In a surprise statement from US President Donald Trump this week, it was announced that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have signed an historic peace deal aimed at normalising relations between the two nations. Coming at a time of heightened regional tensions surrounding Israel’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, the agreement has sent diplomatic shockwaves across the world. So what is the agreement and what does it mean for the region?
What is the agreement?
The Israel–United Arab Emirates Peace Agreement, also known as the Abraham Accord, is an agreement to establish official diplomatic ties between both countries. Brokered by Donald Trump, it is the third such agreement between Israel and an Arab nation, following Egypt’s agreement in 1979 and Jordan’s agreement in 1994. In return for full diplomatic relations, the agreement says that Israel will agree to drop its plans for annexation of parts of the West Bank.
The agreement is far-reaching in terms of its implications for UAE-Israeli cooperation and outlines plans for the exchange of embassies and normal trade ties between the two countries. Diplomats from both nations will meet to sign bilateral deals regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, and the environment, amongst other areas of mutual interest. In particular, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, said Israel would co-operate with the UAE in developing a coronavirus vaccine.
The UAE, Israel, and the US will join together to establish a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East,” as the leaders “share a similar outlook regarding the threats and opportunities in the region, as well as a shared commitment to promoting stability through diplomatic engagement, increased economic integration, and closer security co-ordination.”
Responses to the surprise deal range from full-hearted support to enraged outcry. Several nations were keen to praise the deal. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed support for the agreement, saying “it was my profound hope that annexation did not go ahead in the West Bank and today’s agreement to suspend those plans is a welcome step on the road to a more peaceful Middle East”. The accord was also praised by Bahrain, and Oman hoped the agreement will help achieve peace in the Middle East. Egypt‘s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a close UAE ally, celebrated the agreement, seeing it as “steps to bring peace in the Middle East.” Germany also expressed support for the announcement, with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying that the normalisation of diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE “is an important contribution to peace in the region.” China has also indicated its support, with foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying “China is happy to see measures that are helping to ease tensions between countries in the Middle East and promoting regional peace and stability.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hopes the agreement will be an opportunity to realise a two-state solution with Palestine.
Other nations were more cautious to show full support for the agreement and emphasised the need for Israel to honour its commitment to Palestine. Spain welcomed the agreement, hoping that “Israel’s commitment to suspend the annexing of parts of the West Bank will become permanent.” Simmilarly, France welcomed Israel’s decision to halt its annexation parts of the West Bank, with Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying this suspension “must become a definitive measure.” In the Middle East, Jordan said that the deal could push forward peace negotiations on the condition that it succeeds in convincing Israel to allow a Palestinian state on territory that Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Other nations and groups were critical of the deal. Turkey criticised the “hypocritical behaviour” of the United Arab Emirates, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatening to suspend diplomatic relations with the Abu Dhabi administration or withdraw their ambassador. Palestine‘s President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the accord and Hamas have followed suit. Right-wing Israeli settlers are unhappy with the agreement, as plans for annexation are being suspended. But perhaps the most outspoken critic of the agreement is Iran, with President Hassan Rouhani saying the UAE made a “huge mistake” by normalising ties with Israel. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps warned of dangerous consequences for the UAE, saying that the deal would accelerate Israel’s demise.
Implications for International Relations
The agreement certainly came as a surprise to many and could alter relationships in the region. The closer alignment of Israel and the UAE is indicative of a wider trend in the region of Sunni Arab states viewing Iran as a greater threat than Israel; counteracting this threat is more important to them than resolving the Palestine Conflict and this deal could see Israel and the UAE collaborating further in the future to oppose Iranian regional influence. Thus tensions between Iran and Sunni Arab states could increase as a result of the accord.
Although the public announcement of the deal was unexpected, diplomats in the region have long been aware of clandestine UAE-Israel ties. The normalisation of diplomatic relations is in line with Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s aggressively interventionist foreign and security policies which have backed the Saudi-led war in Yemen, opposed Islamist movements and state sponsors such as Qatar and Turkey, and intervention in the Libyan civil war. Israel and the UAE already cooperate on intelligence issues and Israeli diplomats have been present at the Abu Dhabi HQ of the International Renewable Energy Agency. The UAE is not alone in the region in terms of developing underground ties with Israel – Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are all known to have discreetly engaged with the Israelis, and perhaps the UAE’s normalisation will set a precedent to be followed by other Gulf nations.
Although the deal sees the UAE formally recognising Israel as a nation, their embassy will not be located in Jerusalem. Despite commiting to abandon plans to annex parts of Palestine, Netanyahu clarified that the “application of Israeli sovereignty” was not off the table, but rather temporarily suspended. The raprochement of the two nations is certainly a step in a new direction, but still far from seeing eye-to-eye on issues in the region.
The Abraham Accord will certainly change the dynamics in the Middle East. While some see this as an opportunity to foster peace in the region, others fear that Palestine will be forgotten and abandoned if other Arab nations normalise ties with Israel. It goes to show that diplomacy in the Middle East is fast moving and often unpredictable, and it will be interesting to see what ensues from the agreement once the dust from this ground-breaking accord settles.