For the first time in decades, there is reason to have hope in the future of Arab-Israeli relations. Israel has begun the process of relationship normalization with its Arab neighbors, signaling to the region and the world that a new era of diplomacy may lie on the horizon. 

Over the summer, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed the Abraham Accords, officially normalizing relations and beginning a new period of economic engagement, engaging in trade and commercial travel for the first time in history. This comes alongside historic cooperation on security issues, namely with Iran, that includes greater information sharing. In exchange for these new economic conditions, Israel agreed to “suspend”—in its own language—its annexation of the West Bank. 

This agreement will have a significant impact on four different groups in the region: the Israelis, the Arab States, the Palestinians, and the Iranians and their allies. While it is impossible to know the long term impact this will have on the region—especially given its historical instability, deep sectarian divides, entrenched proxy conflicts, and the dogmatic religious attitudes of some—this deal should nevertheless be seen as significant and a lodestar of what may come. 

In accepting this deal, Benjamin Netanyahu has made the best out of a complicated political balancing act, attempting to appease his right-wing, pro-annexation base, while also placating moderates at home and abroad. The White House, under the purview of Jared Kushner, crafted an agreement which would have allowed Israel to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, while recognizing the Palestinian’s right to the remaining 70 percent. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to have his cake and eat it too: have the former, and reject the latter. The White House was having none of it. And so, Netanyahu had to salvage what remained of his diplomatic standings, and utilized his albeit limited leverage to strike a deal not with the Palestinians, but with UAE, a country arguably more willing to engage diplomatically with the Israelis. In signing this deal, Israel has gained an invaluable new ally in an altogether unfriendly part of the world, one with which they can share resources, technology, human and physical capital, crucial information and much more. All they had to concede was a promise to “suspend” its annexation of the West Bank. And in a region so unstable, so vulnerable to sudden shocks, acts of violence and spiking escalation, who truly knows what “suspends” actually means? Overall, following this deal, Israel finds itself in an infinitely stronger position both at home and abroad—new allies, new trading partners, new potential for economic growth and stability—all the while not conceding much, if anything, to the Palestinians or their Arab partners. 

If the Israelis got the best out of this deal, tied (with the Palestinians) for the position of worst losers are the Iranians, Israel’s chief enemy in the region. While in the past, the Iranians could have relied upon the Arab States to maintain their opposition to Israel, either actively or passively, this deal indicates that that era is over. The UAE is the first to realise that they have far more to gain and, I would argue, much more in common, with the Israelis than they do with the Iranians. A relationship with Iran today buys an Arab state next to nothing; that, coupled with the fact that it would bar any relationship with Israel and make western relationships harder to maintain, makes an allegiance with Iran not just irrational but actively working against their own interests. The UAE has demonstrated that the era of the irrational, dogmatic, and myopic opposition to Israel is over, and nothing could be more unsettling for Iran’s strength in the region. If this agreement sets off a series of similar agreements with the other Gulf and Arab States, Iran will become increasingly isolated and unable to sustain its aggressive operational position to Israel. Given the irrationality and instability of the regime, there is no telling what such a weakness might set off, both internally and abroad. 

Much like Israel sacrificed little to get this deal, so too did the UAE agree to a deal that allows them to reap the rewards, while allowing others (the Palestinians, and, technically, the Israelis) to make the sacrifices. The UAE is a prosperous, progressive, forward looking, technologically advanced nation, rich in human and physical capital. It is, for a Gulf nation, progressive on the issue of women’s rights, with 200 women running for elections to the Federal National Council in 2020 and their representative at the United Nations being a Western-educated woman, Lana Nusseibeh. The rational thing for a country like the UAE to do is not to maintain old and entrenched relationships that necessitate their opposition to Israel, but rather to engage proactively with the (only) other prosperous, technologically advanced and stable nation in the region: Israel. This deal also places them in a better place vis-à-vis the United States, especially regarding previously restricted military equipment and technology. Moreover, by being the first among the Arabs to take this bold step, they are setting a precedent and a model for their neighbors and allies to follow, with the end goal of normalized relations with many of the Gulf and Arab States. 

While the Iranians may come away from this agreement as one of its biggest losers, nobody will feel the impact of it more acutely and painfully than the Palestinians. For them, this is a betrayal and abandonment by those on whom they rely most heavily. In the immediate future, yes, this deal does stop the creeping annexation of the West Bank by the Israelis. However, with the UAE agreeing to this deal, the Palestinians have lost any leverage they had over the Israelis. In the past, the Palestinians have been able to count on the Arabs to not make deals with the Israelis without forcing the recognition of a Palestinian state. The UAE has demonstrated, and now set a precedent, that they are no longer seriously considering the recognition of Palestine a serious issue, and certainly not a roadblock to a deal with Israel. To say that the Palestinians are justified in their fear of isolation, annexation and loss of sovereignty following the deal’s announcement would be an understatement. 

After years of a cold war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, this deal suggests that there is hope that such an era might be nearing its end. While this agreement is great for Israel, great for the UAE and its neighbors, and weakens Iran’s position in the region—and objectively laudable on those grounds—we should be wary of what it means for the Palestinians. We do not know today, nor will we know for a while, exactly what this deal has changed for Israel’s approach to the Palestinians. But what we do know for sure is that as a result of this deal, Israel and its Prime Minister are stronger than they have been for years, and the Palestinians will likely come to feel this might in the near future.

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