Israel and the Emirates want to establish relations, the annexations in the West Bank are being postponed. But you are not off the table, says Netanyahu.
People had rubbed their eyes several times in the past few months: In June a top diplomat from the United Arab Emirates addressed the citizens of the Jewish state in a long guest article on page 1 of an Israeli daily newspaper – a historic process. While he warned in clear terms against Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, he also offered to normalize relations.
The same Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the US, was also one of three Gulf Arab ambassadors who were present in January when US President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the controversial US plan for the Middle East in the White House presented, which is in line with the Israeli right while the Palestinians were not even involved in the consultations.
Nevertheless, the news hit like a bomb on Thursday afternoon: Israel and the United Arab Emirates are establishing diplomatic relations. Both states are striving for a “complete normalization of their relations”, as they announced in a joint statement with the US government. Trump was the first to push forward, speaking on Twitter of a “huge breakthrough” and “a historic peace deal”.
In return, Israel’s government wants to distance itself from its plan, which has been discussed for months and has been internationally criticized, of annexing up to 30 percent of the Palestinian West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967 – at least for the time being: Israel will “suspend” the plans, it means a final renunciation is out of the question. On the contrary: on Thursday evening, Netanyahu emphasized to journalists in Jerusalem: “There is no change in my plan to expand Israeli sovereignty.” However, Trump had asked that he postpone the plans.
First of all, Israel wants to concentrate on strengthening relations with other states in the “Arab and Muslim world,” the statement said. In the coming weeks, delegations from both countries will meet to reach bilateral agreements, for example in the areas of tourism, security, technology, energy and health.
“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region,” the statement said. In the White House, Trump added that the agreement should be named after the prophet Abraham, recognized in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who stood for the connection of world religions.
The text published on Thursday is not a treaty, but a declaration of intent by the three states. However, should there actually be a normalization of relationships, this would be historical. The Emirates would be the first Gulf state and the third or fourth Arab state ever to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritania had recognized Israel in the meantime, but the relationship broke off again in 2009.
At the moment only Egypt and Jordan have maintained diplomatic relations with Israel since their peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. However, these have always remained tense and are largely limited to economic and security cooperation. There was almost no exchange between the citizens of the respective countries.
Initial reactions to the declaration by the three states varied on Thursday: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was apparently in the know, welcomed the announcement. He tweeted that he followed the announcement that Israel would stop the annexation of the Palestinian territories with “great interest and appreciation.” He appreciated the efforts of those involved who wanted to ensure peace and bring “prosperity and stability” to the region.
On the other hand, the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi criticized the agreement. The Emirates would now have only made their hitherto secret relations with Israel public. “Please do us no favors – we will not serve as a fig leaf for anyone!” President Mahmoud Abbas did not comment until Thursday evening. Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, criticized the deal. You do not serve the rights of the Palestinians and encourage the Israeli occupation power.
For Donald Trump, movement in the Middle East could get electoral votes just before the US election. He had sold his Middle East plan presented in January, which provides for the annexation of parts of the occupied territories, as the “deal of the century”. Even if an annexation is a long way off with the latest developments, he might argue that without his plan, the rapprochement between Israel and the Emirates would not have come about.
Benjamin Netanyahu can also claim rapprochement domestically – even if he breaks his election promise of annexation. He will sell his alliance with the Emirates as part of a rapprochement with the Sunni, Iran-hostile Gulf states. Netanyahu, who is under strong domestic political pressure, recently hesitated to actually initiate the announced annexation, which has brought him criticism, especially from the right-wing camp and the settler movement.