Israel Should Heed Its New Arab Friends on Palestine

Extraordinary opportunities are developing between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the normalization deal  the countries signed in September. At a recent technology conference in Dubai, more than 130 Israeli companies and a delegation of four hundred Israelis were able to explore trade opportunities. This, along with new interfaith initiatives, showcases rapidly developing relations between the two countries.

But Israel needs to listen to its new Arab peace partners and show that it is also serious about progress on talks with the Palestinians in the future.

The partnership between Israel and the UAE, underpinned by trade and travel initially, comes with assumptions from Abu Dhabi. The UAE said that it embraced the deal to “stop annexation and the potential of violence escalation.” It is also keen to maintain the viability of a two-state solution and increase stability in the region, especially in countries like Jordan that are very sensitive about changes to the status quo in Israel.

The Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a recent interview that the normalization agreement is not transactional but a strategic national choice. The deal, he said, is an important opportunity to show that prosperity and peace can be achieved for the region: “It should be bigger than the UAE and Israel.”

That means providing for a political solution between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The carefully worded statements from the Emiratis amount to a message that doesn’t always seem to get through to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading toward his fourth election campaign in two years, hoping to extend a long tenure in office in which he has made lack of progress on the Palestinian issue a core value.

This approach may have worked for him in the past, but now Netanyahu has secured peace deals with several Arab nations — with Morocco joining the USE, Bahrain and Sudan in the camp — he can’t ignore the concerns and demands of his new friends.

Significantly, these new friends are making common cause with older partners Netanyahu has previously ignored: The UAE and Bahrain recently hosted Jordan’s king, showcasing their support for a ruler who has had a cold relationship with Netanyahu.

The UAE is seeking to change the playbook for normalization between Arab states and Israel. The first model was “land for peace,” the basis for the 1979 deal between Egypt and Israel. The second, defined by the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, required Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, and the creation of a Palestinian state. The new model is recognition and normalization first, and then a push for a peace process.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are watching closely to see if their quiet support for the new diplomatic openings result in progress between Israel and the Palestinians. But Israeli officials seem not to be paying attention.

Israel is sticking to its well-worn line that the Palestinians must stop their “rejectionism” as a precursor to peace. For many years there has not been a clear Israeli policy on what the Palestinians would receive if they do meet this demand. The key issues, such as Jerusalem as a shared capital city, or borders and compensation for refugees, are not on the table from Israel’s point of view.

There are other factors at play, of course. Adversaries of Israel and the UAE have been backing Palestinian groups, like Hamas in Gaza, that are opposed to any peace efforts. A divided Palestinian polity with an aging leadership presents many challenges. But these facts only strengthen the argument for Israel to work closely with the UAE and other Arab states on the next steps.

Israel’s new Arab partners aren’t demanding that a Palestinian state needs to emerge immediately, but they have been saying they want to see movement in that direction as part of their normalization deals. It is incumbent on Israel to show that its relationship with these states is about more than trade deals and interfaith dialogue. This is a multi-layered peace project and it needs a layer in which Israel listens to its new friends.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Seth J. Frantzman covers Middle East affairs for the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of "After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East" and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.

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