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The provisional agreement of August 13, 2020 to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a risky gamble that is good news for its signatories, for the White House, Europe and China. However, it is not certain that it will be enough to ensure Donald Trump’s re-election. On the other hand, it is bad news for the Palestinians, the Arab world which appears more divided and fragmented than ever, Iran, Turkey and to a lesser extent Russia. If it is formalised in the coming weeks, it will have consequences for the geopolitical balance in the Middle East. This agreement, which increases regional frustrations and feeds ambient nationalism, is not likely to contribute to the democratisation of the region.
On August 13, 2020, a few weeks before the deadlines of October 18 (probable end of the UN embargo on conventional arms sales to Iran ) and November 3 (American presidential elections), the White House surprised the world by announcing the conclusion of a formal agreement to normalise relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A diplomatic success that came at the right time for some, a clear provocation and a risky decision for others, this agreement – which does not yet constitute a formal peace treaty – immediately raised many questions .
Risky bet, high payoffs
First of all, it should be remembered that this is a fragile agreement reached under pressure from Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom are desperate in the face of unfavourable polls. This provisional agreement remains subject to the conclusion of a formal agreement between both capitals in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the unexpected can still happen .
By crossing the Rubicon and becoming the third Arab head of state to normalise relations with Israel (after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994), the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has taken a real risk on the international stage. There is no doubt that by overtaking other Arab leaders, including the shady Saudi Mohammed Ben Salman, Mohammed Ben Zayed has stirred up frustrations, rekindled jealousies and thrown oil on the fire of an Arab street that is always quick to catch fire. He apparently doesn’t mind being ostracised by some of his peers, as he sees himself as sheltered on the domestic scene and knows that he has powerful support on the international stage. Criticism towards his initiative is all the more acerbic as the UAE seems to have set only three conditions for this normalisation: that Israel ceases any further annexation of Palestinian territories, that it does not reject the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and that its own embassy won’t be located in Jerusalem. The Emirati leader has therefore not imposed any real concession on the Israeli government, contenting himself with maintaining the status quo. This is no doubt a sign that he was aware of the fragility of the UAE on the regional scene, after the collapse of oil prices, the health crisis and its worrying economic consequences, the flight of capital and expatriates, but above all the strong resurgence of Iran to the regional scene, to the point that the UAE had no choice but to resume dialogue with Tehran.
As a result of this standardisation, the UAE is promised significant investment, trade and tourism, transfers of high technology, but above all security and military cooperation, including, most probably, in the sensitive areas of space and arms industries. Israel has undoubtedly obtained guarantees – a right to visit? – with regard to the Emirati civilian nuclear programme, since Abu Dhabi became the first Arab state to launch a (South Korean technology) nuclear power plant in Barakah on August 1, 2020. It is probably no coincidence that Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, was the one to go to Abu Dhabi on August 17 and 18 to negotiate directly the terms of the future peace agreement . At this stage, the agreement provides for the immediate establishment of regular air links, the implementation of consular measures, as well as the reciprocal opening of two embassies, no doubt from the beginning of autumn 2020.
For Israel, the risk is exclusively related to its domestic policy. By agreeing to stop any further annexation of Palestinian territories contrary to what he promised his electoral base, Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself at odds with his ultras. The latter raise the banner of revolt in the Knesset and promise to torpedo the agreement. The tension is such that the current Prime Minister would imagine an umpteenth dissolution of Parliament . The agreement with the UAE is however very symbolic, since it breaks an implicit taboo reinforced by the collapse of the Oslo Agreements and the resurgence of colonisation of the occupied territories. The Israeli leaders hope that this agreement will set an example for other monarchies in the Gulf. The two most credible candidates to date are the small kingdom of Bahrain and the strategic Sultanate of Oman, the official guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. Contrary to what Donald Trump suggests on Twitter, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be convinced to join the agreement, especially since the king and his son do not seem to be on the same line (see below) and that Israel is as wary of the Saudi nuclear programme as of the unpredictable character of the Crown Prince . Within the Israeli security establishment, many believe that Israel has nothing decisive to expect from a partnership with Saudi Arabia, whose present leadership is judged unreliable .
By betting on Abu Dhabi, Israel is obviously strengthening its game against Iran by placing a pawn close to the Strait of Hormuz in order to counter – or threaten – the Iranian game against it, especially in Syria and Lebanon. The goal is obvious: to create a diversion and force Iran to make painful choices, or even to push it into making a mistake, hoping that the Revolutionary Guards will attack the UAE directly. Beyond this game of chess, normalisation with the UAE allows Israel to strengthen its strategic, industrial and technological cooperation ties with authoritarian and technologically advanced states, following the example of its close cooperation with Singapore, so as to further strengthen its image as a Start Up Nation.
For the White House, the deal is looking like a last-chance gamble. After the foreign policy slaps, Donald Trump hopes to show that he is capable of getting a deal that suits him, ten weeks before the presidential election. It is forgetting that international coups d’éclat have never been decisive for the re-election of an American president: Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980 when he could avail himself of the Camp David peace agreement between Israelis and Egyptians (1979); George Bush was not re-elected either in 1992 after having pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. If Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996, it was not because he had been the man behind the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan (1994), but because he had successfully put the American economy back on track.
Finally, it should be emphasised that this normalisation agreement is very good news for the European Union and the international community since it puts the Israeli-Palestinian issue on hold, spares the two-state solution and avoids provocations that could have led to a third Intifada. Europeans avoid finding themselves in an awkward situation where they would have had to react to further Israeli annexation without breaking trade ties with Israel.
This is finally good news for China for two reasons. On the one hand, this agreement strengthens Beijing’s grip on Tehran, which feels more isolated than ever. On the other hand, it should create opportunities of economic development likely to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East, thus facilitating Chinese investments and the extension towards the Mediterranean area of the new Silk Roads within the framework of the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) project. Well aware of the impact of this project, the UAE is investing massively in port infrastructures to position itself as an essential interlocutor for the Chinese with whom it has already developed partnerships in the field of armament, notably in the field of drones.
Those who are weakened or further isolated by the agreement
The biggest losers are obviously the Palestinians, even though the agreement preserves the status quo and the appearance of a two-state solution. Its formalisation without this leading to an outburst of criticism from the Arab world shows that the Palestinian Authority and its supporters are no longer in a position to exercise an effective veto over the foreign policy of other Arab countries, especially those who consider the Iranian threat, supposed or real, to be more decisive than the Palestinian question. In this respect, the Palestinian strategy which made any peace agreement with Israel conditional on a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian question now appears to be obsolete. In the end, what has just happened shows that time is no longer on the side of the Palestinians, but against them. One may or may not regret it, but it is a fact that is difficult to deny. Of course, this apparent abandonment of the Palestinian cause is a godsend for the ideological regimes, which will be able to reaffirm their support for the cause with the help of thunderous declarations that the Palestinians are waiting to see the concrete effects on their daily lives. For in these times of very low oil prices and a drop in economic activity linked to the health crisis, Tehran, Ankara and Doha will have a hard time bail out the various rival Palestinian organisations.
The Arab world, especially the Arab League, is greatly weakened by this agreement, which divides and fragments it further, highlighting the contradictory postures and hypocrisy of certain leaders who are incapable of speaking out towards their peoples and neighbours. Within the Arab world, there is no doubt that the Saudi leaders have had a bad time of having been pawned off by their Emirati neighbour, while Riyadh has been at the forefront of negotiations with Israel for thirty years. Formally, the Saudi peace plan (general normalisation in exchange for a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the ‘adjusted’ ceasefire lines of June 1967), formulated in 2002 by King Abdullah, is still on the table. In fact, the kings of Arabia, Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques, have always considered that it would be up to one of them to endorse normalisation with Israel. The fact that Emir Mohammed Ben Zayed took King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman by surprise illustrates the divergent postures of the father, very attached to the Palestinian cause, compared to that of his son who is more inclined to compromise with Israel and the United States to make his own agenda triumph.
Kuwait, trapped by its historical support for the Palestinian cause and eager to spare its powerful neighbours (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia), has declared that it would be the last Arab state to normalise its relations with Israel. Qatar, mired in its rhetoric of ideological support for political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, sees itself a little more rejected in the Iranian-Turkish camp.
At first glance, the Israeli-Emirati normalisation should be good news for Egypt, since it strengthens the MBZ-Sissi axis intended to counter the activism of Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. But in reality, the Egyptian President has just lost both his status as an Arab interlocutor hitherto privileged by Israel, while finding himself in the front line managing explosive relations with Hamas entrenched in the Gaza Strip. He is no doubt beginning to understand that the Israeli strategy could consist in handing back to Egypt the management of the chaos of Gaza in the event of a de facto partition and the extended annexation of Palestine.
Other losers are the Arab leaders who would like to normalise relations with Israel, if only to capture a large flow of investment, but who know that their people will not tolerate such an opening. This is particularly the case of the King of Morocco, who has long been calling for such a normalisation, but who is aware that such an agreement would risk setting fire to the powder keg, at a time when the political and socio-economic situation in his kingdom, aggravated by the consequences of the health crisis, appears extremely tense and uncertain. Further East, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, entrenched in their ideological certainties and historical positions of denouncing Israel and supporting the Palestinian cause, have criticised the Israeli-Emirati agreement. There is no doubt that business leaders, merchants and those in charge of promising economic sectors are aware that they are missing an opportunity to hold on to the train of economic development, to the great satisfaction of Chinese investors who will be able to increase their hold in these countries.
The other big regional loser is of course Iran, which seems at first sight to be more isolated than ever by this normalisation comming shortly after the resumption of the dialogue between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. The epidermal reactions of the political and military class and the barely veiled threats launched in the UAE bear witness to this. This movement on the regional chessboard comes at the very moment when Iran is facing a resurgence of Israeli attacks in Syria and must manage the disastrous consequences of the explosion of the port of Beirut which occurred on 4 August 2020, thereby questioning the strategy of Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. All this pushes Iran further into the camp of Russia and China. A fortiori at the moment when Tehran has been negotiating since the end of June 2020 with Moscow and Beijing (by putting them in competition) new strategic partnerships combining energy, investments, arms sales and diplomatic support. If the context does not calm down, Tehran will find it very difficult to sell its HOPE project (for HOrmuz PEace) to its Gulf neighbours by convincing them that a regional stability agreement can rest solely on the riparian states. In the meantime, Iranians and Emiratis know that they are interdependent, since Dubai remains very much economically linked to Iran. Warned of what they would risk if they opened the door too wide to the Israelis, the Emiratis are pragmatic and will probably not cross any of the Iranian red lines, especially at a time when they are hosting the 2020-2021 Universal Exhibition on their territory.
Turkey finds itself more than ever torn between its interests and its contradictory postures in a context of strong tensions in the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean, as witnessed by the (voluntary?) collision of a Turkish frigate with a Greek frigate on 13 August 2020. President Erdogan’s very harsh statements bear witness to this. He will have to evaluate the evolution of the balance of power and draw the necessary conclusions.
Russia is not pleased by this agreement in which it was not consulted, especially as it is perceived as an American success that takes Israel a little further away from the Kremlin; it is the paw of Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi who know that their rival Benjamin Netanyahu has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin. But the Russian leaders also know that by doing so, they are strengthening their grip on Iran, which in itself is a valuable counterpart.
In the very short term, normalisation between Israel and the UAE is increasing the antagonism between Iran and its Russian and Chinese supporters on the one hand, and Israel, Washington, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh on the other, in the particularly delicate context of the lifting (or not) of the embargo on conventional arms, which is theoretically due to take place on October 18, 2020, but also of the American presidential election on November 3.
Everything will then depend on the outcome of these two deadlines. If Donald Trump is re-elected, whether or not he succeeds in extending the arms embargo and imposing new sanctions against Iran, this antagonism is unlikely to settle down. The next step would then be the Iranian presidential election (spring 2021), which will most certainly see the election of a conservative candidate. Paradoxically, the latter could all the more easily engage in discreet negotiations with Washington since, being supported by the hard faction of the regime, no one could reproach him for selling off the interests of the Islamic Republic. Conversely, if Donald Trump were defeated and a new administration emerges that is mindful of putting the United States back at the centre of the diplomatic game, for example by reintegrating the JCPOA in one way or another, everything suggests that this antagonism could gradually settle down, especially if Russia and China succeed in the meantime in obtaining the effective lifting of the embargo on arms sales to Iran. For Tehran’s priority is to modernise its conventional arsenal dating from the Shah which is now totally obsolete (except for drones and missiles). This appeasement could convince several Arab or Muslim states to follow in the footsteps of the UAE by normalising in their turn their relations with Israel, while resuming dialogue with Iran. The current Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz and his colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, two former pragmatic chiefs of staff, are well aware of this. They know that the future must not be insulted and that all scenarios must be prepared. That is why they have begun a discreet rapprochement with Turkey, but also with certain European leaders, while at the same time courting the American Jewish community which is in favour of the Democratic movement. These two political leaders also know that Benjamin Netanyahu, weakened by legal affairs and strongly contested within the Likud movement, will not last forever. Knowing that it is imprudent to put like him all his eggs in the same American basket, they are conscious that by now having actions in the UAE, they place themselves in a position to discuss discreetly with the Iranians, the Chinese and other Arab delegations when circumstances require it.
In the meantime, Israeli-Emiratist normalisation accentuates the tectonic fault that divides the Middle East into two distinct geopolitical plates. To the North, the one encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar under the leadership of Russia and China. To the South, the one that stretches from Egypt to the UAE via Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the United States. The stability of this southern plate is threatened just as much by the ambitions of Iran, which continues to instrumentalise the Yemeni conflict, as by the fury of the Saudi Crown Prince and the socio-economic imbalances which weaken the Arab states and feed the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as that of Daech. Between these two plates, North and South, the Turkey of President Erdogan is struggling to position itself. Both hope to tip it into their camp.
In the longer term, this normalisation allows Israel and the UAE to gain time in the face of the new global cold war between the United States and China, including in the Middle East. This is no longer an ideological conflict as in the first Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but a power struggle between a comfortably established hegemon wavering between its Asian and Middle Eastern interests and its Chinese challenger trying to occupy the space – especially the economic and political space – left vacant in the region. Yet, in Washington as in Beijing, the analyses diverge. Part of the American elite refuses to consider China as an adversary, believing that the only two real enemies of the United States in the Middle East remain Russia and Iran. For its part, part of the Chinese establishment believes that it is too early to challenge Washington in its own backyard, even though it recognises that it is vital to secure energy supplies from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea on a long-term basis. This cacophony is causing turmoil among the United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East, who no longer know to which saint to devote themselves, while at the same time encouraging renewed tensions and rivalries between Russians, Turks, Iranians and Europeans. As Harvey Jaskel points out, Israel and the Gulf monarchies will have to face difficult choices . By normalising their relations, Israel and the UAE are giving guarantees to both parts. On the one hand, they offer a royal gift to Donald Trump in the event that he is re-elected, knowing that this same gift will play into Joe Biden’s hands if he is elected. On the other hand, they favour China’s long-term strategy, without crossing the red lines defined by the White House.
All in all, the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE appears to be good news, even if it increases the frustrations of numerous regional players and contributes to reinforcing the ultranationalist and populist discourse of some of them, at the risk of triggering new neighbourhood conflicts. One thing seems certain, it will not contribute to the democratisation of the North Africa & Middle East zone because the message is clear: in this region, only an autocratic power can take the risk of normalising with Israel