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New realignment in the Arab World: UAE and Israel normalise relations

New realignment in the Arab World: UAE and Israel normalise relations

In a stunning development the United Arab Emirates and Israel declared on Thursday, August 13 to end decades of hostility and begin a new chapter in their relationship. Both announced recognition of each other and pledged to establish diplomatic relations. The UAE became the third Arab country to recognise Israel. Egypt was the first Arab country to accord recognition of Israel in 1978 and a few years later Jordan concluded a peace agreement with Israel. The recognition came with concessions: Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, allowed the Suez to operate enabling the vessels to navigate from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean cutting short hundreds of miles of detour. The major source of revenue for Egypt was restored after 12 years.

The diplomatic overture between Egypt and Israel, and between Jordan and Israel paved the way for a broader peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel. The secret peace negotiation conducted through the Norwegian Government culminated in the Oslo Agreement in 1993. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation led by Yasser Arafat acknowledged the existence of the State of Israel and Israel accepted the establishment of a Palestinian Authority and phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israel permitted the Palestinians to establish semblance of self-rule in the occupied territory including the Gaza. The questions relating to the return of millions of Palestinian refugees living in the neighbouring countries, sharing of the city of Jerusalem, security, revenue collection etc were reserved for further negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. The Arab world embraced the peace deal though the Hamas leadership commiserated reservations about Israel's commitment to the peace process.

The peace agreement was hailed by the international community and raised expectation that after decades of war, assassinations and blood sheds tranquility would herald in the troubled Middle East. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were jointly awarded Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994. Both sides took commendable steps to implement the peace deal. But the extremists, especially in the Israeli camp redoubled efforts to sabotage the peace plan. Yitzhak Robin was assassinated in 1995 by an orthodox Jew. Shimon Peres slowly fell prey to hard liners and acquiesced to targeted assassinations of Palestinian activists. Consequently, the Palestinians rose in revolt known as Intifadas and the peace process fell in quagmire.

I could witness with horror the brutality unleashed by the Israeli security forces to contain the Intifada in 2002 from a close distance in Baghdad. Yasser Arafat's office was partly demolished in Ramallah and he was confined to a room in the damaged building. The dead bodies of his security personnel remained in the damaged premises for days before Israeli security forces permitted those for burials. Hundreds of Palestinians were killed including women and children. It was believed that such a carnage could not have been carried out without benediction of the US government. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Israel during the crisis but did little to restrain the Israeli government. He didn't feel it necessary to discuss the situation with Arafat in Ramallah. Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Anan denounced excessive use of force to quell Palestinian uprising.

Settlement in the occupied territories has always been a bone of contention. The United Nations, the European Union and successive US administrations have denounced building settlements in the Palestinian lands. But the Israeli governments in wanton disregard of the world public opinion expanded settlements. Prior to 1993 Peace Agreement, population in the settlements was around 100,000. Now the population has soared to over 640,000. In the name of security of the settlers, over 1300 kilometer-long wall has been built which denied the Palestinians access to their agricultural lands. Adding salt to injuries, Israel transferred its capital to Jerusalem. The Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital in 2018 and shifted US embassy to East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and East Jerusalem and planned to establish more settlements in the coming days. The Trump administration conveyed its acquiescence to Israel's annexation plan. Israeli government in concert with the US administration has firmly and gradually dismantled the peace agreement into pieces. 

Israel's annexation plan of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the United States' recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and Israel's sovereignty over the occupied territories eviscerated the Two-States solution for good. In this backdrop, the United Arab Emirates decision to establish full diplomatic relation with Israel has been received by the Palestinians with profound shock and dismay. Palestinian leaders condemned UAE's decision as "aggression against the Palestinian people" and called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League to reject the agreement. The Palestinian Authority withdrew its Ambassador to the UAE in protest.

The decision to normalise relation has been an outcome of several years of secret negotiation between the Intelligence agencies of two countries. The pace of these contacts accelerated following the Oslo Peace accord signed in 1993. The contacts came to a halt after a Hamas leader was assassinated in a Dubai Hotel by Israel's secret service agent in 2010. The contact resumed after Israel reportedly pledged not to do the same in future. The UAE, like other countries in the Persian Gulf, view Iran as an adversary and this common fear brought Israel and UAE together. They opposed the Iran Nuclear deal that the US, European countries and China signed with Iran in 2015. The Foreign Ministers of Bahrain and Israel had their first public meeting last year and Oman hosted Netanyahu on a state visit in 2018. Many Gulf countries including UAE have been engaged in commercial transactions and exchange of technical know-how with Israel in recent years.

The common enmity against Iran has contributed to forging alliance of the Gulf countries with Israel and this is evident from congratulatory statements from Oman and Bahrain. Other countries in the Gulf are tempted to join the fray. There is a growing perception in the Arab countries that they had fought with Israel for the past seventy years in support of the Palestinians and suffered economically and militarily. And now is the time to test a different trajectory and safeguard their own interests. Under the agreement, Israel and UAE will forge cooperation across a range of areas including security, health care and energy. UAE claims that the deal has dissuaded Israel from annexing the West Bank. But Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to annexation and said "I am committed to sovereignty. I did not give up on the settlements."

The UAE, a country with tiny population has achieved tremendous economic prosperity in the past two decades. It successfully diversified the oil revenues, built a major airline that operates all over the world, developed infrastructure and promoted tourism. It owns over $1 trillion "sovereign wealth fund" that can be invested in the region or outside. Unfortunately, its leadership had chosen a wrong partner in the conduct of foreign policy and got embroiled in a disastrous war in Yemen. It followed Saudi Arabia in jumping into Trump band-wagon and ordered for $1.1 billion worth of weapons from the United States in 2018. These actions have been ill advised, unwarranted and brought no political dividend for the country.

The UAE-Israel agreement has been orchestrated by Jared Kushner, President Trump's son in law and advisor at a time when Trump was seeking a semblance of victory prior to November presidential election. There would be a signing ceremony at the White House in September in an attempt to infuse a bit glamour in Trump's moribund campaign. The agreement has not addressed the core issue of the Israel-Palestinian conflict nor involved the Palestinians in the negotiations. Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Advisor reacted, "Withdraw from the territories that were occupied or stolen from the Palestinians. This is how you move on." She dismissed UAE's description of the agreement and claimed, "annexation is shelved as price of the agreement, but not off the table".

The agreement will serve as a rallying point for anti-Iranian alliance. But it is likely to meet the same fate as the earlier agreements. Netanyahu's equivocation about the annexation of the West Bank underscores that Israel will move ahead with the annexation as soon as the ground reality turns favourable to the hawks in Israel. It would be in months, not years.


Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.



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