The dramatic and welcome decision by the United Arab Emirates to normalise relations with Israel is indisputably a win for both countries and for the Trump administration, which helped broker the deal.
There’s an even bigger victory to be had, though, if all sides seize this opportunity to promote real peace in the region.
The three parties involved will be tempted to bask in this moment. Though Israel’s informal ties with the UAE have been strong for years and the deal merely brings them into the open, it’s nevertheless a breakthrough: proof, especially if others such as Bahrain and Oman follow the UAE’s lead, that Israel can establish relations with Arab countries before a final settlement with the Palestinians.
Beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will gratefully accept the reprieve from his political difficulties. So will U.S. President Donald Trump, who is eager to showcase some evidence of his dealmaking skills ahead of the November election.
For its part, the UAE has earned itself goodwill on both sides of the aisle in Washington — which will be useful in the struggle against its real geopolitical foe, Iran — as well as the chance to buy advanced weaponry from the U.S. But the leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, could achieve much more. He traded recognition for a promise from Netanyahu to suspend his threat to annex a third of the West Bank, as originally envisioned under the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan. Furious Palestinian leaders say that was merely a fig leaf. It doesn’t have to be.
The UAE now has a real chance to play peacemaker. Though Netanyahu says annexation has only been suspended temporarily, the fact is that he cannot afford to alienate MBZ, as the ambitious crown prince is known. If the latter is interested in pursuing peace, he should have little difficulty coordinating with Egypt and Jordan, the only other Arab countries to have normalised relations with Israel, and most important, with the U.S. MBZ already has good relations with the Trump administration. A Biden White House should be even more supportive of a real peace effort.
Israeli hardliners will say the deal shows that they don’t need to make peace with the Palestinians — that joint interests in technological and economic development, and especially in thwarting Iran’s ambitions, will inexorably push Arab nations and Israel together. They’re wrong. Normalising ties with other Arab countries will not eliminate the Palestinian problem. In fact, by giving up on annexation, Netanyahu is effectively admitting that Israel cannot simply impose its will in the West Bank. Any move now to restart the process of annexation, or even to stonewall peace efforts, would risk a break not just with the UAE but its partners.
Palestinian leaders, too, should see that they have to deal with the Israel they have, not the one they want. Rather than continuing to fulminate, they should work with the UAE to develop concrete and realistic counter-proposals to the Trump plan, and push to reinvigorate talks in which they’re full and constructive partners. If they do, what might otherwise be a limited bilateral agreement could herald a real breakthrough.
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.