Beleaguered US President Donald Trump, trailing in polls, distracted by fresh spike of COVID-19 cases and rattled by Kamala Harris as running-mate of his Democrat opponent Joe Biden, needed some good news. He claimed a “diplomatic breakthrough”, with his Middle East team, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, lined up behind him presenting a peace deal between Israel and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Objectives were outlined in a joint statement. Term “peace deal” appears inappropriate as Israel and UAE were never at war, unlike Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967 and the first two again in 1973. Egypt settled for peace in 1979 and Jordan followed in 1994.
Israel-UAE agreement mainly normalises their relations, under President Trump’s oversight and against the backdrop of Israeli domestic politics and regional imperatives. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, heading a coalition with his principal rivals the Blue and White Party led by former army chief Benny Gantz, confronts three major domestic challenges. His trial on three counts of corruption is underway and he cannot find legislative support for obtaining immunity. The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled the economy. And despite initially handling COVID-19 well he is seen responsible for a second terrible surge due to premature opening of schools and lax implementation of face-covering. Daily huge crowds are demonstrating outside his house demanding his resignation, some referring to him as “Crime Minister”. Two powerful prime ministers, Golda Meir in 1974 and Menachem Begin in 1983, lost power following such protests.
Largely to overcome his domestic difficulties, Netanyahu had earlier announced annexation of Jordan valley and West Bank settlements on July 1. This was in line with the completely pro-Israeli Trump Peace Plan unfurled by Trump with much fanfare on January 28, 2020. Democratic candidates, then in the middle of their primaries, rejected it. Opinion in the Islamic world was completely negative. Jordan threatened to abandon the peace treaty if Israel annexed Jordan valley. President of Palestinian Authority called it “slap of the century”. The Economist went a step further dubbing it “Steal of the century”. With re-election of Trump looking more remote, Netanyahu needed to back off from his annexation move as he would not want to start with a Democrat party president on a negative note. With his domestic support ebbing due to three factors enumerated above nor could he seek fresh elections merely on the annexation issue.
UAE also has been overplaying its hand regionally encouraged by US prompting, dubbing it Sparta of the Gulf. UAE’s open confrontation with Iran by intervening militarily in Yemen, where Iranians support the Houthis, and by backing anti-Assad regime Sunnis in Syria besides taking on Turkey via surrogates in Libya was strategic and military overstretch. It has reached out to Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) through discrete channels to moderate tempers. But its threat perception from Iran has not diminished. That is why the Joint Statement issued after Trump’s Oval office announcement refers to UAE and Israel as two “reliable and capable regional partners”. Both these nations and US share the dislike of Iran and its attempted regional hegemony using Shia militias, surrogates like Hezbollah in Lebanon and friendly Shia governments like in Iraq. Undoubtedly Israel and UAE have been in discrete contact for some time. But the new handshake will legitimise that relationship and allow its visible expansion to defence and intelligence.
Only face-saving concession UAE obtained is that Israel shall “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the president’s vision for peace and focus on ties with Arab and Muslim nations.” Thus, Israel merely concedes freeze not abandonment of the completely destabilising Trump Peace Plan, of which President Trump’s Jewish son-in-law is the creator. But on the positive side it provides UAE an ability to negotiate with Israel to advance what the statement calls “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East”. What Trump administration ignores is that UAE, despite its wealth and its small but well-equipped military, is not a nation with the historical and civilisational heft of Turkey, Iran, Egypt or even Saudi Arabia. It also does not have the population size and collective memory of the other bigger powers. It can be a catalyst, financing and supporting militarily bigger allies. It would be ill advised to irritate Iran as it sits across the Gulf and within its easy reach.
In conclusion, US president wanted a pre-election success; Israeli prime minister needed a retreat from unwise annexation gambit and a Gulf toe-hold; UAE’s Abu Dhabi Crown Prince was happy to obtain a closer and open relationship with US and its ally Israel as indeed Trump’s goodwill. However, it would leave Iran warier and region not necessarily more stable as basic fault-lines persist.
(The author was the Indian ambassador to Iran and UAE)