Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, p. 54
Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, discussed his country’s recent decision to normalize relations with Israel during an Aug. 20 webinar hosted by the Atlantic Council.
The minister argued that normalization with Israel was inevitable and necessary to advance the UAE’s global ambitions. “The UAE wants to reaffirm its global position in terms of business, in terms of finance, in terms of logistics, and you can’t do this while maintaining an exclusivist view of the world,” he said. “We will have issues [with Israel], but it is the right thing to do because it will open up the geostrategic space and it will open up also the opportunity space.”
Gargash noted that the UAE and Israel maintained informal diplomatic relations for years, which have recently intensified. Two accelerators he pointed out were the UAE’s decision to invite Israel to its 2020 Expo in Dubai, and an agreement to let Israel send a delegation to work at the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency. “As these things developed, I would say it was only natural that we would look into normalizing relations…it was a matter of time,” he said.
He also contended that the timing of the agreement was meant to benefit Palestinians by preventing official Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and thus preserving hope for a Palestinian state. Given the inevitability of normalization, Gargash framed getting a concession out of Israel as a geostrategic victory. “It’s really give and get, because for us normalization is also a positive thing,” he said.
The UAE’s move has been met with widespread backlash from Palestinians, who believe the UAE betrayed Palestine in pursuit of its own interests, and legitimized an Israeli government openly opposed to a Palestinian state and in violation of multiple international laws.
Gargash seemed largely unsympathetic to this view, saying his country “can’t be a prisoner forever” to the stalled peace process and the emotions surrounding the issue. He also maintained that from the moment Israel announced its annexation plans, the UAE “went overboard” in its condemnation of the proposal.
He additionally signaled that the UAE believes there is now an onus on Palestinian leadership to restart peace negotiations with Israel. Palestinians, of course, believe normalization has only reinforced Israel’s philosophy that it can act unilaterally and in a rogue manner without significant consequences.
While Gargash believes Israel will keep its promise to not annex Palestinian land, he also warned that the Israeli vow likely comes with an expiration date. “I don’t see this as in perpetuity,” he said, “but I don’t see this as a tactical [promise] that the Israeli government will renege on in a few months.”
Gargash believes Israeli normalization with other countries in the region is also on the horizon. “There are several Arab countries that are on this scale, in different stages,” he said.
While many believe mutual Israeli-UAE displeasure with Iran, which has reportedly resulted in years of covert security cooperation between the countries, was a major impetus for the agreement, Gargash rejected such analysis. “This deal is not about Iran,” he maintained. “This is really about the UAE and its prospects, it’s about supporting the two-state solution and it’s about supporting the more moderate view vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli issue.”
He did, however, acknowledge that Iran’s regional behavior might have fostered a favorable environment for normalization. “I think the Iranian rhetoric and aggressive regional position over the years has made deals like this possible…by changing the sentiment in the region,” he said.