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Wednesday, 29 March 2023
Landmark event in shifting sands
Ian Black
On July 13, a landmark event took place at the Tel Aviv stock exchange, a 14-storey building in the heart of Israel’s commercial capital.

The occasion was the official opening of the embassy of the United Arab Emirates in the wake of the signing of the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel in September 2020.

The location, in Tel Aviv’s financial and business district, highlighted the central role economic cooperation has played since the UAE became only the third Arab country to recognise Israel – following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Both those treaties were based on strategic interests but each still remains what is often described as a “cold” peace.

“The embassy is not just a hub for diplomats, but a base to continue in our new partnership,” in the words of Emirati ambassador Mohammed al-Khaja. “It marks a new paradigm for peace and a model for a new collaborative approach for conflict resolution.” He added that as “the UAE and Israel are both innovative nations, we can harness this creativity to work towards a more prosperous and sustainable future for our countries and our region.”

Israel’s newly-appointed president, Isaac Herzog, responded with a call for last year’s “historic agreement” with the UAE to be “extended to other nations seeking peace with Israel”. The event followed the inauguration of Israel’s own embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai, late last month. At the end of the ceremony, al-Khaja symbolically opened the day’s trading at the stock exchange.

Last August, when the deal was announced, it was clear that it served the interests of both parties. But the Emirati side had a motive it could use to justify the move to Arab critics: preventing unilateral Israeli annexation of a third of the occupied West Bank that Binyamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, had promised to implement in the wake of President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.”

Palestinians were outraged by this agreement, which broke with decades of Arab consensus that there should be no normalisation of ties without a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as outlined in the Saudi-authored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. In the wake of the bilateral UAE deal, Israel also went on to normalise relations with Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – all of which sparked Palestinian protests. Israel’s new government is hoping to also open embassies in Manama, Rabat and Khartoum in the coming months.

Israel and the UAE have both sought to emphasise the economic dividend offered by normalisation, rather than their common concerns (shared by Bahrain) about Iran’s expanding strategic ambitions across the Middle East. The new Israeli government’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid – who is due to replace Naftali Bennett as prime minister in two years - told Emirati media last month that bilateral trade has exceeded $675 million since the signing of the Abraham Accords.

The Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas, initially condemned the Trump-brokered deal – lambasting the “betrayal of Jerusalem, al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinians.” But after an angry backlash, the PA leadership halted public criticism of the Gulf states, plus Sudan and Morocco, over their respective peace agreements with Israel.
By contrast, both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in the Gaza Strip, condemned last week’s opening of the UAE embassy in Tel Aviv. Hamas located its objections squarely in the context of May’s 11-day war between “Zionist aggression.. and massacres against defenceless civilians” which was provoked by moves to evict Palestinian residents from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

The larger question is whether the UAE- which is far wealthier than Bahrain – will be able to use its economic clout to influence Israel to make concessions to the PA in a way, and on a scale, that is sufficient to achieve self-determination and sovereign and independent Palestinian state?

Cooperation is already under way between universities, hospitals and researchers in Israel and the UAE, as well as on trade and investment, water, technology, air travel and agriculture. And despite the covid pandemic more than 200,000 Israeli tourists have travelled to the UAE, taking advantage of newly-available direct flights between the two countries.
In theory, Arab states that have forged relations with Israel now have leverage over it, since any deviation from reasonable steps towards the Palestinians could theoretically be met by retaliation including recalling ambassadors, severing relations and more. Still none of those measures were implemented in the latest violence in East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, just a few weeks ago, leading to the deaths of 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. It left the UAE in what one prominent Emirati academic described as “an awkward position,” which was clearly an understatement!

And last month, when Israel’s embassy was opened in Abu Dhabi, the UAE foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed made a perceptive comment to the popular Israel Walla news site, addressing the issue of the Jewish state’s own self-interest: "I believe that sooner or later Israel should resolve the Palestinian problem. This not only harms Israel's image, but is also liable to raise doubts as to its future. This is a big challenge for you."