Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 8-11
The UAE and Israel: A Dangerous Liaison
By Marwan Bishara
THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES (UAE) has been so enamored with Israel that even before formalizing their new bilateral agreement, they had started normalizing relations on many levels, including communications, transportation and security, among others.
What appeared to be a “marriage of convenience” has been in fact a full-fledged love affair. Unlike traditional marriages, the two fell in love and secretly consummated their relationship well before officially announcing the wedding date.
Indeed, the announcement had been a long time coming, considering the many hints and winks from both sides, but it was the Trump administration that was eager to break the news with much fanfare ahead of the U.S. elections.
The Emirati attempt to spin its appeasement as a strategic calculation to stop Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian lands and promote Middle East peace was laughed at in Palestine and throughout the region.
As I wrote the morning after the Aug. 13 announcement, the record shows the UAE has harbored more hostility than sympathy toward the Palestinians. If anything, the deal will further empower Israel and weaken the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
Moreover, the UAE was never at war, let alone a religious war, with Israel, to have to conclude a “peace agreement” dubbed rather dubiously the “Abraham Agreement.”
If anything, this is more of an alliance than an agreement—an alliance directed at the regional powers, Iran and Turkey; an alliance that threatens to further destabilize the region if U.S. President Donald Trump is re-elected for four more years.
But what if the Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected president? Surely, the Emirati leaders are reading the U.S. press and know all too well the former vice president is ahead in the polls and remains committed to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Since its birth out of sin—colonial sin—Israel has been all too eager for recognition and acceptance by its Arab and Muslim hinterland. To break out of its regional isolation, it is happy to normalize relations with any nation, regardless of size, rule or geography.
And when a rich country like the UAE volunteers to normalize relations without any real conditions, it is normal that Israel would jump at the opportunity and try to speed up the process as much as possible. Indeed, Israel considers Abu Dhabi and Dubai the gateway to Saudi Arabia, the way Hong Kong was the gateway to China.
But why has Abu Dhabi been so eager and in a rush to dash forward with the new relationship in these uncertain times? Well, perhaps because it reckons the new relationship with Israel is particularly instrumental in times of uncertainty, no less if Biden wins. After all, it believes Israel’s political clout in Washington will protect it, come what may.
Indeed, the UAE and Israel began their secret contacts in Washington in the chaotic years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and elevated them to strategic coordination during the turbulent years of the Obama administration. (For full disclosure, I was senior political analyst for Abu Dhabi TV for three years during and after the Gulf war, where I was received graciously and was able to comment freely.)
Their leaders, along with those of Saudi Arabia, felt betrayed by then-President Barack Obama’s initial support for the Arab Spring and his pressure on Arab autocrats to embrace democratic reforms, i.e. step aside or step down. All three regimes went into a state of panic during the Arab upheavals, railing against Obama for his recognition of the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2012 Egyptian elections. These regimes consider democracy and Arab freedom of expression to be their number one enemy.
Obama did a full U-turn on Egypt, refusing to condemn or even acknowledge the 2013 military coup d’etat engineered by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but Emirati, Israeli and Saudi leaders decided that Washington is no longer dependable, and instead had to rely on each other to keep democracy out of the region.
This perception was reinforced two years later when, in 2015, the Obama administration reached a nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), against the wishes of all three parties. It did not help much that the Obama administration was committed to their military superiority and security and armed them, despite their war crimes in Palestine and Yemen.
Instead, the UAE took the relationship with Israel to a new strategic, security and intelligence level, later encouraged and supported by the Trump administration.
The first fruits of their covert intelligence cooperation allowed Abu Dhabi to use Israeli software to spy on its neighbors and on political and human rights activists throughout the region.
Israel and the UAE may be two different countries, the former a “colonial ethnocracy” and the latter a repressive autocracy, but their close alliance with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, has allowed them to successfully liberalize, privatize and globalize their economies, albeit to different degrees.
Both have successfully transformed into security states and market states, becoming models for neoliberal development in the developing world. Both created efficient bureaucracies dictated by business and commercial needs and effective security apparatuses dictated by unstable regional conditions.
Their capacity to integrate newcomers into their economies—Israel mainly from Jewish immigration and the UAE mainly from expat labor—has allowed them to expand and diversify their economies like no other.
Moreover, their cooperation in security and intelligence-gathering has solidified their clientelism as bedrocks of American influence in the region, regardless of who resides at the White House. Their capacity to launch wars and project commercial and strategic power beyond their borders renders them important Western assets in a turbulent region.
An attraction has developed between the extroverted Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the introverted Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), the de facto leader of the UAE.
Bibi is envious of the Emirati wealth and its projection of power throughout the region from Tunisia to Syria through Libya and Sudan, and MBZ is envious of Israel’s advanced economy and technology and its influence in Washington.
Netanyahu is also envious of MBZ’s authoritarian rule; he would never have to face trial for corruption, the way the Israeli prime minister is now.
Both are exploiting their status as American strategic assets in order to advance their national interests, regardless of the consequences to their neighbors.
In that way, the U.S. sale of advanced fighter jets F-35 to the UAE will most certainly go through once Israel gets something in return from Washington. And it will be the people of the region who will suffer from Emirati aerial superiority, as they do from Israel’s.
The new bedfellows will try to expand their alliance with the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in order to mount a united front against any new initiative from the U.S., the European Union or the region that is not to their liking.
They may be able to defeat the Palestinians and Yemenis militarily, and may weaken the Lebanese and the Libyans politically. But Iran and Turkey will prove hard, indeed dangerous, to contain or confront through strategic leverage.
And the same goes for their attempts at stifling democratization anywhere in the region, which will lead to greater instability and violence. In short, betting on the new “peace agreement” to advance the cause of peace and stability in the region will prove wishful if not outright cynical.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. © 2020 Al Jazeera Media Network. Reprinted with permission.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
By Dr. James J. Zogby
BECAUSE WE SHOULD CARE about what people are thinking about critical issues, polling is important. It opens a window so we can hear the voices of public opinion and make intelligent policy decisions.
Sometimes, poll results affirm what we believe to be true and we feel gratified. On other occasions, the findings run counter to our expectations and we face a dilemma. We can either examine why our assumptions were mistaken or we can ignore the results that ran counter to our expectations and denounce the pollster. Shooting the messenger might make you feel good, but by ignoring information we don’t like we run the risk of making a bad situation worse.
I am prompted to write this piece because I’ve been reading criticisms of the UAE-Israel accord, many of which raise valid concerns about Palestinian rights and Israeli impunity. But what has troubled me are those critics who say that this agreement is out of sync with “the overwhelming majority of Arab public opinion” on how to achieve Palestinian rights. This is unfortunately not true. Attitudes across the Arab world have undergone a dramatic change in the past few years and this new political reality must be understood.
In the past two decades, I’ve polled Arab opinion across the region. One constant has always been the centrality of Palestine. In 2002, for example, we found that this issue was ranked, along with employment and health care, one of the three top political concerns in most Arab countries (especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia). It remained a priority up until a few years ago.
In September of 2019 we, at Zogby Research Services (ZRS), conducted another of our omnibus polls across the Arab world. Much of what we found was expected—with regard to Syria, Iraq, the failure of the Arab Spring and concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region. What shocked me was the sea of change in attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It ranked in the bottom tier of priorities in every country.
Our findings showed that most Arabs still fault the U.S. and Israel for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and continue to support the Arab Peace Initiative (API). But while a significant number in all countries affirmed their support for the API, they also said that Arab states should be doing more to advance this initiative. What was striking was that significant majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt it would be desirable for some Arab states to pursue normalization even without peace. Opinion was evenly divided in Lebanon, with four out of ten Palestinians also agreeing.
These responses were so out of line with previous results, that we repolled this question and followed it with open-ended questions to learn why respondents thought that normalization might be desirable. Our repolling reaffirmed the initial findings and the qualitative responses to the “opens” were instructive.
Many indicated frustration with the failure of Arabs to bring about justice for Palestinians and concern that the conflict was taking too many lives and causing too much suffering. There was also deep frustration with the Palestinian Authority and a sense that maybe with normalization Arab states would gain some leverage over Israel enabling them to help secure rights for the Palestinian people. It was important to note that while in response to other questions in the survey, Arabs made clear their concern with Iranian behaviors, this issue never factored into their calculations about the desirability of normalization.
In June of 2020, in the midst of the furor over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threat to annex much of the West Bank, we went back into the field to test Arab opinion on the question of normalizing before peace. The UAE ambassador to the U.S. had just published an op-ed in an Israeli daily warning that Israel could have either normalization or annexation, Jordan’s King Abdullah had issued a dire warning about the consequences of annexation, 19 EU ministers had threatened sanctions if Netanyahu went ahead with his plans, and leading Democrats in Congress had sent a letter stating their opposition. We polled in five Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and UAE) and Israel.
We found that significant majorities across the board believed that resolution of the conflict was important and were hopeful that a solution could be found in the next five years. These two factors combined led pluralities in four of these countries (except Palestine) to say they wanted to explore new approaches to convince the Israelis of the benefits of making peace with the Palestinians. They therefore favored some normalizing of ties with Israel as a means of breaking the deadlock. With this in mind, majorities in these same countries said that they supported the initiative taken by the UAE ambassador to counter Israel’s threat of annexation. And decisive majorities expressed the strong view that if Israel proceeded to annex, then any steps toward normalization should end.
Palestinian respondents were less supportive of normalization with only one-third favoring this approach. Nevertheless, almost six in ten Palestinians said that normalization would be desirable if it led to increased trade, investment in healthcare and education, and helped to further shared interests in water and food security.
The results in Israel were fascinating. Israelis also felt that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was important, but were pessimistic it would be achieved in the near future. Opinion was divided on the question of annexation. But the UAE initiative and the warnings of King Abdullah moved opinion among those who favored applying Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank from supporting to opposing—leaving only a hardcore 16 percent in favor of annexation. In fact, when asked what would be the most compelling reason to oppose annexation—alienating Arab countries ranked higher than losing support from the Europeans or even political leaders in the U.S.
As someone who, for the past five decades, has been a staunch advocate for justice for Palestinians and who has for the past two decades taken Arab public opinion seriously—I’ll admit that I was confounded by these findings. At the same time, I know they must be considered and understood. Any evaluation of the UAE-Israel agreement must keep this context of evolving Arab opinion in mind.
There should be the recognition given to the fact that the UAE initiative did impact Israeli public opinion and policy. And while Arabs still care about the fate of the Palestinians, attention must be given to their frustration with the PA, their concern that strategies that have been tried up until now have failed, and their desire to try a new approach to peace-making.
There are good reasons for those who support Palestinians to be concerned that Israel may pocket this move toward normalization and then continue apace its land-grabbing oppressive rule. And, this UAE initiative should in no way bring an end to our opposition to Israeli behaviors toward the captive Palestinian people—especially when there are significant shifts in U.S. opinion in favor of Palestinian rights. It may very well be possible that the UAE will have some leverage they can use to not only stop annexation, but to alter Israeli behaviors. This—securing justice for Palestinians—is what Arab opinion has told us they hope will happen.
Dr. James J. Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and managing director of Zogby Research Services. He is the author of Arab Voices, available from Middle East Books and More.
What Israel’s Foreign Minister Means When he says “Normalization”
By Gideon Levy
FOREIGN MINISTER Gabi Ashkenazi is a senior statesman in the making and a great retired hope. But the centrist camp, in desperate need of a leader, may restore him yet to the great-hope role. His statements are rare, he doesn’t say anything about anything, either because he has nothing to say or because he’s afraid to say what he does have to say—the first possibility is more likely—and therefore every little utterance of his deserves attention.
Ashkenazi told the German foreign minister on Aug. 27 that Israel has moved “from annexation to normalization.” In response, Europe glowed with pleasure and announced that it hoped to renew the Association Council, an ongoing high-level dialogue between the European Union and Israel. Europe wants so much to go back to loving its darling, Israel—just release it from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s grip. For good measure, Ashkenazi added a few more baseless clichés that he has uttered with ease for years now: “We left the door open to our neighbors and now it’s up to their decision and their choice.”
When an Israeli statesman uses the term normalization, they mean maintaining the status quo, which is the normal situation to most Israelis. Any breach requires immediate normalization, a restoration of the status quo ante. An example? Palestinian children are doomed to live a short distance from the sea, and spend their childhood, and sometimes their entire lives, without ever seeing the beach. That is a normal situation. If breaks are discovered in the border fence and the Palestinians manage to get to the beach in the heat of August, normalcy has been disrupted and it must be forcibly restored.
Another example: Protests are allowed near the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, but banned in the Palestinian village of Bil’in. That’s normal in a democracy. It’s completely normal to imprison two million people for many years—what could be more normal than that?—and expect them to sit quietly. If they take steps against this insane situation, normalcy must immediately be restored; that is, their submissive return to the cage. Let them sit in Gaza, and rot forever, and create normalization with Israel.
It’s normal for a country to be called a democracy when about half of the people under its direct and indirect rule live under a totalitarian dictatorship. It’s normal that two peoples can live in one country, the natives lacking any rights while the immigrants and their descendants have all the rights. It’s normal that Israel can breach the sovereign air space of any country in the region, to spy and bomb them, but none of them are permitted to fly even one balloon into Israeli territory. It’s normal for the Palestinians to be the only people in the world that belong to no country. It’s normal for a country to rule over territories that no other country recognizes, and yet be the most privileged country in the world, except for the United States, when it comes to enforcing international law. It’s normal for one of the most powerfully armed and wealthiest countries in the world to receive some of the most generous economic assistance in history. It’s normal for one of the hopes of the non-rightist camp to announce that he supports normalization.
When Ashkenazi spoke about normalization, he didn’t mean normalcy. Normalcy means equality between two peoples. Ashkenazi doesn’t dream of that. Normalcy is for a military occupation to last for a very shot period of time. Normalcy is for a country to obey international law, that sort of sensationalist thing. Normal is for a country to be punished for its war crimes.
Ashkenazi doesn’t want all that. The political center that Ashkenazi represents only wants quiet. That’s normalization. Leave him alone already about the occupation. Let the Palestinian laborers build the homes, pave the roads and then return normally to their cages. Let the Israeli army invade their homes by night and arrest them to its heart’s content, and by day freely tyrannize, humiliate and shoot them. That’s normal. All other conduct disrupts normalcy. Ashkenazi wants normalcy, and so Ashkenazi brings hope. Now everything depends on the Palestinians, just let them surrender to this reality. Then we will have normalization with them.
Gideon Levy is an Israeli journalist and author. This article was first published in Haaretz, Aug. 29, 2020. © Haaretz. Reprinted with permission.