By S. Samuel C. Rajiv
The historic decision by Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on August 13, 2020 to establish full diplomatic ties has jolted the West Asian geopolitics. After the 1979 and 1994 peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, respectively — and a short-lived diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic of Mauritania (a member of the Arab League) from 1999 to 2009, this is the first time Israel has established full diplomatic ties with a Gulf Arab country.
While both Israel and the UAE have engaged in tacit cooperation in the recent past, many believed that formal diplomatic ties were quite a distance away. This was especially so since the Arab countries had committed in 2002 that they would formally recognise Israel and establish diplomatic relations only after it withdraws from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war and a Palestinian state is established.
Israel, on its part, has agreed to suspend declaring sovereignty over territories it occupies in the West Bank, ‘at the request of President Trump’, as highlighted in the Joint Statement released by the White House.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run up to the March 2020 elections and as part of agreements with his coalition partners ahead of government formation had promised to impose Israeli sovereignty over at least 30 per cent of the West Bank by the end June 2020.Strong opposition from major world powers along with the COVID-19 pandemic, however, put a spoke in Netanyahu’s plans.
The UAE Ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, a key interlocutor with the Israelis and who was present in the White House when Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ was unveiled in January 2020, wrote an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper in June 2020, stating that “excited talk about normalization of relations” with the UAE and other Arab states and “Israeli plans for annexation” are a contradiction. He warned that annexation will “immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE”.His op-ed is seen as a critical marker in the run up to the August 13 announcement.
Almost immediately after President Trump’s announcement, there were differing interpretations of the exact import of the Israeli undertaking relating to annexation. The UAE Foreign Minister, Anwar Gargash, insisted that the UAE move in effect dealt a ‘death blow’ to the annexation of Palestinian lands.Prime Minister Netanyahu however, stated that Israel has only agreed to ‘delay’ the annexation decision.
The extent to which such issues will impact the pace at which normalisation will take place, including the establishment of respective embassies, remains to be seen. A significant Israeli-Palestinian military escalation, while it may not derail the budding diplomatic engagement, could also potentially impact the pace of the normalisation process.
Be that as it may, predictably, the Palestinians, as well as the Israeli settler leaders, have reacted with dismay.Even as the UAE establishes diplomatic ties with Israel, its role as a critical provider of economic assistance to the Palestinians can be expected to continue. The UAE Foreign Ministry in July 2019 pointed out that it provided over $364 million in aid to the Palestinians over the past two years.
While Trump can rightly claim a significant foreign policy achievement in the waning months of his presidency, a key factor that brought Israel and the UAE together was Iran. While Israel insists that concerns emanating from the Iranian nuclear programme are an existential threat, the UAE has long accused Iran of playing the sectarian card to destabilise the Gulf Arab states.
The UAE and Iran also have a long-standing territorial dispute, with Iran’s occupation of the islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa a sore issue. These islands were occupied by the Shah of Iran in November 1971, just two days prior to the UAE gaining independence from Britain.
Israel has had a diplomatic presence at the offices of the International Renewable Agency (IRENA), a United Nations (UN) agency headquartered in Abu Dhabi since 2015. Reports have also pointed out that the UAE uses Israeli-sourced (from third parties) surveillance equipment and sensors in critical national infrastructure and security grids.
Both Israel and the UAE have also taken part in multilateral military exercises, even prior to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations. In March 2017, for instance, the UAE was part of INIOHOS 2017, hosted by Greece, along with Italy and Israel. More recently, in July 2020, the UAE and Israeli high-tech companies entered into an agreement to jointly fight COVID-19.
Amid such tacit cooperation prior to the establishment of formal ties, Israel and the UAE seem to have overcome the January 2010 killing of Hamas militant leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel. The then Dubai police chief, Dhahi Khalfan, who had called for the arrest, via Interpol, of then Mossad chief Meir Dagan for the Mabhouh killing, has welcomed the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Joint Statement released by The White House on August 13 notes that Israel will make efforts to expand ties with other countries in the Arab and the Muslim world.Prime Minister Netanyahu in his remarks following the Trump announcement had affirmed that he expects “more Arab countries join this expanding circle of peace”.
It is pertinent to note that the first high-level visit by an Israeli political leader to the region in the aftermath of the Madrid and the Oslo peace processes was by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Oman in 1994. Soon thereafter, his successor, Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Oman and Qatar in 1996 to open Israeli trade offices. The offices, however, had to be shut down as Israel’s relations with the Palestinians took a turn for the worse in the aftermath of the second Intifada in 2000 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008.
More recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu made an unannounced visit to Oman in October 2018 at the invitation of the late King Sultan Qaboos. Oman’s Foreign Minister in the immediate aftermath of his visit had called on his Gulf neighbours to accept Israel as ‘a state present in the region’.
Oman, and Bahrain — another Gulf state with antagonistic relations with Iran, can be expected to break diplomatic ice sooner than later. Incidentally, along with the UAE Ambassador Otaiba, the Omani and Bahraini ambassadors to the US were also present at the White House when Trump unveiled his peace plan in January 2020. Israel and Saudi Arabia have also interacted closely in recent times, primarily to counter concerns vis-à-vis Iran.
Israeli analysts have also pitched for the establishment of relations with other Muslim countries like Pakistan, insisting that “Pakistani national interests dictate better relations’ with the Jewish state and that Iran was another ‘point of convergence’”.Indian analysts have, however, pointed out that such a move by Pakistan would lead to a “weakened support base” for its stand on Kashmir at organisations like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and that Israel cannot expect to use Islamabad as a counterweight to Tehran.
Formal relations with other big Muslim nations beyond its neighbourhood like Bangladesh and Indonesia or Malaysia cannot be expected to fructify in the absence of any significant forward movement in the Israel-Palestine dynamics. Unlike the Gulf Arab states, Iran as a common threat is not a valid proposition vis-a-vis the nation-states of South and Southeast Asia.
The author is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.