by Edward Marks
While the recent accords with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Sudan moves Israel further along the path of regional integration and diplomatic normalization, the deal does nothing for Israel’s other existential threat — the Palestinians living in Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Nevertheless, it is a big deal. It is all part of the evolving Middle East where Arab support for the Palestinians has been melting for years. For decades, many Arab states were united in their hostility toward Israel and support for the Palestinian cause, even though in some cases that backing was largely rhetorical. But change has been under way for decades, beginning with the Egyptian and Jordanian formal recognition of Israel and then in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). That Saudi Arabian initiative called for normalizing relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territories (including the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and Lebanon), a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN Resolution 242, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Arab Peace Initiative served for years as the key framework for Arab-Israeli normalization. In recent years, however, Israel and some Arab countries have engaged in a quiet realignment of that view, spurred by common concerns over Iran’s influence in the region, among other things. The announcement of what is being called the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and the UAE was the most recent demonstration of these shifting regional dynamics.
Israel’s key interests in the region have always included the goals of security cooperation, regional normalization, and economic integration. To that end, it has slowly built unofficial ties with several Arab countries in recent years.
Arab Gulf states maintained and still maintain rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause, but the vow not to establish official relations with Israel until Palestinian sovereignty is achieved along the lines of the API has clearly been fading. In fact, Bahrain followed suit with the UAE by eastablishing full diplomatic relations with Israel. Sudan did the same on October 22 and there are reports that Saudi Arabia, the region’s major Arab player, is condoning these moves although playing coy itself – at least for the moment.
For Arab Gulf countries—particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain—Israel’s interests appeared to align with their own priorities. Many of these countries have been pursuing ties with Israel through economic connections, arms trade, technological collaboration, and other ventures, albeit very quietly.
Especially for the Gulf states, interest in trade and technical exchange as well as newfound cross-cultural and religious interest have risen in importance. And Israel is a major potential source for trade and technology, with military considerations. These factors—combined with new generations of leadership, shared close relations with the United States, and the Trump administration’s encouragement—have led to a seeming de-prioritization of the Palestinian issue on the list of Gulf leadership.
Meanwhile, Palestinian refusal to engage with the United States on the proposed peace plan resulted in challenging relations with some Arab states as they prioritize these other national security issues that lead to expanded cooperation with the United States and Israel. Recently, and very significantly, Arab preoccupation with an aggressive Iran has become increasingly more important than the question of the Palestinians.
But there are some qualifications to note connected with this success. Obviously President Trump and Jared Kushner didn’t quite pull it off on their own as the deal has been maturing for years, decades in fact. The Trump-Kushner Middle East Peace Plan unveiled in January facilitated the final decision by positing another, very unpleasant possibility. Although some of the exact details of the plan remain secret, the main elements are now known. Kushner changed the script of many decades by sidelining Palestinian territorial ambitions, attempting instead to build the foundation for peace on economic development rather than political compromise.
The bow to Israeli positions seems obvious, given the relationship between the Israeli and American governments and recent U.S. policy decisions regarding the movement of the embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli control of the Golan Heights. The key item of the Kushner plan calls for official recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, thus effectively ending Palestinian hopes of a two-state solution while dramatically illustrating Arab impotence.
In the face of this potential Israeli annexation, Arab states re-stated their support for the API and a two-state solution. Then, on August 13, the UAE and Israel, with American mediation, signed a preliminary agreement to normalize diplomatic relations. The UAE claims it got two big prizes out of the final deal: Israel backing away from formal annexation of the West Bank and F35 fighters. While Palestinian leadership described the Emirati decision as a “stab in the back”, some Arab states (Egypt, Bahrain) expressed relief that the agreement appeared to halt Israeli annexation.
U.S. Security Assistance
Next on the table is the compensation package Israel reportedly expects from the United States, especially if the deal with the Emirates includes advanced military equipment. This will involve the U.S.-Israeli security assistance relationship and the long-standing U.S. commitment to ensure and maintain the Israel Defense Forces’ qualitative advantage over Arab (and presumably Iranian) forces. The arms deal with the UAE will soon be discussed in Congress.
Confirmation of security relations with Israel will presumably be the reasoning by which the Trump administration hopes to obtain approval for the arms deal with the UAE. In any case, the UAE deal involves three intertwined subjects for everybody: postponing annexation, concluding arms deals, and advancing diplomatic normalization. However, there seem to be differing views on these subjects among the three players as both Israel and the White House appear to be mumbling soto voce about the details of both the annexation and arms deals.
What does this mean for the future of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The accord is another major step forward for Israel in dealing with one of its two existential threats – an Arab military victory. This has been declining in seriousness since the 1973 war as Israel has strengthened in every respect, especially military, while Arab countries continued their general political incoherence and economic and military weaknesses. Overall, Israel’s international situation is significantly improved by this agreement of diplomatic normalization. Even though the Arab states will continue to support the Palestinian cause rhetorically, they will do so as only one item of interest in their regional foreign policy. The Palestinians will have to compete for policy priority in Arab ministries.
But the accords offer nothing for the Palestinians living in Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza, now close to 50% of the population in Israeli controlled territory. This is Israel’s other existential threat, and the subject of the internal Israeli debate about the country’s future as a democratic, Jewish nation. Nobody has an answer, except the now almost-dead two-state solution. The situation threatens depressing possibilities of both Intifada-like violence and the deterioration of Israel into an apartheid-like society.Therefore, while the UAE accord moves Israel further along the path of regional integration and diplomatic normalization – long Israel goals – it also turns the Palestinian question into more of an internal Israeli matter. Israel now confronts a problem faced by many other countries of accommodating a large internal minority whose very existence challenges the established raison d’etre of the state. Countries with similar problems but less demanding statistics have enormous difficulties. Israel cannot expect to avoid the same challenges.
This will also be true, in a somewhat different way, for the United States. The strong U.S.-Israeli relationship will continue, but the emphasis will shift somewhat as the Palestinian issue transforms from a foreign policy or inter-state issue to one of internal Israeli politics. It will become more of a human rights issue, which could have serious implications for American public opinion.
The Israeli-UAE diplomatic agreement, and its implications for regional politics, is obviously a good development for Israel and therefore its major friend and ally, the United States. But it may also bring new headaches for both countries. As has often been said, no good deed goes unpunished.
Ambassador Edward Marks’s foreign service career spanned 1956-1995 with assignments that included Kenya, Mexico, Angola, Zambia, Belgium, Zaire, and Sri Lanka. In 1976, he was appointed Chief of Mission to the Republics of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde followed by service as the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism and as Deputy US Representative to the Economic and Social Council to the United Nations. Amb. Marks was recalled to active duty in 2002-5 to serve as the Department of State’s advisor on terrorism to the US Pacific Command.