September 19, 2020

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Why Israel’s ‘peace’ deals with the UAE and Bahrain matter

US President Donald Trump will preside over the historic signing of diplomatic agreements between two Gulf states and Israel on Tuesday, a move which could dramatically alter the political landscape of the Middle East.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Emirati and Bahraini foreign ministers will attend the ceremony at the White House where at midday local time (1700 BST) they will seal the divisive “Abraham Accords” in front of more than 700 guests.

Although hailed by Mr Trump as “peace agreements” they do not end active wars.  Instead they formalise normalisation between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. Until recently Israel was, in the Arab world, only recognised by Jordan and Egypt because of regional stances on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Both deals have been vehemently rejected by the Palestinians as a “stab in the back” and “betrayal”.

What are the details of the agreements?

In short, we do not know. The wording of both deals has been kept secret due to the sensitivity of the content. Although this afternoon Emirati officials affirmed it will make reference to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.  

One of the toughest sticking points concerns whether Israel will, in exchange for diplomatic relations, agree to halt its plans to imminently and unilaterally annex occupied Palestinian territory, which is illegal under international law and seen as a major obstacle to peace. Mr Netanyahu is under intense pressure from his right-wing and pro-settler base for this stipulation to be removed. 

Some details were, however, revealed in the joint statements initially released in August and then September.

The announcement on 31 August between Israel, UAE and the US said that the deal would indeed lead to the “suspension of Israeli plans” to annex parts of the West Bank. In exchange the UAE would abolish a 40-year boycott law of Israel, allowing UAE companies to trade directly with the country.

The same statement confirmed the opening of phone lines, flights and tourism links between the two countries, as well as collaboration on Covid-19 research, health, space, foreign policy and intelligence.

The joint statement between Bahrain and Israel, however, offered scant information and did not mention the precondition of Israel suspending its annexation programme.

It is no secret that both the UAE and Bahrain have been creeping towards normalisation with Israel over the last few years, as the axis of power and influence in the region has shifted.

Rather than the 70-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the main concern for many Gulf nations centres on the regional role played by Iran, which is also Israel’s number one enemy.

For the UAE, still embroiled in a ruinous five-year war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, intelligence sharing and military cooperation with Israel would be strategic.  Meanwhile, Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have long accused its Shia majority population engaged in years of anti-government protests as being stirred up and even led by Iran.

Another long-term foe of Israel is the Hamas militant group that runs Gaza, and is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main enemies of the UAE.

And so, in 2015 Israel opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi tied to the International Renewable Energy Agency, three years later Israeli ministers visited the Emirati capital and at the same time Israeli athletes began participating in competitions held there.

US-Israeli delegation including Jared Kushner travel from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi to mark the normalisation of ties(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Meanwhile Bahrain hosted the Peace to Posterity conference last June where the US unfurled the economic segment of its Middle East peace plan, which for the first time saw Israeli journalists and businessmen permitted to enter the capital Manama.

In Israel, the timing is fortuitous for Mr Netanyahu, who only narrowly kept his position as prime minister after forging a choppy alliance with his election rival in April following three inconclusive votes in less than a year. In January he was formally indicted on corruption charges across three trials. More recently he has been confronted with protests against his handling of the coronavirus. Signing deals with two Gulf states is a major diplomatic win for him at a tricky time.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, is facing re-election in November amid mounting anger over his handling of the pandemic that has ravaged the US economy. He has also been criticised for his reaction to mass unrest, police brutality and most recently huge wildfires. Mr Trump’s official peace plan for the region was embarrassingly rejected by the Palestinian leadership that cut ties with Washington. These two fresh agreements have allowed Mr Trump to point to his other diplomatic work in the Middle East.

What do all sides hope to gain?

One of the biggest advantages, for the UAE, a country playing a growing political and military role in the region, is the promises of advanced US weapons, specifically warplanes.

Although US officials have denied the link, since the deal with Israel Washington has been working on an arms sale which could reportedly see Abu Dhabi purchase long-sought F-35 stealth fighters jets, Reaper drones and EA-18G Growler planes.  This is despite resistance from Israel, concerned it may lose its US-protected “qualitative military edge” in the region.

Bahrain will also likely gain greater access to purchases of US air defence systems while both states will reap the benefits of trading openly with Israel, which is home to one of the world’s most advanced tech sectors.

For Israel,  isolated in the region because of its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, these deals will not only allow it to trade with the UAE and Bahrain but the agreements will likely open the door for more of the Gulf to follow suit.

What do the Palestinians think?

The fractured Palestinian leadership is united in its condemnation of the agreements with both the Palestinian Authority, anchored in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, calling it a “stab in the back”.

Most recently the Palestinian Liberation Organisation called Bahrain’s decision to follow suit “a betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause”, describing it as “extremely dangerous”.  

Demonstrators burn pictures depicting Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, Donald Trump, and Benjamin Netanyahu, during a protest against the deals (AFP via Getty Images)
The deals are supposedly rooted in the Saudi Arabia-led Arab Peace Initiative, which stated that Israel would only win full recognition from the Arab world if it resolved the conflict with the Palestinians and granted them the right to statehood. However, the Palestinians, and several experts, argue that Israel has promised nothing tangible in exchange for normalisation, and so has been effectively rewarded for its actions, including threatening to break international law with annexation.  

Certainly, Emirati ministers told The Independent that Israel halting annexation was not a condition for the agreement. Annexation or a two-state solution to the crisis, meanwhile, is not mentioned in the joint statements between Bahrain, UAE and the US.

What does the rest of the region think and what will this mean in the future?  

While it has been largely welcomed within Israel and the UAE there has been some criticism of the deal from Israeli settlers or far right voters who fear that Israel will halt its plans to annex swathes of the West Bank including major settlements locks.

There has also been disapproval from within Bahrain’s Shia population who have argued the move does not bring peace to Palestinians still living under occupation.

It has also been criticised by Iran, Iran-backed rebels the Houthis and Turkey – although Ankara formally recognises Israel.

Officials in Kuwait, that had been among the states thought to follow the UAE’s and Bahrain’s lead, told local media that it would be the “last to normalise” relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia has remained noticeably silent.

That said experts speculate that Bahrain would not have been able to push ahead with this deal without the tacit approval from Riyadh, because of the close ties and dependence Bahrain has on its larger neighbour. Saudi Arabia also permitted the first direct flight between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi to fly over its airspace, prompting speculation it could consider a move towards Israel.

Egypt and Jordan, who have keystone peace deals with Israel, have welcomed the move as has Oman, which hosted Mr Netanyahu in 2018 and is among the states pitted to normalise ties with Israel next.

Otherwise there is feverish speculation Morocco and Sudan may also follow suit.

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