Many Israelis were watching the first civilian–albeit not yet commercial—flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi and checking out the rates of hotel in Dubai, when the reality had knocked on their door. Rocket fire and explosive balloons that flew in from Gaza, a terror attack in Petah Tikva and a clash with Hezbollah in the northern border had revealed that for now the New Middle East still resembles a lot of the old Middle East, with its unsolved conflicts and threats.
In this grim reality the normalization of relations between Israel and UAE definitely looks as a bright spot: finally someone in the region is talking peace, business and hi-tech (as well as drones and fighter jets), and not blood, death and revenge. Israel has been excluded from its very habitat for too long, and its citizens are yearning for better relations with the neighbors—especially when they live in fancy, glamorous cities tantalizingly forbidden until now. According to a study, conducted by Mitvim institute for regional foreign policy, most of Israelis who consider traveling to an Arab country would like to travel to UAE, and prioritize Gulf states over Israel’s immediate neighbors.
But here comes the catch: Yes, the UAE is an incredibly rich and powerful country, it aspires to play a leading role in the region and it shares common interests and common enemies with Israel. But, the UAE is also a small country that never had any territorial conflict with Israel; in fact, it was never in any kind of war with Israel, and it is located far away from Israel’s borders. The normalization of relations is extremely important for bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Abu-Dhabi, but what effect will it have on Israel’s literally burning conflicts in the South, the North and the West Bank?
Let’s start with Iran. The UAE had normalized relations with Israel, but Abu-Dhabi is also engaged in constructive dialogue with Tehran, and seems to be interested in even stronger ties with IRI. There is little doubt among the security experts in Israel and across the Middle East, that should Abu-Dhabi eventually get the coveted F-35, these will not pose any threat to Iran. Long portrayed as Iran’s bitter foe, the UAE is developing an independent approach to relations with Tehran, quite different from the Saudi position. Israel, however, will continue fighting Iran and its proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza, trying to prevent from the establishing land corridor and expanding its presence on Israel’s border.
As for the future of normalization of relations with Arab countries, a precedent has been indeed set by the Emiratis, and the peace between Israel and UAE might turn out warm and real. The Middle East is changing and undercover relations with Israel are evolving into agreements and treaties. Yet, this development will hardly defrost the cold peace with Egypt and Jordan, with the latter disgruntled over the non-fulfilled promises of peace agreement signed by King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin back in 1994. It’s not clear yet if other Arab countries will join the UAE example: Saudi Arabia had announced publicly that it will not opt for normalization of relations with Israel prior to the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and so did Morocco.
So what about the Palestinians? It certainly seems that they are not going anywhere, and if someone thought for a moment that the conflict will just resolve itself only because Israel and UAE decided to seal their two decades long affair with an official document, it’s time to revisit this thought. The Emiratis take pride of stopping the annexation of Jordan Valley and other parts of West Bank. But this important, yet passive step will not put an end to creeping annexation, expansion of settlements or weakening of the Palestinian Autonomy.
As of today, Israel is increasing its direct control of the Palestinians in West Bank due to weakness of the PA and its decision to cease the relations with the IDF. This development is missed by many, who believe in a static, eternal “status-quo”. In reality, however, there is no such thing as “status-quo”, and the situation in West Bank and Gaza is a perfect example to that. In absence of a political process the PA will get even weaker, the desperation and the restiveness on the streets of Nablus, Jenin and the refugee camps will grow—until it explodes again, as Israeli security chiefs keep warning. The two-state solution is evaporating quickly, making room for a one-state solution, with different set of laws for different nations.
And there is of course Gaza, ruled by Hamas for 13 years and counting. Israel lacks any strategy and understanding how get out of Gaza mess. It may sign an agreement with Emiratis, but it will be the Qataris who will get to decide if it wants to buy Israel some peace with the money bags it regularly sends into Gaza, with Jerusalem’s blessing. And of course, a situation in which a nation controls millions of people deprived of citizenship, rights and freedom is dangerous to any country, especially to a democracy.
**The article was published on Newsweek, 2 September 2020.