Today, Donald Trump announced at the White House that Israel and the UAE planned to sign what media reports are calling a “historic” peace deal which would normalize relations between the two countries. The deal, apparently largely brokered by Jared Kushner, seems at first glance quite a feather in the First Son-in-Law’s cap. It offers Trump a respite from month’s of horrible press regarding Covid19 and Black Lives Matter protests. It offers a desperately needed boost to a president whose poll numbers are in the tank and who trails his challenger, Joe Biden, by double digits in some national polls.
The media has characteristically transformed this news into a football match: winners and losers. But this is at best inapt. Those who see themselves as winners (Trump, Netanyahu) have won very little if anything. Those pegged on the media scorecard as losers (Iran, Palestinians) haven’t lost much at all. And overall, the deal ratifies the worst excesses of the parties: corruption, militarism, weapons proliferation, instability, and religious hatred. It derogates the very processes necessary to resolve regional conflict: diplomacy, compromise, transparency, democracy, human rights, pragmatism, etc.
Is this deal all it’s cracked up to be? From its first unveiling, the key parties have offered contradictory assessments of its provisions. Trump trumpeted a major compromise offered by Israel describing it as a “suspension” of Israel’s attempt to “assert sovereignty” over the West Bank (a euphemism for “annexation”). In a subsequent comment, he confused the situation even further in characteristic fashion:
“Israel has agreed not to do it. More than off the table, they have agreed not to do it,” Trump said. “I think that very important. I think it was a great concession by Israel, I think it was a smart concession.”
He added, however, that he could not clarify what would happen in the future, “right now it is off the table.”
While UAE’s leader hailed the deal for “stopping” Israeli annexation. Clearly there is a marked difference in those two terms. And Israel has a checkered history of revising ex post facto agreements it has signed, in ways that contradict the original deal. Undoubtedly, whenever it suits Netanyahu or whichever leader follows him, Israel will renew its intent to annex these occupied territories. And the protestations of Palestinians and the UAE will amount to nothing.
The NY Times reports that contrary to the country’s leader’s claim that the agreement will stop annexation, it won’t:
Emirati representatives said that they expected Israel to characterize the halt to annexation as only a “pause,” but that in practical terms, the deal would most likely postpone the prospect of such a move until after the American presidential election. That might bring in an administration in Washington more opposed to the idea and could amount to an indefinite cancellation, the Emiratis argued.
It’s typical for Israel, the UAE and their partners to look to the U.S. to get them out of jams they make for themselves. But in this case, Joe Biden has already refused to roll back some of the worst policies enacted by Trump (moving the embassy to Jerusalem). So why would he stand in the way of annexation if Israel was hellbent on implementing it? And even if he did, Netanyahu has no respect for Democratic Presidents and could likely ignore Biden’s protestations if he was inclined to do so.
UAE has claimed that the deal will further the goal of a two-state solution:
The UAE said it would remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution…
That is ludicrous given that the Palestinians had no part in this deal and didn’t even know it was being contemplated. Another question worth considering is: if UAE’s goal was a two-state solution why didn’t it hold out for that very outcome? Why didn’t it demand a Palestinian state in return for normalization? The reason is that UAE didn’t give a fig for a Palestinian state. It has essentially abandoned that issue in favor of its own interests.
And what are they? Normalization offers UAE access to the Israeli market, where it can buy the most sophisticated Israeli weapons systems and surveillance technologies:
…The area where Israel stands to most to gain economically from ties with the UAE is defense and cybersecurity.
The UAE’s annual defense budget is estimated to be about $23 billion and growing, with about $20 billion of that going to arms procurement in the United States.
Just hours after normalization, sources in the Israel defense industry were talking about how the UAE has the potential to offset the loss of sales locally due to the terms of the current U.S. aid agreement. They said the emirates are an ideal partner, with deep pockets and an authoritarian regime that can make quick decisions on arms purchases.
…Much more is going on behind the scenes, not just by old-line defense companies like IAI, Rafael and Elbit Systems, but also pure tech players such as Aeronautics Defense Systems (drones), AnyVision (face recognition) and NSO Group Technologies (cyber surveillance).Israeli businessmen such as Mati Kochavi, David Meidan, Avi Leumi and Avihai Stolero have been active in the Gulf for years. They sell intelligence-gathering gear, drones, reconnaissance planes, F-16 upgrade services and cybersecurity-hacking technologies.
…Around five years ago, some Gulf governments expressed an interest in Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system but in the end pulled back from a deal. Now, as the threat of an Iranian attack on oil installations has become very real, they will reconsider Iron Dome or other Israeli anti-missile technology.
Arab strongmen like Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayad are always looking over their shoulders fearing rivals who threaten their reign. They fear their own citizens and seek ever more sophisticated ways to assert control. Most of all, these dictators need external enemies in order to maintain the level of fear necessary to preserve domestic order. Israel offers answers to all those needs. Israel, already the seventh leading arms exporter in the world, stands ready to open its armory to the regime’s military. They can buy warplanes, missiles, anti-aircraft systems, tanks; not to mention sophisticated monitoring systems to surveil every aspect of UAE society.
The Gulf State is a Sunni kleptocratic regime which, like its big brother Saudi Arabia, has showered its billions on arming and recruiting for ISIS in its fight against the Alawite Assad regime in Syria. In that sense, normalization with UAE shows that, rather than offering progress in solving any external conflict, Israel’s only allies in the Arab world are as corrupt and murderous in confronting its Arab neighbors as it is.
What does Israel get from the deal? UAE offers it nothing it needs. The Gulf state’s main export is oil, for which Israel has plenty of sources. The only thing UAE offers Israel is legitimacy. But what sort of legitimacy? From a Gulf kleptocracy run by feeble old men who offer the region nothing but bloodshed and violence (cf. the UAE-Saudi assault on Yemen which has taken well over 100,000 lives).
Turkey has just responded by saying it is considering either suspending diplomatic ties entirely with UAE or recalling its ambassador. Which means that rather than promoting solidarity among Muslim states, it has sown division.
Trump, beset by self-delusion, sees the Palestinians as eventually embracing the inevitable:
Trump told reporters he believed that the Palestinians would also come to the negotiating table to make a deal with Israel, because they rely heavily on financial support of countries that are coming to the table. The Palestinians are “supported by countries we are already talking to. Palestinians will, without saying it necessarily yet, they want to be part of what we are doing. I see peace between Israel and the Palestinians happening, as these big powerful wealthy countries come in, I think the Palestinians will follow quite naturally,” Trump said.
To Trump, Palestinians don’t even merit the title of ‘shithole country’ since they don’t have one and never will. They are mere extensions of other bigger strong Arab countries. On their own, they are worth nothing.
Netanyahu has celebrated the expected deal as the culmination of his grand strategy of co-opting Arab regimes and turning them from enemies to allies. He describes this as his crowning achievement.
He does all this with an eye to the internal upheaval facing him inside Israel. Protests of tens of thousands virtually nightly in every major city. Angry citizens decrying his mismanagement of the Covid19 epidemic, the rising numbers of dead, and the blatant corruption that has been endemic. He faces three separate criminal counts in a trial to begin later this year.
Like Trump, Netanyahu is at the nadir of his rule. No wants him. His own coalition partners mistrust him. The people have largely abandoned him. The only thing holding his government together is the prospect of voters turning against Likud and Blue and White in disgust and turning to someone else to rule. Israel today is the most dysfunctional it has been in perhaps its entire existence.
Despite the crowing in Washington and Jerusalem about this deal, it cannot save either leader. In truth, American voters could care less about UAE. Even though they may support Israel in principle, the fact that an Arab country has declared peace with it means little. And it will bring Trump no votes come November. Similarly, Israelis may like the idea of turning Arabs from enemies to friends. They may see benefits in normalizing relations with former rivals. They may agree that this makes their neighborhood a bit safer for them. But the UAE isn’t going to solve the country’s problems. And in the eyes of most Israelis, those problems begin and end with the man in charge.
I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the catchy name attached to the deal, the “Abraham Accords.” The branding that went into coming up with that has Jared Kushner written all over it. Of course, the only commonality an Orthodox Jew can find with a Muslim is ‘Father Abraham.’ But Kushner has forgotten the entire history of Abraham and his family. He had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. When his Jewish wife, Sarah, had her son, she gave Abe an ultimatum: it’s me of her (Ismael’s mother, Hagar). The Jewish patriarch chose Sarah and Issac, and abandoned Hagar and Ishmael to the desert wastes. They were expelled from the bosom of Abraham’s family in much the same way that Israelis expelled a million pre-state Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 and sent them into exile. That’s a part of Biblical history that Kushner has conveniently ignored.
While the media are calling this deal “historic,” is it really? Two other Arab states have already signed such deals with Israel. They did so because they had fought wars against it and sought to regain territory lost or to retain sovereignty over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The UAE has never fired a shot against Israel. It is an also-ran in the Arab world. It serves as a stalking horse for Saudi Arabia and barely has a foreign policy independent of it. Thus, the deal promises much more than it delivers.
What is significant is the prospect that the Saudis will be the next Arab domino to fall into place, as far as Israel is concerned. The latter sees the Saudis as the key player among the Arab states. Where the Saudis go, the other Gulf states will follow. It will only be a matter of time, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, before he’s wearing a Saudi feather in his cap.
Another aspect of this deal worth noting is it appears to be a riposte to Iran’s announcement of a 25-year development treaty with China which would pump $400-billion in much-needed investment into the Iranian economy. While it’s possible that normalization between Israel and the UAE might generate this level of commercial transactions over the same period of time–the Iran deal is much more important overall than the UAE deal. China is throwing Iran a vital lifeline. Israel is throwing UAE a half-eaten felafel.
The Saudis, UAE, and Israel are pounding their chests over their achievement. It is the equivalent of a Silverback hurling verbal insults at a rival. Iran, the rival, looks on at the antic display and shrugs its shoulders as if to say: is that all you’ve got?
UAE and Israel have been undeclared allies for years. Their intelligence chiefs have consulted each other regularly and extensively. They collaborate on their attempts to counter Iranian influence in the region. What can a formal alliance offer that they don’t have already?
Finally, Donald Trump’s “deals” have a habit of self-destructing once they’re put under scrutiny. Remember his “summits” with Kim Jong Un? When he was going to denuclearize North Korea? Remember the charm offensive with China’s Xi Jinping? The confab at Mar a Lago? What did either offer except bitterness and failed expectations? Relations with both countries are worse than they’ve ever been.
All this means that the media should be exceedingly cautious about attributing any value to this deal until it actually shows results. If past history is any guide, both Israel and UAE may find that they’ve agreed on a lot less than they thought.