Israel and the United Arab Emirates have been involved in clandestine and semi-covert relationships for over a decade. The so-called Abraham Agreement christened by President Trump last week simply made these relationships public. Traditionally, comments Azmi Bishara, only formal agreements lead to alliances and sometimes they don’t. However, Israel and the UAE broke the tradition by starting from the top down, from under-the-table alliance and security liaisons to the normalization of relations. So it is perhaps naive to assume that the Emirati step was sudden, abrupt, or unanticipated.
Repressive regimes, mutual interests
Central to the UAE’s close ties with Israel is the acquisition of Israeli tech. Israel, a country that excels at technology that only matches its anxious state of mind – security and war, has become one of the world’s top destinations for cybersecurity and espionage products. Through direct and indirect deals with Israeli businesses, the UAE acquired espionage and tracking tech that served to strengthen Muhammad Bin Zayed’s repressive regime. The country utilized Israeli tech and expertise to spy on its own citizens, on neighboring countries, especially Qatar and Iran, and even on Saudi Arabia, the country’s closest ally in the war in Yemen. It stands to reason to assume that such tech was also used to support the UAE’s interventions in Yemen and Libya.
In return, Israel, partly blocked by BDS and the Covid-19 economic crisis in the West, finds a fresh market in the UAE. The UAE has an ambitious vision of becoming a global business and commercial center that links the Gulf region with the world. It contains “free zones” with limited regulations. The Dubai International Business Center, for instance, is considered a particularly friendly place in the business, financial, and commercial world. From an Israeli perspective, having unrestricted access to the UAE market will significantly boost the Israeli economy. According to Al-Monitor, there are now around 300 Israeli companies working in the UAE, most of which through international branches. Because this entails certain restrictions, it’s very difficult for smaller and mid-sized Israeli companies to do business there. With the normalization of relations with the UAE, the gates will be swung wide open to Israeli businesses and industries.
But this is only the economic front. What brings the two countries particularly close together is far more important strategic interests. Like Israel, the UAE saw in the Arab Spring a major threat to the status quo. According to the Middle East Monitor, the UAE, through its ambassador in Washington Yosef Al-Otaiba, sought the help of the pro-Israel lobby groups in the United States in order to suppress the Arab Spring and crack down on MBZ’s personal phobia, namely political Islam.
Israel and the UAE are aware that given the choice, the Arab peoples will elect leaders who would adopt anti-Israel and anti-authoritarianism agendas. Both countries, along with other Gulf nations, spearheaded the counter-revolution efforts in the region resulting in wide-spread destruction and instability. For these countries, it is important that the current dictatorships remain unchanged, including — and especially — those that Israel sees as its ‘useful’ enemies like Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
For Israel, the UAE-Israel agreement is a first step toward implementing the Zionist state’s own visualization of a so-called ‘regional settlement.’ This settlement requires a full and explicit normalization with the Arab states without having to end the occupation or respect Palestinian human rights.
In fact, the current Israeli government seeks to establish a narrative that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never a source of instability in the region. This is consistent with Netanyahu’s long-held belief, which he professed emphatically in his book “Durable Peace” (2000), that ‘Palestinian centrality’ isn’t connected to the Arabs hostility to Israel, and Palestinians, therefore, can be bypassed in any future agreements with neighboring countries. In other words, Israel wants to legitimize the occupation and legalize – under eumphemized terms like ‘management’ – the oppression of Palestinians. It’s a way to escape the ‘trap’ of land-for-peace and replace it with peace-for-peace. Peace without a price, concessions, or even effort.
Fundamental to Israel-UAE’s strategic outlook is the Iranian threat. The ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ rhetoric, Israel hopes (and works towards), will surpass the agreements with the UAE to include normalizing the relationships with other Gulf countries anxious about Iran.
This couldn’t come at a better time for Israel. The Trump Administration has made Israel an access point to Washington for the Middle Eastern regimes needing US support. Countries, Saudi Arabia especially, know they can’t confront Iran alone, so turning to Washington to cover for their incompetence becomes an existential endeavor. And who better provides access to the White House than Israel!
What is becoming clear, however, is that the Israeli-Emirati normalization will probably prove to be a strategic mistake for Mohammed bin Zayed (otherwise known as MBZ). Iran will never allow Israel to have a foothold in the Gulf. This, thanks to the reckless strategies of a group of fanatical Zionists in the White House, will only lead to confrontation and possibly a regional war. This war, if it ever erupts, will be destructive to the UAE in particular.
The UAE and the Palestinians
During the time of Sheikh Zayed, MBZ’s father, the UAE was a generous humanitarian and political supporter of Palestinians. After Zayed’s death, and especially with the eruption of the Arab Spring, that began to change.
Palestinians are well aware that almost all Arab states coordinate and normalize with Israel under the table. In the grand scheme of MBZ’s ambitions, Palestine isn’t a priority or worthy of attention. MBZ sees the UAE-Israel ties in strategic terms. Palestine represents only a psychological and moral burden that needs to be jettisoned for such a strategic outlook to work out. The UAE has become a major player in the regional alliances and blocks of influence which formed following and because of the Arab Spring, which the UAE actively sought to destroy.
What’s interesting — possibly because of shame and embarrassment — the UAE tried to market the so-called ‘peace deal’ with Israel (strange, shouldn’t there be war first to have a peace deal?) as a ‘favor for the Palestinians.’ MBZ tweeted that the agreement was an effort to ‘cease’ the annexation plan. Soon after, Netanyahu played down MBZ’s tweet, changing the term ‘cease’ to ‘suspend.’ It would be difficult to think of a better example of how little Israel thinks of its desperately needed ‘Arab allies.’ Even if those Arab allies are key to Israel’s desperate and long-sought quest for regional legitimacy.
Exposed and embarrassed, the tone in Abu Dhabi changed to a different kind of ‘favor’: “Palestinians should use the opportunity that the UAE has given them,” said Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of foreign affairs in an interview on CNN. He did not make clear what opportunity is, how to seize it, or for what purpose. This UAE narrative is almost identical to the all-too-common Israeli narrative that ‘the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.’ The narrative is exceptionally cliched and dated, and has been repeatedly debunked.
The Arab favor from hell
This claim of a ‘favor’ is perhaps what infuriated, and somewhat amused, Palestinians the most. The common sentiment was that if MBZ wanted to share the bed with Israel — not exactly a secret — he could’ve done it without the excuses. Up until this point it was almost common knowledge that annexation plans were put on hold for fear of international backlash and Israeli internal divisions, as well as, supposedly, by pressure from the Trump Administration.
Yisrael Katz, Israel’s minister of finance, revealed to Israeli KAN news that annexation was frozen by Israel long before a deal with the UAE was reached. Another Israeli official who is not even willing to save the faces of their new ‘friends’ in Abu Dhabi.
Chances are other Gulf countries, possibly Bahrain and Oman, will follow suit. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sudan too, as a condition to be removed from the US terrorism list, becomes the next country ‘moved’ to normalize with the Zionist state. They’ll probably say normalizing ties with Israel will help the Palestinians. As always, they will call us ‘ungrateful’ if we refuse to accept such a narrative.
Palestinians have endured decades of being the scapegoat for Arab regimes. This has been the most difficult aspect of the struggle against Zionism since the early twentieth century. For Palestinians, Zionism is a defined enemy and the objective has always been clear. Most Arab governments, on the other hand, have never been straightforward or non-conditional supporters. In fact, historically, the Arab attempts to control the Palestinian choices have been detrimental to the Palestinian anti-colonial endeavors.
In 1936, for example, the Palestinians went on a major strike against the British to protest the Jewish illegal immigration to Palestine. Failing to suppress the resistance, the British turned to the kings of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia who convinced (or rather blackmailed) the Palestinians to end the revolt. According to a book titled Palestinian Disunity from the British Mandate to the Palestinian Authority (2011) by Palestinian author Numan Abdul-Hadi Feisel, historical indications now show that had Palestinians continued the revolt, the chances of Israel emerging as an independent state was going to be a lot more difficult. While this claim might be open to speculation, what remains clear is that although Arab support has been ‘generally’ helpful to Palestinians, some Arab meddling in Palestinian deliberations has been costly for the struggle.
Palestinians have become destined to continually try to find a balance between resisting Israel and not upsetting certain Arab regimes and accordingly losing most needed financial and political support. This is a game Arafat knew far too well. Squeezed between competing Arab governments, the Palestinians had often paid the price with blood and diminished support. When Arafat was forced by Saddam Hussein to take sides in the Second Gulf War in 1990, many Palestinians living and working in Kuwait were expelled from the country. Bear in mind, Kuwait was the most generous PLO supporter at the time. Had Arafat chosen to stand with Kuwait against the Iraqi invasion, Palestinians in Iraq would’ve suffered a worse outcome. Neutrality wasn’t a choice.
Is there hope?
The UAE-Israel agreement isn’t the first stab in the back, neither will it be the last. Should Palestinians be upset? Absolutely. Should they be in despair? Certainly not.
History has shown that Palestinians are never alone. The changes in the political scene bring about new loyalties and alliances. And in a region as changeable and dynamic as the Middle East, this happens far too frequently. Today’s enemies can become tomorrow’s friends, and vice versa.
Let’s remember that the Shah of Iran was Israel’s ardent supporter, but overnight he was replaced with the most anti-Israel regime in Iran’s history. Once a good friend of Israel, today’s Turkey is not particularly amicable with the Jewish state. More importantly, for the first time since its inception, many American Jews, especially among university students, are becoming critics of Israel. Twenty years ago that was inconceivable. It was unthinkable two decades ago as well to see Europeans taking to the streets to protest against Israel. The time of a ‘romantic’ little island existentially threatened by its neighbors has long gone.
Normalization will not win the hearts and minds of the Arabs, neither will it alter the Arab World’s well-established consciousness which certain Arab regimes have been working around the clock to alter, especially since the Arab Spring. Arabs in general look at Arab states’ ties with Israel as ‘formal normalization,’ as opposed to ‘peoples’ normalization.’ For many, ties with Israel are established against their will by governments that are unrepresentative of the people or their interests.
The vast majority of Arabs still see Israel as an enemy state and a settler-colonial project. Israelis who may visit the normalizing Arab countries shouldn’t expect to be embraced with love. Following the announcement of the UAE-Israel agreement, #Normalization-is-treason (in Arabic) trended across the Arab World, mainly in the Gulf region, and especially in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1979, Sadat made the precedent of signing a full-blown peace deal with Israel. The Israeli euphoria that followed was short-lived and today’s Egyptians are not less antagonistic toward Israel. Today, Israel’s embassy in Cairo is the most fortified and guarded of all foreign embassies. The ambassador wouldn’t dare to wonder off on the streets of Cairo without heavy security. Let’s also remember that the Israeli embassy was one of the first targets that Egyptians attacked during the January 25th revolution in 2011.
In 1994, Jordan signed the Wadi Araba peace agreement with Israel. Again, euphoria and rejoicing among Israelis. Today’s Jordanians still see in Israel an arch enemy and continue to call on the Jordanian government to cancel the treaty.
Time changes and alliances shift…but there’s always one constant, Palestinians never cease to resist. We are still and will always be here, and Israel will be forced to deal with us. Surrender, Israel’s only notion of peace, is not even remotely an option.
Opposite to what Gargash says, the only opportunity that the UAE-Israel normalization has provided is that it removed any illusions about who is an enemy and who is a friend. It also represented a further step towards freeing Palestinian decision making from Arab hegemony. This is a golden opportunity for Palestinians to re-establish national unity, redraw their strategies, expand the list of alliances beyond the Arab World, and establish serious links with the growing but rather sporadic pro-Palestinian civil society organizations, especially in Europe and the United States.