Israel-UAE Deal Leaves Palestinians in the Cold
Palestinian flags stand in the Jordan Valley, West Bank. (Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

Israel-UAE Deal Leaves Palestinians in the Cold

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The day after the United Arab Emirates announced that it was recognizing Israel, the local Israeli media framed it as a simple transaction. Israel was dropping its pending annexation of 17% of the West Bank and in return was receiving full diplomatic and economic relations with the wealthy Arab Gulf state.

The UAE cast the decision as primarily a move to stave off the annexation. “I think we have bought a lot of time,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, told an Israeli interviewer. “I don’t think it is a short suspension”

The Palestinians were disbelieving. They understood the agreement not as a friendly diplomatic move to ward off an Israeli land grab, but as, in the words of Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas, “a stab in the back.” 

Abbas is right. The UAE has secretly been doing business with Israel for years. Such clandestine dealings are considered par for the course in the region. But by going public with a peace treaty, the UAE did something revolutionary — it proclaimed its independence from the Palestinian cause. The country is willing, even happy, to be of help to the Palestinians, but it is no longer committed to Ramallah’s side or its demands from Israel.

Those demands include Israel withdrawing to the pre-1967 border (minus territorial swaps between the two sides) and the creation of a fully independent Palestinian state. This is what has traditionally been called “the two-state solution.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with these terms, except for the fact that no Israeli government, presently or in the future, will agree to evacuating Israelis from the territory that Palestine claims. And none will agree to a fully independent Palestine — which would then be free to build an army, make military alliances with Iran and other hostile powers or engage in diplomatic warfare. 

In January 2020, the U.S. introduced a new “vision for peace” that offered Palestinians a demilitarized state in a fraction of their claimed territory: about three-quarters of the West Bank, and possibly all of Gaza, if the Palestinian authority could wrest it away from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The city of Jerusalem would remain in Israeli hands, but the Palestinian capital could be in a nearby suburb of the city. The deal sweetener was access to vast American and international financial aid, as well as entry into the Israeli job market and economy.

The Palestinians flatly rejected this idea, which was far from what they’d been led by the international community to believe was attainable. But time and history are not on their side.

In 1977, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt broke the Arab boycott of Israel by traveling to Jerusalem and making peace with the Jewish state. A decade later, King Hussein of Jordan followed suit. Both were unmoved by Arab calls of solidarity. They paid lip service to the Palestinian issue, but ultimately made deals that were in the best interest of their countries.

That is what the UAE is doing today. Israel has high-tech products and expertise that the Emirates need, as well as influence in Washington D.C. The UAE offers vast investment funds as well as regional legitimacy. They have a mutual enemy in Iran, and the Israel is a military and intelligence asset. A partnership between the two powers simply makes sense.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that there will be more peace agreements in the region and that peace with the UAE “will also promote peace — real, secure and supervised peace — with the Palestinians.”

According to Israeli media reports, the head of the Mossad has been on the phone with the Prime Minister of Bahrain discussing the possibilities for a peace deal. Other Arab countries that already have extensive dealings with Israel — Oman, Morocco and Sudan — are also said by Israeli intelligence sources to be waiting in line to discuss a deal. As for the big prize — a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia — it is “inevitable” according to Jared Kushner, the architect of the U.S. “vision for peace” plan.

Of course, it is wise for Israel to be cautious. After signing the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the mid-nineties, there was an unrequited burst of optimism in Israel about the readiness of the Arabs to embrace the Jewish state. And no deal is final until it is signed. To finalize the most recent agreement, the UAE will have to withstand harsh threats and pressure from Iran and Turkey.

But the country has more to offer than it did back then. And there is considerable Arab impatience with the incessant demand by Palestinian leaders for solidarity.

Implicit in the peace agreement with the Emirates is that its leader will be free to offer advice and support to Palestine, but will leave the governance of the West Bank to Israel. Netanyahu has already agreed to a Luxembourg-sized state for Palestine, and most Israelis support it. That would relieve Israel of the burden of occupation.

But if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate, Israel can live without a two-state deal. And so can its Arab allies.

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

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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