Israel’s New Peace Deal with the United Arab Emirates Transforms the Middle East

In 1982, a Palestinian fighter told me a dark joke on the day that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon forced six thousand P.L.O. guerrillas to retreat on ships for distant lands. The story began with God telling President Ronald Reagan, the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, and the P.L.O. chief, Yasir Arafat, that he would answer one question from each of them. Reagan went first. “How long will it be before capitalism rules the world?” he asked. God replied, “A hundred years.” Reagan began to cry. “Why?” God said. “Because it won’t happen in my lifetime,” the President responded. Brezhnev then asked, “How long will it be before the whole world is Communist?” God replied, “Two hundred years.” Brezhnev began to cry because that, too, wouldn’t happen in his lifetime. Then Arafat asked, “God, how long will it be before there is a state for my people in Palestine?” And God cried.

On Thursday, the White House announced a historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich sheikhdom and long-time ally of the Palestinians, to normalize diplomatic relations. The surprise deal—expected to be signed at a White House ceremony in the coming weeks—will include opening embassies, trade and technology exchanges, direct flights and tourism, and coöperation on energy, security, and intelligence. In Tel Aviv, the city hall lit up with side-by-side flags of Israel and the U.A.E. The Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, invited the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, to visit.

Many of the details are still to come. In what may prove to be premature conjecture, the White House described the deal as “a major breakthrough for Muslims throughout the world who wish to come in peace to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque,” in Jerusalem, because they will be able to fly directly from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv and “be welcomed.” The idea that Israel will issue large numbers of visas to Muslims from countries long considered hostile to pray at a mosque on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, may be wishful thinking. In a briefing for reporters, Jared Kushner also predicted that the agreement will undermine jihadi extremism. Again, not likely.

Dubbed the Abraham Accords, the agreement is only the third time Israel has won recognition from one of the twenty-two Arab states. The first was the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. The second was with Jordan, in 1994. The new accord represents a diplomatic breakthrough for President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as both face mounting political hurdles at home. In the U.S., it has bipartisan support. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee, welcomed the deal as “a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East.” He praised the U.A.E. for a “brave and badly needed act of statesmanship.”

Yet the deal also underscores how, for Palestinians, a state—and a broader peace—is still hauntingly elusive more than a quarter century after the Oslo Accords outlined principles for the creation of their own country. After decades of dominating and defining tensions across the Middle East, the Palestinians are no longer a pressing priority; they also seem increasingly irrelevant to the region’s trendlines. Their brethren are abandoning them. “The conflict is decidedly less important to leaders in the region,” Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told me. The agreement is “a visible demonstration of the fatigue of some Arab leaders, in the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia in particular, with the Palestinian leadership and their cause. They no longer want to be held back by what they see as Palestinian rejectionism.”

The main fault line in the Middle East has also shifted away from the Arab-Israeli conflict to tensions between the Arabs and predominantly Persian Iran. As enmities have shifted, so has the diplomatic energy. And, in an example of the old adage about the enemy of your enemy being your friend, the conservative Muslim kingdoms in the Gulf have increasingly found common cause with the Jewish leadership in Israel. The deal may signal the formal creation of an anti-Iran bloc that has been quietly building for years, possibly with more states to join.

“This deal is a significant step toward building a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous Middle East,” Trump told reporters, after a three-way call with Netanyahu and bin Zayed. He claimed that the relationship between the two leaders during secret negotiations, which have played out over the past six weeks, “was like love.” He predicted, “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’s lead.” Kushner, who oversaw the Trump Middle East peace plan, said that a couple other nations were “upset that they weren’t first.” Bahrain, another Gulf sheikhdom, immediately congratulated the U.A.E. for “taking steps to enhance the chances for Middle East peace.” There has long been speculation about potential ties between Israel and Morocco. In 2018, the former Sultan of Oman hosted Netanyahu. Qatar allowed Israel to open a short-lived trade office there in the nineteen-nineties, and has hosted Israelis at conferences since then, even as it supports the Palestinians financially.

In exchange for formal recognition, Netanyahu agreed to “suspend” his plan—a central plank in his reëlection bid this year—to annex parts of the West Bank. Israel will instead focus on “expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world,” the White House said. The U.A.E.’s motive was to prevent the annexation and a “death blow” to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to Anwar Gargash, its minister of state for foreign affairs. “The U.A.E. is using its gravitas, its promise of a relationship, to try to really unscrew a time bomb that is threatening the two state-solution,” he said. But the hard-line Israeli leader said that he has not abandoned annexation. “I am committed to sovereignty,” Netanyahu said, after the deal was announced. There is “no change” to his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank. “I did not give up on the settlements.”

The Palestinians feel deeply betrayed. The Palestinian Authority condemned the Israel-U.A.E. deal as an “aggression against the Palestinian people,” recalled its Ambassador from the U.A.E., and demanded an urgent Arab League summit. “The leadership affirms that the UAE, or any other party, has no right to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people,” it said, in a statement. In a tweet, the veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi commented bitterly, “May you never be sold out by your ‘friends.’ ”

The Gulf emirate has not totally abandoned the Palestinians, Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, told me. It instead “gave up hope the Palestinian leadership can be salvaged.” The two Palestinian territories—the West Bank and Gaza—have been ruled by rival factions since 2007, when their militias fought for control. Hamas, an Islamist party, seized power in Gaza, while the Fatah wing of the P.L.O. under President Mahmoud Abbas has governed the West Bank. Repeated attempts to reconcile them have failed, making negotiations for a credible or enduring peace with Israel nearly impossible. Abbas, who is eighty-four, was elected to a four-year term in 2005, and new elections have repeatedly been postponed since then. “The leadership is now sclerotic and devoid of creative diplomacy or politics,” Kurtzer said. “If I were a Palestinian, I would be extraordinarily frustrated with my leadership.They’ve done such a poor job of translating victimization into a positive policy.” The Palestinians have to sort out their own political mess before the Arab world will again expend much political clout to help their cause.

Unlike Israel’s accords with Egypt and Jordan, its deal with the U.A.E. alters a fundamental premise of peace, Sachs noted. For decades, the framework of international diplomacy was based on “land for peace”—Israel giving up land it conquered in wars with the Arabs in exchange for the Arabs promising no future aggression. The new premise is “peace for peace,” a popular refrain among right-wing Israelis, Sachs said. It is based on no exchange of land—and only the temporary suspension of a promise to proclaim sovereignty over more Arab land, in exchange for a non-aggression pact and formal relations. The looming question is how the formal alliance between Israel and a small but influential nation in the Gulf will affect growing tensions with Iran. “If you’re looking for an organizing idea that has moved the needle as much as it has in the Middle East over the past six or seven years, Iran is the place to start,” Kurtzer told me. “That is what brought the Gulf states and Israel to the same place.” Israel now has an ally on the front line with the Islamic Republic—which lies just thirty-three miles away from the U.A.E.

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