August 17, 2020

IntelBrief: Israel-UAE Deal: Real Diplomacy or Public Relations Stunt?

Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the flags of the United Arab Emirates and Israel as the countries announced they would be establishing full diplomatic ties, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Bottom Line up Front

  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to normalize relations with Israel to gain favor with the United States, no matter the outcome of the November 2020 U.S. presidential election.
  • Israel’s agreement to suspend annexation of areas of the West Bank has little value insofar as those plans were anyway stalled by U.S. opposition.
  • The move strengthens Israel and the UAE against Iran, and is a move that the UAE believes will provide it with additional leverage against neighboring Qatar.
  • The UAE leadership’s ability to accept the agreement reflects a relative absence of domestic opposition.

The August 13 joint statement of Israel, the UAE, and the United States committing to a normalization of UAE-Israel relations reflects a long evolution in UAE-Israeli relations and convergence of perceptions about the growing regional threat posed by Iran. The driver for the agreement was ostensibly to counter Iran, but the UAE leadership required an Israeli concession to the Palestinians – a public commitment not to proceed with a planned annexation of about 30% of the West Bank. Yet, this concession had little actual value in that Israel already had shelved its annexation plan in the face of Trump administration opposition. Whereas the de-facto UAE leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayid Al Nuhayyan (MBZ), emphasized that the agreement ‘stops’ the annexation, the three-party joint statement only committed Israel to a ‘suspension’ of the move. The Palestinians viewed the UAE move not as a defense of long-held Palestinian political objectives, but instead as an abrogation of the two-decade Saudi-led consensus that Arab normalization with Israel is contingent upon an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

The primary objective of the UAE leadership in agreeing to normalization with Israel is to gain significant benefits with respect to its relationship with the United States. If President Trump is re-elected, the UAE hopes to be seen as a key ally that helped Trump advance his case for a second term. If President Trump is defeated, the UAE is attempting to hedge its bets with the Biden administration by contributing to Israel’s security and helping the United States contain Iran. The move is intended to secure more favorable U.S. consideration for the UAE request to purchase the U.S. F-35 advanced combat aircraft and armed unmanned aerial vehicles. The UAE has been buying armed drones from China and other suppliers. Additionally, UAE leaders calculate that the move will help them gain U.S. support for the UAE’s insistence that Qatar make dramatic concessions in exchange for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain to lift their three-year long blockade of Qatari airspace and land crossings. The Trump administration reportedly has been frustrated at the UAE intransigence to agree to U.S. proposals to end this intra-Gulf rift.

The UAE-Israel normalization is supposed to represent a message of resolve against Iran and its regional ‘axis of resistance.’ That axis consists not only of Iran and its large arsenal of missiles and unconventional weaponry, but more significantly of a wide range of allies and proxies in the region that Iran supplies with increasingly accurate rockets and missiles. There is also the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Israel has been striking Iran-backed militias in Syria, and less frequently in Lebanon and Iraq, to prevent Iran from threatening Israeli territory. Iranian forces attacked UAE tankers in the Persian Gulf in 2019, and the UAE participates in the Saudi-led coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen. An Iranian missile attack on Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019 drove home to the Emirati leadership the potential Iranian threat to UAE territory. The normalization announcement came as a U.S. draft Security Council Resolution to extend a U.N. ban on arms sales to Iran was going down to defeat, opening Iran to undertake a conventional weapons rearmament that could increase the threat to both Israel and the UAE. Recognizing that the Israel-UAE normalization was directed at Iran, at least nominally, Tehran’s hardliners reacted by threatening that, by selling out the Palestinians, the UAE is now a ripe target for attacks by Iranian or Iranian proxy agents.

The UAE leadership had sufficient public support to take this step, although any citizens that objected were likely cowed into silence, as it is known that the government is monitoring social media for the slightest hint of dissent. In 2015, Israel opened an office in Abu Dhabi to facilitate participation in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Israeli ministers, including the Foreign Minister, security officials, athletes, medical professionals, and others have since visited the UAE regularly. And, any deep-seated public animosity toward Israel that would complicate normalization has been suppressed: the UAE and Israel have no territorial disputes and Emirati forces did not participate in any war against Israel. This contrasts sharply with Egypt and Jordan – the two Arab states that have thus far signed peace agreements with Israel. But in the end, the deal itself may be more hype than substance, essentially a rubber stamp on what was already a working partnership, leaving many to question whether this is diplomacy at work or just another public relations stunt.