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Bond between Israel and UAE good for all sides



On Thursday, the news broke that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had agreed to a full normalisation of relations, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country in 26 years. The question is, why did it happen now or, to put it another way, how do all sides benefit from this?

Whether Donald Trump was actually the driving force behind the deal or not, (his team clearly did help mediate between both sides to get them over the line), there is no doubt that he will claim the credit. There is also no doubt that his “deal of the century” plan, which allows Israel to annex about 30% of the disputed territories, created some urgency from the UAE side to act. It would have known that had Israel gone ahead and annexed, it would have put an end to any chances of a peace deal.

This deal gives Trump a major foreign policy success just before the election, his only one so far.

By arguing that it staved off annexation, the UAE can claim that it has kept the two-state solution alive. This deal gives it a valuable ally against its arch enemy, Iran, especially seeing as the United States is no longer seen by the Gulf states as reliable.

After all, the US did nothing to help Saudi Arabia when two key Saudi oil facilities were attacked in September last year by Iranian missiles and drones (even if not proven to be directly by Iran). In addition, all the Gulf states are terrified that if Joe Biden becomes president, the US will go back to the nuclear deal with Iran and end its isolation.

The deal allows the UAE to increase security and intelligence co-operation with Israel openly, and obviously this can be done more effectively if there are embassies and diplomats in each other’s countries. The UAE can now effectively partner with a country which has shown itself willing and able to stand up to Iran aggressively.

Just as importantly for the UAE, this deal won’t only increase its stature and influence in the Middle East, it will also cement its relationship with Washington, and bring it closer to President Trump (or Biden if he is president after the November election), as he has also praised the UAE move as a “welcome, brave, and badly needed act of statesmanship”. As the saying goes: a peace treaty with Israel buys a lot of goodwill in Washington.

It will never be known whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) actually did intend to annex part of the disputed territories, or if this was a giant bluff to force the UAE/Gulf states to act. However, one point is clear. Bibi isn’t given to risky moves. This is clearly evidenced by his reluctance to engage in a major invasion of Gaza.

Given the major diplomatic and strategic risks of annexation, (even pro-Israeli countries like the United Kingdom came out strongly against annexation, and there were mutterings in the European Union of sanctions if it took place), it was uncertain whether Jordan would cancel its peace treaty if annexation took place.

Add to this the threat of violence escalating in the territories, Bibi might well have decided that annexation at this stage carried too many risks. This deal with the UAE allows him to back away from annexation, with the cover that a peace deal with an Arab country is a more valuable prize. He can pacify his right wing with the claim that annexation hasn’t been permanently removed from the equation, as in terms of the deal, it’s only suspended.

More importantly for Bibi however, this peace deal elevates his stature considerably. He’s now a giant on the international stage, being one of the few leaders able to claim good relationships with Presidents Trump, Putin, Modi, and now, increasingly, with many Arab leaders (as more will surely follow this deal). Even if he does cut a divisive figure in local politics, he bestrides the international stage like a colossus.

This deal clearly has major benefits for Israel. First, it will open up massive business opportunities with an economic powerhouse in the Middle East. Israel also gains a very useful strategic ally right across the water from Iran. One can imagine the intelligence opportunities that having an embassy stationed in the UAE will afford Israel.

However, even more importantly, a wall has now broken. Where the UAE has gone, others are sure to follow. The Jerusalem Post on Sunday was already speculating which country in the region would be next, with Oman and Bahrain the favourites. Saudi Arabia, the big fish, must eventually follow. Israel’s isolation in the Sunni Arab world has effectively come to an end.

Finally, and most interestingly, is the sea change in the approach of the UAE and the other states that will follow it. Up to now, its approach to Israel has been “no normalisation in relations until you do a deal with the Palestinians”. However, now, with the Iranian threat no doubt deemed to be more important than the Palestinian issue, the approach has been softened to “we will do a deal as long as you don’t annex and destroy the two-state solution”.

This removes the pressure on Israel to do a deal with a Palestinian leadership that is seen to be corrupt, untrustworthy, inept, and ineffective (remember how it refused desperately-needed coronavirus-related aid from the UAE recently), as well as enter into a deal that would be risky at the current time with the threats posed by Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

The deal is therefore good for all sides, and the confluence of various events led to perfect timing. It should even benefit the Palestinian people on the ground, with an infusion of Gulf money flowing into the territories creating jobs, opportunities, and better living conditions for ordinary people.

•     Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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