By Seth J. Frantzman
THE AGREEMENT between Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced in mid-August is the product of a third phase of Israeli peacemaking that builds on lessons learned from previous treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the failed peace accords with the Palestinians. It should be viewed in the context of weakening American engagement in the Middle East — particularly, of the drawdown of US forces in the region — and the mounting challenges from Turkey and Iran.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has struggled to establish ties with the states in the Middle East and Muslim-majority nations in Africa and Asia. Israel’s first phase of peacemaking was designed to counteract this predicament by seeking relations in countries on the periphery of the Arab world, such as Turkey, pre-revolution Iran, and Ethiopia.
After conventional wars with its Arab neighbors between 1950 and 1973, Israel achieved a breakthrough when Egypt broke with the Arab League and signed a peace treaty in 1979. In practical terms, this ended any lingering fears that the creation of Israel could be reversed through war.
But the treaty with Egypt coincided with the Iranian revolution: Not only did Israel lose diplomatic relations with Tehran, the new Islamic Republic became one of its most hostile adversaries.
The second phase of Israeli peacemaking in the Middle East came with the push for Palestinian rights and statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of an American global hegemony came an era of peacemaking, from Northern Ireland to South Africa. Against that backdrop, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a peace process, known as the Oslo Accords, in 1993. This paved the way for Jordan to sign a peace treaty with Israel. (One other Arab nation, Mauritania, opened diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, only to suspend them in 2009.)
If the agreement with Egypt ended the conventional military threat to Israel, the Oslo Accords were meant to end the Palestinian uprising. They succeeded for a few years before the bloody Second Intifada broke out. Nevertheless, they cemented in place an autonomous Palestinian control of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
In the third phase, Israel has been reaching beyond the Palestinians and the ring of states around it. The agreement with the UAE is expected to be the first of many. It was made possible in part by American support, which was key to treaties with Egypt and Jordan, as well as the Oslo Accords.
There are other motivating factors. The UAE expects the agreement to forestall Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank, and therefore preserve the hope for a Palestinian state. In effect, then, the agreement bolsters the deals with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. The UAE also offers Israel economic opportunities that it has been unable to develop with Cairo, Amman, or Ramallah.
But at its core, the agreement is based on common adversaries, including Iran and Hamas in Gaza. The Emiratis view Hamas as part of a broader menace to regional stability from the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE and Israel are also alarmed by Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the Mediterranean and across the region. This forms the basis of a strategic alliance that includes Greece and Cyprus.
The third phase of Israeli peacemaking may result in the normalization of relations with other Arab and Muslim countries over time, but its immediate ramifications are to be found in regional strategic arrangements. As the US withdraws from bases in Iraq and weighs its commitments in Afghanistan and Syria, a post-American Middle East is coming into view, in which regional alliances take on more importance.
Turkey is building its own alliance, with Qatar and the Libyan government in Tripoli, as well as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Iran’s network includes Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and militias in Iraq and Yemen. Both Turkey and Iran have already condemned the Israeli-UAE agreement.
As the result of this hostility, Israel’s ties to the UAE will likely be closer than those with its older treaty partners. Despite its diplomatic relations with Jordan and Egypt, there have rarely been public meetings between the countries’ leaders. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed can be expected to have a warmer relationship because they share a regional worldview.
This would require getting over some initial hurdles, such as Israel’s opposition to the sale of F-35s to the UAE. But their shared interests will ensure that they develop the proverbial beautiful friendship.