Since its founding, the United Arab Emirates has displayed solidarity with the Palestinians’ national aspirations, adhered to its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and called for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. However, the official ties established between the UAE and Israel within the framework of the Abraham Accords – in return for a halt to Israel’s annexation intentions but without assurances for negotiations with the Palestinians and for the two-state solution – have prompted speculation that the UAE abandoned its traditional position on the issue. A resulting examination of the UAE’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinian issue reveals a complex combination of interests, statements and actions, along with opportunities and obstacles.
To counter public claims asserting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no actual intention of implementing annexation, the Emirati leadership has emphasized that the Abraham Accords were the result of a diplomatic effort for the sake of the Palestinian people. The UAE presented Israel’s decision to halt the annexation as a quid pro quo for the normalization agreements and as the result of pressure the UAE exerted on the Israeli government.
Senior Emirati officials emphasized in the Israeli media the importance of halting annexation and of the Israeli and American commitments to do so under their agreement. The UAE thus set a red line in its relationship with Israel regarding future annexation attempts. The linkage between normalization with Israel and an end to the threat of annexation of Palestinian land signals a new stage in the UAE’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Previously, the UAE was passive on the issue, supporting the Arab Peace Initiative from the sidelines. Now, it is leading a significant move positioning itself as an active player in this arena, despite its rift with the Palestinian leadership.
However, while annexation was defined as a clear red line in Israeli-Emirati relations, other issues within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remain a gray area, for example, the issue of the settlements in the West Bank. Along with positive relations and flourishing cooperation, the UAE has been implicitly critical of Israel over its activities in the West Bank. In December 2020, the Emirati media gave wide coverage of the shooting of a young Palestinian by Israeli soldiers, and in February 2021, it reported on the decision of the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate whether Israel had committed war crimes in the Palestinian Territories.
Additionally, the two countries share new economic relations, with many Israeli delegations visiting the UAE, including one representing the Shomron Regional Council, the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank. In December 2020, the Shomron Council signed an export agreement with the UAE’s FAM Holdings. Such cooperation, however, is limited to the private sector, and UAE officials have yet to present clear positions on the purchase of settlement-made goods, ties with the settlements and, in general, the settlement enterprise. Nonetheless, the developing cooperation with Israel will presumably force the UAE to formulate such a policy, or at least to respond to initiatives relating to the territories.
The Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif issue is also considered a gray area in the Israeli-Emirati relationship. On August 31, 2020, during the first official Israeli delegation visit to Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed declared his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem.
IN OCTOBER 2020, senior Emirati representatives visited al-Aqsa Mosque and encountered angry Palestinians who cursed them and shouted at them to get out, an incident that inflamed tensions between the sides and could result in rethinking the sovereignty issue at the holy site. The incident prompted Israel to strengthen security at the site for visitors from the Gulf, but once tourism from the UAE and Bahrain opens up, the site could once again provoke friction in the trilateral Israeli-Palestinian-Gulf states relationship.
Those following the UAE’s diplomatic declarations and activities undoubtedly noticed that in the initial three months after plans were announced to normalize ties with Israel, the Emirati leadership went out of its way to express its commitment to Palestinian national aspirations. The many statements on the issue could attest to its importance to the Emirati leadership as well as the concern over criticism of the agreement with Israel.
Given the precedent it set among Arab and Muslim states by forging full diplomatic relations with Israel, the UAE invested heavily in public diplomacy vis-à-vis its own citizens, the Palestinian people, and the Arab world. Nonetheless, the absence of dialogue with the Palestinian leaderships deprives the UAE of significant leverage in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and forces it to choose roundabout channels to exert influence, for example, through Jordan, Egypt and the UN.
Jordan and Egypt serve as a mediating channel between the Emirates and the Palestinians, given their close relationship and importance to both sides, but most of the activity within these channels remains classified. The UN, on the other hand, serves as a public platform on which the UAE demonstrates its support of the Palestinians by providing humanitarian aid, for example, by coordinating Emirati medical equipment delivered to the Palestinians during the pandemic. Israel has now also joined these Emirati channels of influence, which provide it with a certain measure of involvement in the Palestinian arena, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and possibly in a future negotiating process.
According to Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Center, despite Palestinian opposition to the Abraham Accords, the agreements could actually serve the Palestinian position in the conflict with Israel by:
1) Introducing a new paradigm for peacemaking.
2) Introducing new actors into the peace process, such as the Emirates, serving both Israeli and Palestinian interests.
3) Changing Israeli public opinion regarding the Arab world and the benefits Israel could derive from peace agreements, thereby boosting support for negotiations with the Palestinians. This narrative serves as the UAE’s main argument in explaining its influence on regional stability and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – in both practical terms and in raising awareness.
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, the UAE has sought to spotlight its direct humanitarian contribution to the Palestinians (though not via UNRWA), its relationship with the Palestinian community in the Emirates, its intention to develop new economic channels for the Palestinians and, as mentioned, its commitment to the Palestinian people and to the resolution of the Palestinian issue.
The Emirati leadership’s key message is that its decision to forge ties with Israel was designed to benefit peace, but not at the expense of the Palestinian issue. At a UN Security Council debate, the UAE urged all sides to harness the momentum created by the peace agreement with Israel for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians. With this message, the UAE is outlining its role within the new paradigm of Israeli-Arab relations and the new rules of the game it has defined.
This article was published in The Jerusalem Post, May 10th 2021.