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Normalizing relations with the U.A.E.—a historic agreement

 The White House recently announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) would soon sign an agreement normalizing relations. 

Ofer_UAE image
The national flag of the United Arab Emirates is displayed on a Tel Aviv building following the agreement between the U.A.E. and Israel on establishing full diplomatic ties. (Oren Ziv/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The White House recently announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) would soon sign an agreement normalizing relations. The accord also puts an indefinite freeze on Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, a component of President Trump's peace plan, and a divisive issue in Israel. 

This is a historic event--the first agreement with a Muslim country in a quarter century. (Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.) Not all details are clear yet, but we do know that the agreement was reached with the help of U.S. mediation and with the apparent encouragement of Saudi Arabia, the primary regional power heading the Sunni bloc of Muslim nations.  

The relationship, kept under the radar for o ver 25 years, has now come to light for several reasons and shared interests-including the two nations' common and most important regional enemy, Iran; critical business interests; and a desire to foster mutual investments in several sectors, including high-tech. 

The agreement outlines opening embassies in both countries, and facilitating commerce, cultural exchanges, and direct travel between Israel and the U.A.E.--with one Israeli airline already seeking permission to overfly Saudi Arabia.  

While both Israel and the U.A.E. have lauded the agreement (which Oman and Bahrain publicly called "bold and courageous"), the Middle Eastern players--including the Emiratis, the Israelis, and the Palestinians--also view the accord through various lenses. 

The U.A.E. is touting the agreement as supporting future Palestinian statehood, which Israel's annexation plans would have endangered. For Israel, whose leaders still talk of future annexation, the agreement is seen as a landmark precedent that shatters the long-held axiom according to which no (additional) Arab country would normalize relations with Israel before the Palestinian issue is resolved. 

Israelis are engaging in vocal discussions about the meaning of the accord. The right wing is conflicted between an admiration and respect for Netanyahu for normalizing relations with an Arab country without relinquishing land (no "land for peace"), yet is simultaneously dismayed that annexation plans are postponed.  

Many on the right are criticizing Netanyahu for having missed a unique opportunity with a president in the White House who agreed to annexation (albeit as part of a package deal, the price for which would be deferred). Some have gone as far as calling Netanyahu's move "the deception of the century." 

As for the Palestinians, they are denouncing the agreement, accusing the U.A.E. of stabbing them in the back and abandoning the cause of the Palestinian people in exchange for better relations with the U.S. and Israel. In their view, once a precedent is set of normalization with Israel without resolution of the Palestinian issue, there will be a slippery slope of other nations following suit, ultimately leaving the Palestinians alone in their struggle for statehood.  

Rumors have it that the road is indeed being paved. At least one other Arab country and possibly two might follow in U.A.E.'s footsteps, including Oman, which has had hosted an Israeli interests office in the past, and Saudi Arabia, the most important Sunni country in the region. Saudi Arabia's clerics are strongly anti-Israel and its economic interests in the Arab world and historic support of the Palestinians preclude an immediate agreement with Israel. Yet, the U.A.E. move, a weather balloon for Riyadh, could lead them to thaw relations with Israel in the coming months. 

If Israeli television is a harbinger of things to come, we are in for a warmer peace--warmer and closer than the one we have with Egypt and Jordan. Emirati leaders are publicly boasting about the agreement, while Israeli news is advertising vacations at Dubai hotels and Abu Dhabi resorts.  

The U.A.E. and Israel have even opened the telephone lines between the two countries following the announcement of the new agreement--enabling us to finally talk to one another directly. And once we start talking, who knows where peace might lead us. 

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office. 

Did you know?

JUF has sent three delegations--in 2013, 2014, and 2015--to the U.A.E. Their itineraries included exploring the Jewish community--all ex-pats in Dubai; U.S.-U.A.E. relations; commerce (then nascent and largely unspoken) between the U.A.E. and Israel; Iran; Islam in the U.A.E., and visits to mosques. 

The first two delegations--accompanied by William Cohen, former U.S. senator, representative, and defense secretary; George J. Mitchell, former U.S. senator; Marc Grossman, former U.S. ambassador; and Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council--met with senior members of the U.A.E. government and foreign ministry, the very officials behind the recent breakthrough in U.A.E.-Israel relations.  

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