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Foreign Policy

Diplomatic Shocker in Middle East

Aug 26, 2020

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel announced a new partnership with the United Arab Emirates on June 25 to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus.

News of the United Arab Emirates and Israel establishing diplomatic relations shocked the world, with some claiming the major diplomatic event had “opened the door to peace in the Middle East” and that “the Middle East will stride into a peaceful new era.” But opponents take it as a sign of Arab alienation, an act of betrayal and a stab in the back of Palestine.

Different interests and concerns certainly result in divergent perceptions. But if the biggest obstacle to relations between Arab states and Israel — the Palestine issue — isn’t resolved, or even increasingly marginalized and forgotten, real peace will be out of the question in the Middle East. Palestine, which has steadily lost the collective support of Arab states, and Iran, whose room for diplomatic maneuvering is dwindling, are no doubt the biggest losers in this case. And the two loudest applauders — the United States and Israel — are certainly the biggest winners.

First, the UAE-Israel agreement to establish diplomatic ties is a timely general election gift for Donald Trump and can be seen as a prominent diplomatic achievement of his first term of office.

Given the convoluted religious and ethnic conflicts and the complex geopolitical interests and competition for resources, the Middle East has always been a strategic hotspot for major countries and a cauldron of incessant disputes. Of all those disputes and conflicts, the one between Palestine and Israel lies perennially at the heart. Since the end of World War II, every U.S. president has taken mediation of the Palestine-Israel conflict as the touchstone of his Middle East diplomacy, which is why a photo of the leaders hand in hand has been a popular showpiece and touted as evidence of success.

Trump, however, has broken with presidential convention regarding mediation of the conflict since he assumed office. By containing Iran, strongly backing Israel and marginalizing the Palestine-Israel issue, the U.S. joined hands with Israel and won over such major Middle East powers as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It came up with a “new Middle East peace plan” (also called the “centennial agreement”), breaking the united front of Arab states one by one through containment of Iran on security and enhancing economic cooperation with those states.

This year’s COVID-19 outbreak provided a period of strategic opportunity. The hope of conducting joint research and development with Israel on a coronavirus vaccine is reportedly one factor driving the UAE’s initiative to establish diplomatic relations as soon as possible.

As the behind-the-scenes matchmaker and facilitator of the corresponding negotiations, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, can’t conceal their excitement. They have announced a plan to invite both countries’ leaders to the White House for a signing ceremony and are ready to clamor about it both at home and internationally. White House insiders even say Trump should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Second, establishing diplomatic ties with the UAE is a significant breakthrough that Israel accomplished without making any substantial compromise. For a long time, the greatest problem for Israel, which is surrounded by Arab states, has been security challenges. Since Israel declared statehood in 1948, its relations with Arab nations have been like fire and water. Five wars have broken out in the region. Anti-Israel feelings are prevalent in Arab nations, which don't recognize its sovereignty. Though Israel established diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively, its overall security situation in the Middle East has not seen substantial improvements. Egyptian president Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated in 1981 for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

In recent years, however, with Trump strongly backing Israel and trying hard to woo Gulf nations, Israel’s security has improved conspicuously. Not only have regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt become security pillars of U.S. Middle East policies, along with Israel, but such Gulf countries as the UAE and Bahrain have begun to engage and cooperate with the Jewish state. The UAE may be only the first Gulf nation to open the door to reconciliation with Israel. Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia may follow suit, which would be a major diplomatic breakthrough in the region for Israel.

What satisfies Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even more is that his government didn’t pay any substantial price for diplomatic ties with the UAE. Israel only committed to suspend for the time being its “exercise of sovereignty” over the areas mentioned in the new Middle East peace plan — halting its plan to annex the West Bank area of the Jordan River Valley. Yet suspension doesn’t mean termination, and certainly not forsaking. In his televised speech announcing the establishment of diplomatic relations with the UAE, Netanyahu acknowledged that Israel’s plan to exercise sovereignty over some areas of the West Bank won’t change.

It is thus not difficult to understand why, as the U.S. and Israel loudly applaud the establishment of diplomatic ties with the UAE, Palestine and Iran are lodging grievances and condemning it. 

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