Will US-brokered agreement between UAE and Israel be a regional gamechanger?

A US-brokered deal has seen Israel and the United Arab Emirates normalize relations for the first time in history. According to a joint statement by the two countries and the United States, Israel will also “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in [President Trump’s] Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.” The agreement will result in the United Arab Emirates officially recognizing Israel as a state, joining just Egypt and Jordan as the only other Arab League nations to do so. The announcement also said that the UAE and Israel would join the United States in a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East to expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation.”

The August 13 announcement seemed to put a halt to Israeli plans to begin to annex parts of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which had been floated as part of the Trump administration’s peace plan in January. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz had agreed to move forward with annexation plans in their agreement to form a government in April, both Gantz and the United States have cooled to the idea of pushing annexation this year. The deal follows a period of expanding relations between Israel and the wider Gulf. What began as behind-the-scenes intelligence-sharing arrangements and covert business ties developed into more overt diplomatic engagementsmultinational exercises, and commercial interests. More recently, Israel was invited to host a pavilion at the Dubai 2020 Expo (now to take place in 2021), and the Emirati and Israeli companies are collaborating on medical research in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Atlantic Council experts respond to the UAE-Israel agreement and what it means for the wider region:  

William Wechsler: A rare strategic victory—for everyone except Iran.

Kirsten Fontenrose: New Strategic Agenda could be reconfiguration of MESA concept.

Tuqa Nusairat: Agreement will provide no tangible benefit for Palestinians.

Barbara Slavin: Labeling the move as “anti-Iran” will only make regional reconciliation more difficult.

Shalom Lipner: Deal comes at important time for Netanyahu and Trump.

Thomas Warrick: Both Israel and the UAE can claim victory.

Mark Katz: Agreement is a hopeful sign.  

Richard LeBaron: Good news for both Israel and the UAE.

Nabeel Khoury: An Israeli-Emirati alliance spells trouble for the region.

Carmiel Arbit: A huge victory for Israel.

Nader Uskowi: Agreement provides region with badly-needed good news.

Sina Azodi: Normalization is a terrible development for Iran. 

Mohsen Tavakol: Agreement could push Tehran and Riyadh farther apart.

Masoud Mostajabi: The UAE and Israel had been indirectly normalizing relations for years.

Joze Pelayo: A good step towards a more peaceful and prosperous region.

A rare strategic victoryfor everyone except Iran

“It’s been so long since the Middle East last experienced undeniably good news, that observers can be forgiven if they have difficulty recognizing it when it happens. But the “Abraham Accords” is indeed one of those moments. 

“It is a strategic victory for Israel, which has begun a path toward normalization with an Arab government for only the third time, and the first for one in the Gulf. Equally important, Israel has now forsworn a unilateral annexation of much of the West Bank, which would have been a fundamental strategic error. This is also a clear political victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump, who will argue with some credibility that the open threat of West Bank annexation played a material role in providing the necessary context for the UAE to take this step.

“It is a major strategic victory for the UAE, which has demonstrated a rare willingness to take risks in the interests of peace and has publicly positioned itself as both a beacon of religious tolerance and a protector of Palestinian interests. It now allows the UAE to greatly expand on the economic, cultural, and security relationships it has been quietly building with Israel and bring many of those previously secret arrangements out into the open.  At the same time, it is a wise political move for the UAE in the context of its relations with the United States and in the final months of a US presidential campaign. In addition to the support it will immediately receive from Republican circles, the UAE will be able to further distinguish its approach from that of Saudi Arabia, which is increasingly the target of Democratic disapprobation.   

“It is a strategic victory for regional security as it increases the pressure on Iran and its proxies. Over the four decades since the revolution, the regime in Iran has been the greatest beneficiary of the structural disunity between all of those who are threatened by its malign behavior. Tehran will undoubtedly unleash a propaganda barrage against Israel and the UAE in an attempt to provoke the proverbial “Arab street” and position itself as the sole defenders of Muslims against the “Zionist entity.” But they will likely fail. Egypt and Jordan already have relations with Israel and will work to control any major anti-Israeli movements; the countries of Levant, which for decades could be reliably counted upon to protest against Israel, are today each facing more immediate existential crises; and the countries of the Gulf share Israel’s view of the threat from Iran. What will be left will be a new potential for a growing regional anti-Iran coalition, a major strategic setback for Tehran.

“Along those same lines, it is a strategic opportunity for the other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and even Qatar will likely wait to see the outcome of the coming diplomacy between the UAE and Israel and the exact contours of the resulting normalization agreement. They will also wait to understand the reaction from their own populations. But now that the UAE has “broken the ice,” as long as the resulting normalization is seen to benefit the UAE it is only a matter of time before several of the other countries follow. To that end, Israeli tourists would be wise to spend as much of their money as they can in the Emirates, whose economy could use the infusion. And at the same time diplomats in Riyadh, Manama, and elsewhere in the Gulf should begin considering what they can reasonably achieve on behalf of the Palestinians in the context of future normalizations.

“Although it may not be immediately evident, the agreement is actually a real victory for Joe Biden as well. If American presidential elections were driven by diplomatic prowess, then George H.W. Bush would have had a second term and Hillary Clinton would have had a first.  What this does do is eliminate the threat of annexation from being an immediate, critical point of disagreement in US-Israeli relations at the outset of a potential Biden administration. This point was certainly not lost on either Netanyahu or his coalition partner and potential successor Benny Gantz, who managed at the same time to both help Trump and hedge against his potential loss in the coming election.

“The Accords also help Biden because they set the stage for creative, personal diplomacy of the kind that he has long excelled, in order to further improve Israel-Gulf relations and both reaffirm and restructure the nature of the US commitment to the region for decades to come. The damage to US interests being done by the widespread perception of American withdrawal continues to elude President Trump. Even today, while taking his deserved victory lap in the Oval Office, President Trump again called for the effective withdrawal of that US commitment by arguing to end our irreplaceable role in protecting the freedom of navigation in the region.  Nothing would be more welcome in Tehran, Beijing, and Moscow. 

“And finally, despite what many might immediately perceive, the Accords might eventually prove to be a turning point for the fate of the Palestinian people over the long run. The further the Gulf states engage with Israel on every front, the more leverage they will have to help mitigate the worst practices of the Israeli occupation. The more Emirati and other Gulf tourists visit Israel and then have an opportunity to see first-hand the lives that some Palestinians live, the more the Gulf leaders will be required to engage directly with a peace process rather than be content to generally sit on the sidelines. And at some point, the Palestinian people will be allowed the opportunity to select a new generation of leaders, who will then have the example of the “Abraham Accords” to draw from when they work to negotiate a two-state solution.

“We still remain a long way from that, unfortunately. Of course, there are many ways that one can imagine for the “Abraham Accords” to eventually go down in history as one of a long line of briefly hopeful moments that, in the end, did not live up to their initial promises. And anyone with experience with the Middle East has learned to be a reflexive pessimist. But right now it’s a pleasure to luxuriate in optimism, a feeling that should be reflected everywhere except for within the highest levels of the Iranian regime.”

William F. Wechsler, director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council:

New Strategic Agenda could be reconfiguration of MESA concept.  

“The “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East to deepen diplomatic, commercial and security cooperation together and with other countries committed to peace and non-interference” that is planned as a next step to this announcement is a reconfiguration of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) concept proposed by the US government in 2018. This concept included planks for economic, energy, and security cooperation.  

“Saudi Arabia presented a separate construct in 2019, suggesting that MESA be limited to a security agreement. In 2020 a Deputies Committee at the National Security Council rejected this revised construct.  

“Now the latest version of the vision being proposed reintroduces economic cooperation. Oh the irony. But the changes in the intended players is what’s notable. This version brings Israel to the table. The language about “other countries committed to peace and non-interference” is reminiscent of previous Emirati references to Qatar and is likely an attempt to prohibit Qatar from becoming a party to the Strategic Agenda. 

If “non-interference” in the politics of another nation is a requirement for participation then the group pursuing the Strategic Agenda will have to exclude not only Qatar but also the UAE, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.” 

Kirsten Fontenrose, director, Atlantic Council Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative 

Agreement will provide no tangible benefit for Palestinians.

“The Israel-UAE agreement to normalize relations between the two countries provides no tangible benefit for Palestinians whose future and livelihoods continue to be negotiated and determined by external actors whose interests are diametrically opposed to the Palestinians’. What is being portrayed as a concession on Israel’s part, pulling back on Netanyahu’s plan to illegally annex parts of the West Bank, is a face saving measure for all parties.

“On the ground, Israeli settlements have expanded significantly in the Trump era as the administration continues to give both a blank check and extensive overtures to Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard right policies. Despite these moves, Gulf countries have continued to warm up to Israel. With this agreement, the Trump administration and the UAE leadership are simply rewarding Israel for not openly breaking international law while continuing to do so in reality. What has been happening between Israel and Gulf countries “behind the scenes” is now simply on paper and out in the open. Advocates for Palestinian rights and international law will see it for what it is: a continuation of the status quo—no accountability for Israel’s illegal occupation and control of Palestinian lives and livelihoods, now with Emarati (and soon more Gulf) approval.”

 Tuqa Nusairat, deputy director, Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Initiatives at the Atlantic Council

Labeling the move as “anti-Iran” will only make regional reconciliation more difficult.  

“Iran will most likely condemn this agreement, but it should make the leaders in Tehran consider how outdated and counterproductive their refusal to recognize Israel is. The region needs dialogue urgently among all its members, especially long-time adversaries. That said, portraying this move as mostly “anti-Iran” will only make regional reconciliation more difficult.” 

Barbara Slavin, director, Atlantic Council Future of Iran Initiative 

Deal comes at important time for Netanyahu and Trump.

“What does the US-Israel-UAE deal mean? The Israeli-Emirati relationship has been one of the world’s worst kept secrets. It is beneficial for both parties, not least because of their shared agenda to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The recent op-ed by UAE ambassador to the United States Yousef Al-Otaiba, published in Hebrew in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, showed the way forward to an upgrade in relations if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proved willing to step back from his bid to extend Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. Netanyahu took the offer, and it’s a good deal (almost) all around.  

“Worth noting is that neither Netanyahu nor US President Donald Trump had the stomach to go through with annexation, passing the hot potato back and forth between them: Trump suggesting Israel needs to decide what it wants, and Netanyahu saying that he’s waiting for a green light from the US president.

“There are questions we don’t yet know the answer to. Will the deal offer more than a ladder to climb down the annexation tree? Is it just fancy window dressing, or will it give substance to augmenting existing cooperation? Will other Gulf states follow suit? What we do know is that it arrives at an important crossroads for two embattled leaders. Netanyahu is staring down the most significant resistance he’s ever faced to his leadership, amid reports that he might sprint toward what would be Israel’s fourth election since April 2019. Peace with the UAE will shift focus away from Netanyahu’s personal scandals and his government’s dysfunction.  

“Trump craves a win to steal the spotlight back from the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his vice presidential running mate Kamala Harris. Trump is struggling to contain COVID-19 in the United States and has little to show on the international scene other than broken alliances and failed initiatives on North Korea and Iran. He’ll seize on this deal as his accomplishment.

“Finally, it’s worth noting a tweet by Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and day-to-day ruler of the Emirate, confirming that there’s still work to do, and the statement’s language that sovereignty is only being “suspended.” In other words, continue to watch this space.”

Shalom Lipner, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs, and former adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office to seven consecutive Israeli premiers.

Both Israel and the UAE can claim victory.

“Both Israel and the United Arab Emirates get to claim a victory. When was the last time—if ever—something like that could be fairly said? The Abraham Accords breathe new life into hopes for a change for the better in the region. Some will say both sides are making a virtue out of necessity, since the domestic Israeli political situation continues to be unsettled, and will be so for many months. The United Arab Emirates gets to demonstrate to Washington—to both US political parties—its value and importance as a strategic actor in the region. Today is a day worth celebrating.”

Thomas S. Warricknonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

Agreement is a hopeful sign.  

“While not so much a peace agreement as President Trump described it, the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) combined with a suspension of Israeli annexations in the West Bank is a significant achievement. What is not yet clear is whether 1) similar normalization agreements between Israel and other Arab governments will follow; and 2) what will happen if the Netanyahu-Gantz government is unable (or unwilling) to resist internal pressure from powerful constituencies within Israel that seek further annexation of the West Bank. While not exactly a land-for-peace agreement, this normalization-for-no-further-annexation agreement is a hopeful sign.” 

Dr. Mark Katz, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs 

Good news for both Israel and the UAE.  

“The move to full diplomatic ties is good news for the both Israel and the UAE. It is another example of the UAE punching above its weight in the region, mainly in order to solidify its position with the United States. The UAE strategy to get closer to the United States dates back to the 2006 Dubai Ports debacle when a major UAE investment in the United States was very publicly rejected; a “never again” moment for the UAE leadership. While the bilateral ties between the UAE and Israel are likely to improve steadily, the US-UAE-Israel “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” will be viewed as a bit presumptuous by others in the region and will be unlikely to gain much traction, especially as countries in the region make their calculations about possible changes in US leadership in the coming six months. The pledge by Israel to suspend its plans to declare further sovereignty over occupied West Bank territories is a bit of a sideshow in all this, since it was not really in the cards in the short term, but it’s good news as well.” 

Ambassador Richard LeBaron, nonresident senior fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, former US ambassador to Kuwait, and former US deputy chief of mission to Israel 

An Israeli-Emirati alliance spells trouble for the region.

On the face of it, a deal struck between the Trump administration, Israel, and the UAE looks like a win-win affair: Israel gets recognition from a wealthy Arab country in a strategic region, the UAE normalizes an existing security cooperation with Israel (blessed now by the United States), and the Trump administration revives their peace plan and formalizes a mechanism for potentially lucrative construction projects in the West Bank.

Missing from this equation is the word Palestine. Israel giving up on formal annexation of the West Bank is an old tactic of raising the price in order to make canceling that hike look like a bargain. It is no such thing, especially when you consider that the real annexation on the ground has already happened without the need for formality. Further, Palestinian political rights were never even on the menu of the Trump peace plan, dubbed the deal of the century.

Worse, the new relationship could spell trouble for the MENA region. An aggressive UAE foreign policy has been in high gear for the past five years, from Yemen to North Africa, passing through the Horn of Africa. Most notably, the partnership between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed gave the region the Yemen war, spiraling out of control for the past five years. Emirati soldiers were present in strength inside Yemen for the first three years, then thinned out direct involvement and sourced out their intervention to trained and equipped Yemeni armies and hired mercenaries and security firms, reportedly staffed by Americans and Israelis.

Israeli and Emirati security interests are likely to coincide on all areas where the UAE has been trying to assert maritime influence. On Iran, the Gulf, and North Africa, the UAE has stressed military rather than diplomatic prowess. Adding partnership with Israel, a country that has thus far been denied diplomatic presence in most of the region, will only exacerbate already existing tensions and raise suspicions over UAE intentions.

Nabeel Khoury, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

A huge victory for Israel. 

“Today marks a huge victory for Israel. After decades of pursuing normalization with the Gulf states, a long, incremental process has been rewarded. The region will undoubtedly be safer and more prosperous as a result. It is also to the benefit of the Palestinians—who will undoubtedly oppose the agreement. The relationship with the Gulf was a much-needed carrot in enticing Israel to abandon talks of annexation. And like Israel’s trade office in Qatar once was—the threat of cutting ties can also be used as a stick.” 

Carmiel Arbit, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs 

Agreement provides region with badly-needed good news. 

“The region badly needed good news, and it got it. Three significant outcomes of the UAE-Israel agreement: (1) The annexation of the Palestinian land is prevented. (2) The two-state solution remains as the only workable alternative moving forward. (3) And Israel normalizes relation with an important Arab state, likely many more to come.” 

Nader Uskowi, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative 

Normalization is a terrible development for Iran. 

“The normalization comes as terrible news for Iran. For years, Iranian leaders have attempted to portray themselves as the champion of the Palestinian cause. However, this development can shed light on Iran’s misguided policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is possible that after this agreement with the UAE, Saudi Arabia will follow suit and recognize Israel, which will put Iran in a difficult situation with Iran’s adversaries aligned in one camp.” 

Sina Azodi, nonresident fellow, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs 

Agreement could push Tehran and Riyadh farther apart.

“Despite the ongoing tensions and rhetoric, Tehran and Riyadh have made some moves behind the scenes lately to establish a more normalized relationship in order to reduce the overall tensions in the region. UAE’s action with Israel not only will push Tehran and Riyadh away from each other (as Tehran considers the UAE like Saudi Arabia’s little brother) but also will most likely increase the tensions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories. Consequently, a possible regional reconciliation will be delayed. This deal will, at the same time, push Iran even closer to Oman and Qatar. The timing of the deal is very interesting too.”

Mohsen Tavakol, nonresident senior fellow, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs

The UAE and Israel had been indirectly normalizing relations for years. 

“A symbolic announcement made official by the heads of state, will see trade and economic investments, cooperation in technology, and the establishment of embassies, among other areas mutually beneficial between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. What lies at the heart of this not-so-secret alliance however, is the geo-strategic underlying principle that Israel and the UAE (along with neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) have been indirectly normalizing their relations for many years in an effort to unite against their regional adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

“A fear in Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem of a Democratic victory in the upcoming US presidential elections, which may see a softer US stance vis-à-vis Iran in a post-Trump world, likely drove this decision to become formalized. 

“With that said, although the deal suggests that Israel will no longer annex Palestinians lands in accordance with President Trump’s Peace Vision for the Middle East, this is far from a deal that resolves the Israeli-Palestinian question.” 

Masoud Mostajabi, assistant director, Atlantic Council Middle East Programs 

A good step towards a more peaceful and prosperous region. 

“After more than a quarter-century since Israel established formal relations with an Arab state (Jordan in 1996), the UAE seems to have taken the first step among its neighbors to normalize relations with Israel, potentially at the expense of anger from others, but also creating a powerful precedent for other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to follow suit.  

“After Trump mentioned that “we may see other [similar] agreements,” it is very likely that this will lead precisely to that. Despite all the considerations at play, especially the continued strikes against Palestinian rights and aspirations, this remains a good step for a region in needs of good news and much needed dialogue.  

“It is, after all, the most significant agreement in twenty-five years that intends to contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous region; especially through further collaboration on emerging technologies and particularly food security—a significant area of concern for the Gulf Arab states and an area of expertise for Israel.  

“But also, through increased security cooperation against bolstered regional destabilizing forces, such as Hezbollah. However, as the agenda for normalization continues to move forward, the hope is that this could also benefit the Palestinians.” 

Joze Pelayo, program assistant, Atlantic Council Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative 

Further reading:

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Kirsten Fontenrose, Tuqa Nusairat, Barbara Slavin, Shalom Lipner, Thomas S. Warrick, Mark N. Katz, Richard LeBaron, Carmiel Arbit, Nader Uskowi, Sina Azodi, Mohsen Tavakol, Masoud Mostajabi, Nabeel Khoury, and Joze Pelayo

Image: US President Donald Trump applauds Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they appear together at a joint news conference to discuss a new Middle East peace plan proposal in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo