of Nablus in the West Bank, on July 2, 2021 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba said Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is engaged in a process of de facto annexation of the West Bank, and that it may be up to other countries weighing normalization with Israel to stop it.

Appearing on a panel during a Washington event marking the three-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, Otaiba was asked for Abu Dhabi’s perspective of the hardline Israeli government and its policies in the West Bank, which critics have referred to as “de facto annexation.”

“It’s tough because it is happening, and I think it’s happening in a way that is not visible and is going to make coming back to a two-state solution even more challenging,” Otaiba said.

While the UAE has repeatedly condemned Israeli policies in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound in particular, public criticism of Israeli policy in the West Bank is more rare.

Opponents of the government point to its advancement of a record number of settlement homes for construction, its moves to legalize roughly a dozen wildcat settler outposts, its streamlining of the settlement approval process and its transfer of control over civilian authorities in the West Bank to far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as examples of a broader effort to annex the West Bank in practice even if Israel doesn’t formally implement such a move.

Netanyahu shelved plans to officially annex large parts of the West Bank in 2020 in exchange for normalizing relations with the UAE.

The countries involved in the Abraham Accords did not publicize it at the time, but Netanyahu’s commitment to not annex the West Bank was limited in duration. Days after the normalization agreement was announced in September 2020, three sources familiar with the negotiations told The Times of Israel that then-US president Donald Trump gave the UAE a commitment that Washington would not recognize any Israeli annexation move until 2024 at the earliest.

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 UAE sought that commitment from the US and not from Israel due to its lack of trust in Netanyahu and the understanding that the premier would not move forward with annexation without support from the US, the sources said at the time.

They explained that the 2024 deadline was used because it gave the US another four years to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal if Trump won re-election in 2020. If he lost, then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden was sure to oppose an Israeli move toward annexation anyway.

Otaiba, who spearheaded the normalization talks for the UAE, appeared to be one of the first government officials involved to publicly speak of the finite nature of Israel’s agreement to shelve annexation plans.

“Our deal was based on a certain time period, and that time period is almost done, and so we have no ability to leverage the decisions that are made outside of the period that was what the Abraham Accords was based on,” the Emirati ambassador said.

“I think it’s up to now future countries if they are to take that particular approach, but there’s very little that the UAE can do at this moment to shape what happens inside Israel,” he said.

Earlier Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Saudi Arabia has conveyed to the US that the “Palestinian piece is going to be very important” to a potential normalization deal with Israel.

Otaiba clarified that while deals like the one the UAE reached with Israel can buy the parties “more space for diplomacy and a two-state solution” an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will ultimately have to come from the parties themselves and will require leaders with vision.

Also during the panel at the event hosted by the N7 Initiative — a joint venture of the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation — the Emirati ambassador made a point to highlight how quickly ties between Israel and the UAE have managed to grow in just three years.

The countries have gone from having no direct flights to 152 direct flights every week, Otaiba said. Trade between the two countries stands at $3 billion a year and is expected to grow to $10 billion a year.

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