international affairs

Why the Israel-UAE Deal Is More About Iran Than Peace

Jared Kushner at Thursday’s White House press conference on the deal. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The agreement announced Thursday between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, to establish diplomatic relations in exchange for Israel postponing its plans to annex West Bank settlements, has been touted as more momentous than it really is. The event certainly carries some historical significance, as the UAE is only the third Arab country to normalize relations with Israel since its founding over 70 years ago. But this is not the Camp David Accords: Thursday’s agreement does not represent a dramatic sea change in relations between two enemy countries. Instead, two countries with preexisting economic ties, amicable relations, and shared security interests are putting ink to paper on an already de facto partnership.

The timing of the deal suggests that its primary purpose was to deliver a political victory for President Donald Trump in the lead-up to November’s election, as well as for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But what does it actually mean for politics and diplomacy in the Middle East? Again, the deal is not so much a shift in itself as a ratification of changes that have already taken place. Chief among these are the waning of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause as a Pan-Arab concern but also, most important, the escalation of the cold war with Iran.

For many years, a favorite talking point of Jordan’s King Abdullah has been to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the “core conflict” of the Middle East and argue that ending it is the key to solving the various other conflicts and crises in the region. That may have been true 20 years ago, but the Israel-UAE deal shows how it is no longer the case. Palestinian leaders were quick to decry the deal, which delays but does not prevent Israel’s annexation of vast tracts of West Bank land; Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called it “a killer to the two-state solution.” But can you kill something that’s already dead?

Ali Abdullah al-Ahmed, the Emirati ambassador to France, told Arab News on Saturday that his country’s position on Palestine was still consistent with the Arab consensus in favor of a two-state solution. Al-Ahmed defended the decision to grant Israel recognition for merely postponing annexation, describing the deal as “definitely not a final solution.”

At the same time, it is hard to read this deal as anything other than rewarding Netanyahu’s threat to annex the settlements (for which Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the architect of the administration’s Middle East policy, has been a financier). Incorporating the West Bank settlement blocs has been a sine qua non for Netanyahu’s right-wing faction in Israel, and the peace plan Kushner released early this year would allow Israel to absorb nearly all of them, offering the Palestinians some useless desert from Israel proper in exchange. That proposal, a nonstarter for the Palestinians, has lent additional weight to the idea that the two-state solution is no longer realistic and that Palestinians should push for full citizenship in a single, binational state instead.

Like Kushner’s peace plan, the Israel-UAE agreement tacitly accepts the inevitability that Israel will annex the settlements eventually, whenever Netanyahu or some future PM finds a politically opportune moment to do so. By threatening to proceed with annexation this year, Netanyahu managed to extract a big political reward from Washington and Abu Dhabi with a cost- and accountability-free pledge to hold off on that plan a little longer. If he decides to proceed with annexation next year, will the UAE cut ties with Israel then? Probably not, because this agreement is really not about the West Bank at all.

It’s about Iran — and we know this because the Iranian government was the only party to take the news worse than the Palestinians. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani condemned the deal, the Revolutionary Guard warned of a “dangerous future” for the Emirati government, and the government-backed hard-line newspaper Kayhan issued what was readily interpreted as an explicit threat: “The UAE’s great betrayal of the Palestinian people … will turn this small, rich country, which is heavily dependent on security, into a legitimate and easy target.” Whether Iran makes good on these thinly veiled threats or is just blustering, Tehran itself clearly views this development as a threat, and with good reason. Not only does the deal solidify and formalize the anti-Iranian coalition in the region, but making peace with Israel could also give the UAE the ability to buy a greater quantity and higher quality of arms from the U.S. — and there is little question of how those weapons would hypothetically be used.

Trump’s Middle East strategy — which is to say, Kushner’s strategy, or perhaps more precisely, Netanyahu’s strategy — has been to vocalize the unstated reality that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is largely concluded, Israel has won it decisively, and so it is high time that the Arab states acknowledge that fact (and Israel’s existence). The idea is one Netanyahu has been pushing for over a decade, that Israel can normalize relations with the Arab world without resolving the Palestinian question first. The Trump-Kushner approach has been identical, arguing that if the Arab states have too many interests in common with Israel today to justify keeping up the formality of non-recognition.

The events of the past decade have made Arab leaders, especially the besotted Gulf despots, more receptive to this argument. The UAE and Saudi Arabia no longer perceive Israel as a serious threat to them, nor are they afraid of Arab nationalist insurgencies focused on the Palestinian cause. The Arab Spring uprisings were driven by domestic grievances about corruption and misgovernment, not a yearning to recapture Jerusalem. The main threats these countries perceive today are Iran and its regional proxies, along with fanatical, ultraviolent Islamist movements. Checking Iranian power projection and preventing the rise of another horror like Islamic State are interests these countries share with Israel.

For better or worse, the Trump administration has aligned itself firmly with the emerging Middle Eastern power bloc of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the leaders of which all happen to be personal friends of Jared Kushner. Whether these leaders are corrupt, murderous, or dismissive of human rights doesn’t factor into the equation. Whereas the Obama administration attempted to hold Middle Eastern allies accountable for their faults as part of a more balanced, non-interventionist regional policy, the Trump administration is practicing Kissingerian realpolitik, at peace with the existence of monsters as long as they are on our side.

Trump has been able to unite these countries, despite their historical animosities and rivalries, around their shared fears of Iran’s regional influence, its nuclear ambitions, and the Islamic revolutionary fervor it exports. Perhaps more accurately, he has capitalized on those anxieties by presenting the U.S. as an unconditional friend (and weapons supplier) of any country that shares our enmity toward Iran.

This strategy has not come without costs, however. Trump’s move in 2018 to pull out of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran alienated U.S. allies in Europe and other major world powers, even though it thrilled Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The Trump administration sought this week to extend the U.N. Security Council’s arms embargo on Iran, but lacking the support of China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the effort was doomed to fail. Indeed, on Friday, the Dominican Republic was the only UNSC member to join the U.S. in backing the proposal. Russia and China voted against, and the 11 other member states abstained. Despite having torn up the deal with Iran, the administration now intends to try to enforce its “snapback” provision, which was set up to punish Iranian violations by reimposing sanctions. The U.S. will likely do so unilaterally, however, as none of our allies agree that we have legal standing to enforce the provisions of a treaty we abandoned.

After all, the U.S. is not the only global superpower with interests in the Middle East. Russia and China make money on arms sales to Iran, but they also have a strategic interest in maintaining a balance of power in the Middle East and don’t want to see a U.S.-backed regional alliance grow too powerful. The Europeans, meanwhile, may have little love for Iran, but are wary of our actions in the region spiraling into a war that would wreak more havoc on the global economy, or worse. They are also simply exhausted with the Trump administration’s reckless unilateralism and disdain for consensus-building.

Opening relations between Israel and the UAE will certainly have an impact, but it is too early to say what that will be. It may lead to a cascade of other Arab countries recognizing Israel. Expanding economic ties between two of the richest countries in the Middle East will surely benefit both economies. On the other hand, it may further escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf, encourage Iran to resume its pursuit of nuclear weapons as a hedge against invasion, and raise the risk of an all-out war. The Palestinians, meanwhile, will face additional pressure to accept a bad deal, as the most powerful Arab states make clear that they no longer care, and the two-state solution still looks unfeasible, as do the alternatives. New peace agreements notwithstanding, the Middle East remains as strategically complex and dangerous as it was a week ago, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Why the Israel-UAE Deal Is More About Iran Than Peace