After committing our attention to Lebanon for two weeks after the Beirut blast we turn to another controversial matter. The matter of the Emirati settlement with the Israeli entity, thus being the first Gulf state to do so.
So far the Emiratis claimed a lot of things, from saving the Palestinians to securing modern weaponry for themselves, but all these were mocked and falsified by Netanyahu. As if he was doing a favor with the settlement himself, having no benefit in it at all.
There are many concerns that this is the beginning of a major transformation in the Middle East, where the Israeli state will no longer be an unofficially accepted alien body, but a legal partner forming alliances and creating camps of its own. Most assessments already stepped over the Emirates and try to figure out which state will be the next. And in such a rush some truly humorous repeating mistakes have happened.
What this step really means? What are it’s reason? In light of the other settlement, what significance it has, and which states might follow? How it transforms the inner Palestinian politics, which is the key asset for Tel Aviv in the matter? These questions will be our topic for two weeks.
The third who is the fourth
By now it is common knowledge that the Emirates is far from being the first Arab country to open full and open diplomatic relations with the Israeli state. However, reciting the historical background to this landmark the international press, including many national news agencies as well, proved its worst and fell into a collective amnesiac coma carbon coping each other.
It was written time and again that the UAE is the third Arab country to recognize the Israeli entity after Egypt did so in 1978 in Camp David and Jordan in 1994 in Wādī ‘Araba. But after Egypt and Jordan, long before this step by the Emirates and the unofficial befriending of the Jewish state in the 2000s by many Arab states, there was actually a third state to do that. The Emirates is not the third, but the fourth Arab state to establish full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, since Mauritania also did that in 1999. And here we could even argue for Palestine doing the same in Oslo, thought the full statehood of Palestine is another long topic. Though by now many would like to forget this obscure story, for several reasons it is a noteworthy tale. Not only for being a very good example how the press copy-pastes stories, however false they are, but also because this has chilling similarities with what we see today.
It was in the mid-‘90s, when Mauritania had been practically led by Mu‘āwiya Aḥmad aṭ-Ṭāya‘ for twenty years – officially sine 1984 – that this vast country started to pull closer to an agreement with the Israeli state. Much like now that was not triggered by serious economic, or cultural interests, but primarily by political ones from all three sides. Because just like now, even then Washington was the matchmaker. President aṭ-Ṭāya‘ was once a staunch supporter of Ṣaddām Ḥussayn and many of his policies, but after 1991, with the invasion of Kuwait and the collapse of the Soviet Union he felt the wind was changing fast. In order to survive aṭ-Ṭāya‘ sought favor and reassurances from the United States, and that required favors, including a settlement with Tel Aviv. Sometime around 1994 in both countries Spanish embassies respectively liaison offices were opened, thus practically the connection was created. This process finally eventually led to the famous – by now forgotten – meeting and agreement between the two sides in New York September 1999, just like now with Trump, and not much later to full normalization in October 1999. Which included peace accords, as officially Mauritania was a belligerent in the war of 1973. Unfortunately for President aṭ-Ṭāya‘ the freshly obtained American favor did not save him, as coup attempts rapidly followed each other, but at least came useful after 2001 in the “war of terror” frenzy. However, eventually the Mauritanian president’s lunch just ran out. In August 2005 while attending late King ‘Abd Allah’s funeral in Riyadh the army staged a successful coup. President aṭ-Ṭāya‘ had no place to return to, and after a long quest he settled in Qatar becoming a university teacher, one of the precious assets’s of the Qatari state.
The new Mauritanian leadership, which only revealed itself in its true form in yet another coup in 2008 held on to the relations with Tel Aviv, but by then it lost most of its importance. But that was soon about to change. Already in February 2008 there was a low-grade attack on the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott, then later that year the second coup brought in a military junta. In January 2009 in response to the brutal aggression of the Israeli army against Gaza – just like in our days currently – first Mauritania and Qatar cut all ties with the Jewish state, than in March Nouakchott closed all diplomatic ties and closed the embassies. This is how after ten years the Mauritanian-Israeli diplomatic relations, which were promised to be groundbreaking at first came to the end.
Similarities between then and the events today are surprisingly numerous, thought there is a huge difference between the economic volumes of the Emirates and Mauritania. Meaning, for sure Abū Zabī is a much bigger achievement and price. However, just like then today the objectives on the Arab side are not the economic benefits of the country, but to secure the political future of the countries leader. Mu‘āwiya Aḥmad aṭ-Ṭāya‘ was afraid that he got isolated and soon Washington would seek to oust him. The deal with Israel was a security card, though could not save him. Just the same way with the Emirates Muḥammad ibn Zāyid has a hard time to gain absolute power over the very complex inner realities of the Emirates and finally become the acknowledged one-man leader of the state. And if that needs massive weapon purchases from the US, and political and economic favor for Trump, even in the form of a deal with the Israeli entity that is not a high price for him. Of course he has other motivations as well, but that is a primarily push factor.
As for the US, in 1999 the Clinton administration was about leave soon, and hoping to pass the torch to Al Gore. As all administrations do, Clinton wanted to leave something groundbreaking in the Middle East as a legacy. It certainly had the basis for it, as it was Clinton, who delivered the peace accords with Jordan in 1994, and hammered out the Oslo Process with the Palestinians. Which latter had the prospect of a complete peace process. It was expected that the Wādī ‘Araba and Oslo accords would soon be followed by many regional Arab states and to a general normalization process, since after the Palestinians and their second home Jordan settled, there is no basis for continuing the fight. But that never came to be. After efforts in many fronts Mauritania presented the next best opportunity. After the deadlock in the Arab East, a domino effect in North Africa could have proven itself historical. Just like Trump desperately needs something substantial today. He might have handed over the Syrian Ğulān Heights and Jerusalem, but these were in Israeli hands even before. He might have worked on the “Deal of the Century”, but the Bahrain Summit last summer was largely ignored, and after Kushner’s deal was completely refused. So close to the elections Trump need to prove tangible result in this priority topic, which now came. It also brings money and delivers on the anti-Iranian agenda.
Even for Tel Aviv Mauritania was much more promising than it seems at first. Though Mauritania seems not offer much, it was to serve a strategic base for the region, and was hoped that soon other states, like Mali, or Morocco – a kingdom with substantial Jewish community – would follow suit. More so, it could have been a strategic asset in the back of the staunchly anti-Israeli Algeria, which only started to come out of its devastating internal war with the election of Bū Ṭaflīqa in April 1999. Such strategic equations are present today as well, but in relations to Iran now. Even the economic side cannot be completely overruled, as in the early 2000s large reserved of oil was found at the Mauritanian coast. Israeli investment were promised initially, though later the Chingetty field was explored by Australian companies. But of course the personal political motivation was the biggest in Tel Aviv as well. Due to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 after a short interval and early elections a young and ambitious Israeli politician became the PM, inheriting a peace process, but promising a fresh and harsher nationalistic fervor. For whatever reason, but this young thought man at the beginning of his career managed to complete derail the peace process with the Palestinians, sour relations with Jordan, and after a set of scandals he was about to end his political career if lost in the election of 1999. Both happened, and for some years this titan retried. Reviving the peace process with the Arabs could have been a plus for him, but with Mauritania too little was achieved too late. This ambitious man was the same Benjamin Netanyahu, who is once again facing prison and the end of his career after several early election failures. As could once a chain of peace accord save him, so could it now show him a hero.
An orgy impossibilities
Though it should not be surprising at all that in politics almost anything is allowed, the already announced agreement between Tel Aviv and Abū Zabī is an impossible thing for several reasons. First of all, it is clear that it is not made by two equal partners, as the Emirates was only represented by an ambassador, unlike the other singing party, while America was enforcing it. It is clear that now this is not an arbitration, as Washington openly shows the profit it takes from the deal directly. Of course, mostly Trump.
Even more strange that the initial agreement, which was announced to soon translate to former peace and diplomatic accords, are signed by people, who had no right to do such a thing. As for the Israelis, Netanyahu has already broken the coalition deal with Ganz’ Blue-White Coalition, and scheduled for yet another early election, thus making him only a caretaker PM, with no prerogative for major international treaties. On the Emirati side the deal was signed by Muḥammad ibn Zāyid. He is the de facto ruler of the Emirates, but formally he is only the Crown Prince of Abū Zabī. The former head of state is his older half-brother Halīfa, the Emir of Abū Zabī, who may not be in a condition to comprehend this matters, but by law still the one entitled for signing such accords. But even if he is redeemed incapacitated the second person of the state is the Prime Minister, the ruler of Dubai. With his title Muḥammad ibn Zāyid is a prominent member of the royal household, but his post does not entitle him to much. Even more, any international treaty touching the sovereignty of the state must be approved by the council of the seven rulers, the Supreme Federal Council. But that could hardly have approved the agreement, as it never even discussed it. So under the supervision of Trump two leaders made a pact, while none had the prerogatives for it.
And it does not even end here. While a full diplomatic normalization is an understandable procedure between the two sides, the insistence for a “peace accords” is both unbelievable and dangerous. Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians made peace accords with the Israeli state, as they had fought wars previously. Even Mauritania was officially supporting the war effort in ‘67 and ‘73. But the Emirate only became independent in 1971 and set its political framework a year later. At the first three “Arab-Israel” war it did not even exist, while in the forth it simply did not take part in. And even later on Abū Zabī ever took any direct military steps against the Jewish state. Therefore a “peace accord” as not basis, since there never was any war.
Yet such agreements with such wording might set a dangerous precedent. If other states indeed follow suit, the Israeli entity might turn to international court for damages caused by the long years of blockade and isolation. While these states don’t recognize the Jewish state they have a basis for their actions isolating it. But after such accords Tel Aviv can say that these states recognized it, therefore acknowledged that they were unlawfully boycotting it since the ‘48.
Double crossed double crosser
Of course the biggest question of all why the Emirates did this. There are a number of reasons, both officially and unofficially. However, as the Emirates only now started the lessons of hypocrisy and double crossing, most of the original and official reasons given by the Emirates were proved false, why most of the more plausible reasons all heavily denied by Abū Zabī all came to light. And by none other than the Israelis themselves. Which not only shamed the Emiratis already, but posed the serious obstacle for any Arab state thinking about following the example.
Officially Abū Zabī chose the path to exploit the age old theme of support for Palestine, and even the first major step for normalization was taken via this channel. On 21 May the first ever Emirati plane arrived to Tel Aviv airport officially bringing medical supplies and aid to the Palestinians, but thus clearly taking the first step for official contacts with the Israeli state. As if it was completely normal. Abū Zabī heavily tried to sell the case as the plane went to the Palestinian Authority for its own wish and in complete cooperation with it, while the Israelis were only notified. It was a story struggling to find audience. Especially after the Palestinians denied that they had had any knowledge of it beforehand. And one knows the Israelis knows perfectly well that no such maneuvers can be pulled without long negotiations, assurances and something in return. So even at that time it was clear that the normalization is very close.
Regardless the failure of this first major step, as the Palestinians refused and cooperation in the game Abū Zabī went on and after the first agreement soon full diplomatic relations will soon be built. The official storyline was that this way the Emirates managed to gain assurances from Tel Aviv and Washington as a guarantor that no Palestinian territories in the West Bank will be incorporated into the Jewish state. Not new ones anyways. As this was one of the major campaign themes of Netanyahu in the last elections it was indeed a major worry. Now the Emirates stepped in and said that in exchange for normalization and a peace accords the incorporation it prevented. Though that term soon changed to “suspended”.
This move gives a new insight to just how deep the cooperation can be between Tel Aviv and Abū Zabī, as the whole incorporation idea was very flawed and unlikely from the beginning. For a number of reasons. Legally it has no chance, as it would diminish the last shreds of the Oslo Accords. But while there is American support for it that wouldn’t be a major obstacle, given the Israelis clearly had no right for the incorporation of Jerusalem and the Ğūlān either, but that did not stop them. The more pressing matter is that it lacks American support, even more the Israeli inner support, and most of all the manpower to do that. For long the whole colonization process gave up the original organic colonialism of the kibbutzim, and for some 20 years now the state allocates huge funds to create new colonies, for which recruits colonists more and more from abroad. By now that not only puts a huge burden on the Israeli budget, and it is becoming difficult to find colonists, but as most of them are ultra orthodox that created a growing rift within their own society. Next to the already heavily criticized colonies around Jerusalem and in the Northern Palestine these massive new projects in the West Bank are gigantic. Probably exactly in this knowledge the Palestinians never really raised alarm about the plans, but mostly disregarded it as something so far impossible to do. However, it is very likely that it already served as both a pressure card and a tool for the Emirati deal, making it easier on the other side to justify their action.
Soon, however, the double crosser was double crossed. First former Israeli military security chief and chief negotiator Amos Gilad, along with Likud MP Uzi Dayan refuted this version, saying that “the agreement with the Emirates is not like that one with Egypt”, then went as far saying as there can be only “peace for peace”, and no talk about lands. Right after that on 16 August Netanyahu himself in his very first interview to the Dubai based Sky News Arabia denied any such agreement, saying that the temporal halt of incorporation is “presently only an American wish”, clearly signaling that it can continue any time. It probably cannot, not in the projected scale anyways, but it showed that the pressure card is not about to be given away and shamed the Emiratis. Who for a while seemed couldn’t care less, but as the normalization process came to a halt and Abū Zabī met with criticism more than anticipated main foreign policy chief Qarqāš lashed out heavily against the critics and the Palestinians. Which completely buried the Palestinian support line.
There were some economic reasons circulated, being the priority of the Emirates for the settlement. However, that seems to be the smallest of the factors, since economic projects were all working well before this step. Israel installed the fames security monitoring system all around the Emirates, and on 3 July the Emirates signed a contract with two companies belonging to the Israeli Defence Ministry for technological cooperation, one priority field being the joint effort against the Corona pandemic. That shows perfectly that what was needed was already achieved, and the lack of official recognition meant no obstacle for either side. Some matters will be made easier, large scale investments will be easier without third parties, but in general the economic impact is minuscule, since they don’t start now.
There are, however, strategic advantages behind the pact. Emirati Foreign Minister Qarqāš revealed that the Emirates wanted to obtain F35 fighters from Washington, and for that it needed to normalize its relations with Tel-Aviv to give guarantees that these tools would not be used against it. Of course, this is nothing but smokescreen, as clearly without any security concern that was the price Washington demanded for the planes. If we consider how effectively the Emiratis used its air force in Yemen, a country with practically no air defense, it is clear that it meant no danger to Tel Aviv with, or without F35 jets. Netanyahu and the other members of the Israeli leadership openly scorned this idea, hinting that the Emirates want to obtain other sophisticated, Israeli made arms as well. But while mocking the Emiratis, the Israelis expressed openly that the significance of this treaty was that the common threat by Iran forged the two states together. Thus hinting that from then on Israel can directly threaten Iran from the Emirates. This idea was obviously vehemently denied by the Emiratis not wanting to become targets in any way by the Iranians. And this worry is justified by the recent tension between the two states, in which two Iranian fishermen were killed by Emirates coast guards, for which Iran ceased an Emirati vessel. This is, however, once again more of trick, as Iran perfectly monitors the Gulf. Nonetheless gaining an official foothold for operations in the Gulf is a big asset for Tel Aviv. It might represent some reassurances for the Emirates against Iran, but knowing that this is not a real threat for him, Muḥammad ibn Zāyid’s eyes are not on the Iranians, or the Israelis, but to seek advantages against Qatar. It was already supposed that the deal included a promise by the Americans to transplant the al-‘Udayd air base from Qatar to the Emirates, which Abū Zabī wanted to achieve for more than a year.
Beyond all these this factors, however, the main reason for taking this step and taking it now is strictly a political favor. A favor for the Trump administration desperately in need of a tangible foreign policy achievement. After failed projects with China, North Korea, Mexico, Iran, Syria, Iraq and the shameful Venezuela blunter the only real success of the overthrow of the Bolivian government and some unrecognized gestures for Tel Aviv. So close the the elections not only a result has to be shown in this priority theatre for Trump, but he also has to justify one of his biggest weak spots, his son-in-law Middle East responsible Jared Kushner, who so far only delivered an ignored summit in Bahrain and the refused “Deal of the Century”. Now, finally, his worth was proven. And thus the Emiratis secured favor from Washington, which might come handy soon, as Abū Zabī is losing the regional race with Qatar and Turkey. If the Emirates manages to persuade even more Arab states to follow its example this favor can grow. The question is which states can be convinced, for which we will search for the answer next week.
Does this matter?
Naturally all parties involved talk about a “historic” step, but that is hardly anything more then a PR step increase the image of the respective leaders. On its own the Emirati recognition for the Israeli occupation has little significance. Most of the economic deals were known for years, the security cooperation was also not a deep secret, and even politically the last few years saw many symbolic steps without any real backlash. The normalization will make certain operations easier, less bureaucratic, might boost investments and tourism, but in the grand scale all what was desired by either side before was agreed upon.
Especially if no major wave follows the Emirati step, no major Middle Eastern player join than this remains and isolated case the Emirates will be marked. In this regard Bahrain, the Emirati supported Yemeni government, or even Sudan can do little to ease the burden. And here the Mauritanian example is significant, because if against the expectations no major normalization wave comes than in time even a full diplomatic connection can be reversed. Which with the fall of Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, though that seems very far now with such a strong American support behind him, might even happen one day.
However, in one regard the Emirati move was very significant. Knowing the influence Muḥammad ibn Zāyid has over the Saudi court and how likely Saudi king Salmān dies soon, it is very possible that without a major regional shift Abū Zabī will force Riyadh into a similar settlement. Now that would indeed prove to be a game changer. Not because the Saudis don’t have the same lightly hidden connections with the Israeli entity, or that they would seriously help any action against the occupation, but because in any case Saudi Arabia is the home of the most sacred Muslim cites of Mecca and Medina. This gives an enormous influence over the Muslim world and general opinion, which so far at least on the surface was supportive of the Palestinian cause and against the Israeli colonialism. Would Riyadh follow the Emirati example that would either make many Muslim states to reconsider their stance, or cause rapture in the Muslim world. Either way winning Riyadh over would prove to be a major moral victory and asset for the Israeli project.
That was probably felt and that is why Foreign Minister Fayṣal ibn Farḥān on 19 August denied any attempts for normalization, stating that an agreement with the Palestinians is the precondition for any settlement. That might sound reassuring, but with major shifts in sight in the Palestinian theatre that would not be so surprising to see a few years from now a Palestinian leadership much more receptive of deals. That link however, which is very closely knit to the Emirati normalization, shall be our topic for next week.