Donald Trump wants a White House signing ceremony for the UAE-Israel deal as close to the election as he can get it. But the UAE wants it sooner, and it cut the deal to help Joe Biden with a political headache– by taking annexation off the table.
Meanwhile other Arab countries are trying to figure out what they can get out of the U.S. if they normalize with Israel.
And though the deal removes Israeli annexation of the West Bank in the short term, it may make things worse for Palestinians, as Israeli settlers and rightwingers are demanding compensation for the deal from the Israeli government.
These points were made during a briefing earlier this week on the power politics of the UAE-Israel deal with former Israeli ambassador and academic Nimrod Novik. He was hosted by the Israel lobby group Israel Policy Forum (audio at link).
The most important part of the deal are the F35 airplanes that the Emiratis got. This is why countries normalize with Israel: to get benefits from the U.S. (Because they know power politics in the U.S.)
While there is now a lot of controversy over Benjamin Netanyahu signing off on the gift, “the [Israeli] defense establishment works on the assumption that it is a done deal,” Novik says. The only question is how to downgrade some of the aircraft’s systems so Israel will find that acceptable. Or how to provide Israel “with all kinds of antidotes” to overcome the aircraft if it needed to.
“Don’t rule out the possibility that in the not too distant future Israelis and Emiratis are going to train together in Abu Dhabi,” Novik says. That is the suggestion of an airforce training exercise in Greece back in 2019, in which an Emirati squadron operated alongside an Israeli one.
There is a lot of disagreement on what the agreement is. Netanyahu calls it a peace treaty. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of the UAE called it “a roadmap to normalization.” Jared Kushner says the deal is related to the “Trump vision,” and so Israel accepted a two state solution, and a map. But Netanyahu denies it, and there is no map. If the Trump “vision” is officially injected into the UAE agreement, Netanyahu will have a big political problem at home. “Because a map of Palestine is a map of Israel,” Novik says.
Stopping annexation was the big “deliverable,” that the Emiratis gave the Palestinians, but here too there is disagreement. Trump says of annexation, “We got it off the table,” Novik says. But Netanyahu says, We suspended it, while Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington and Kushner’s friend, says, We shut the door on annexation and it has been suspended. In the ultimate agreement, there may be secret side letters on annexation (which are likely to be leaked). Speculation is that Israel would agree to No annexation for the four years since the Trump plan was unveiled; meaning another three years and a few months of no official annexation.
The deal is moving very fast. Contrary to the preference of the White House, the Emiratis want to have the ceremony and get it over with and not wait till close to November. The White House wants to milk it politically with a signature ceremony right before the election.
The White House wants to see attendance by other Arab countries that are not normalizing. And not just an ambassador. “Send a foreign minister or maybe more.”
We heard that MBZ doesn’t want to come, he wants it a lower profile… I don’t know if he will be able to resist the White Hosue pressure on this… Netanyahu will come, not Gantz or Ashkenazi… The White House wanted as close to November. MBZ wants it as soon as possible. The White House wants the highest level and the highest attendance, and MBZ wants lower profile. How it turns out, I have no idea.
The Emiratis have pitched the deal as a win for both Trump and Joe Biden.
They see a bonus whoever is elected. That is to say, they gave Trump a major accomplishment on the eve of elections, and in their words, they spared Biden the headache of dealing with Israeli annexation. As soon as he comes into office, he will not have to start fighting with Bibi over reversing, derecognizing or whatever it is people were suggesting he might have to do in order to undo the damage of annexation. So the Emiratis looked at it as a win win. Whoever wins owes us one, in that regard.
The Emiratis are justifying the agreement by saying it is part of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Novik says,
“The most surprising short term outcome [of the deal]… is the rebirth of the Arab Peace Initiative. Now all the countries not joining the circle of normalization, at least not yet, are reminding people that they are in support of the API.
Every side finds its own language not to offend the White House but to reiterate the traditional position of the Arab consensus, which is the Arab Peace Initiative, and the Emiratis are no different.
The big question is Who will go next? Other Arab countries are rumored to be hankering for U.S. gifts. The Saudis and Egyptians will ask for the F-35.
I hear the same rumors that everyone else does. The Sudanis want to get off the U.S. terrorist list. And I’m not sure that the U.S. is ready to do it. I don’t know. … The Moroccans would like recognition of their rule over the Western Sahara.
Each one has their own pet project, what they would get for normalizing with Israel. I would hope that some of them if they do go there would insist on a bonus in the Palestinian context. But right now they are really each to its own interests.
Novik says some intellectuals in the Egyptian press express regret that Egypt was not ahead of the UAE in normalization: that a country that never fought Israel will reap the benefits of resistance. Egypt also has always wanted to be the Arab world’s interlocutor to Israel on the Palestinian issue, and may have lost that status.
“We are in the middle of a changing region,” Novik says, adding that there are supportive voices about the normalization even in Saudi Arabia.
Oman is another candidate to go next. So is Bahrain. A non-aggression deal with Bahrain and Israel was to be “the crown jewel of the Trump administration and Netanyahu in regional progress,” but it fell apart in Jerusalem probably because the Bahrainis asked more on the Palestinian issue than the Emiratis.
The bad news for Palestinians, Novik said, is that the younger generation in the broader Arab world is less committed to the Palestinian cause than they were in the past. “Now the Emiratis have sent the message [to Palestine], we waited long enough, we’re moving ahead without you.” While Jordan remains deeply committed to Palestinians, this is not the case even in Egypt. Egyptians didn’t like the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, by and large, and accepted the coup of 2013; and the country’s leadership disdains Hamas. “Israel is no longer the enemy.”
None of this changes Israel’s internal political problems, and its problems with an occupied Palestinian population that has no rights. Israel is “stuck,” Novik said. “Are we going to change the slide toward the disaster of the one state reality?” There is no sign that Israeli leaders are changing that.
Neither the Emiratis or anyone else is going to spare us the need of looking in the mirror and making a national decision.
In fact, the deal may only make the problem worse. Settlers are going to demand compensation for the loss of the annexation plan. “The compensation that the settlers are demanding and might get could cause more serious problems… than we assumed when we saw annexation being suspended,” Novik says.
There are a few ideas of how to pay off the settlers, all “dangerous,” Novik says. One is building in the E-1 zone outside Jerusalem. Another is the proposal by Zvi Hauser, an important minister in the Netanyahu government (who comes out of the liberal Zionists’ supposed savior party, Blue and White), that Israel apply a law to all settlements in the West Bank that it applies now to Israeli territory: Before yielding the lands in a peace agreement, the parliament must agree by 2/3 — 80 to 40 — or there should be a national referendum to approve the deal. Such a law would be annexation without calling it annexation. “The Emiratis may not realize that the Hauser law does the same without calling a spade a spade.”
Novik downplayed the occupation. “The need is to evacuate 39,000 families from the West Bank… over five years or ten years… The problem is political, can one day there be a government in Israel that will muster the political will to do that. That’s a very big question.” It is doable, he said, the only question is whether it is politically feasible.