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The UAE’s Break With the Arab League: The Backstory

It all began with a groundbreaking interview by New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman with then-Saudi Prince Fahd – an Arab peace plan that is a response to repeated claims that Arabs are anti-peace. The plan was approved unanimously at the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002 while Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was under Israeli military siege in his Ramallah headquarters. It was later approved at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Some 57 Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries vowed not only to recognize but to fully normalize ties with Israel in return for its withdrawal from Arab areas it occupied in the June 1967 war. The Arab Peace plan called for a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon.” The key words were “agreed upon,” thus giving Israel a veto over any solution to which it didn’t agree.

However, Israel totally ignored this plan. Every attempt to get it to engage with the Arab peace plan was rejected.

As always, what Israel wanted to do was break up the Arab consensus on the Palestinians. Despite continued claims by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that there would be diplomatic relations with key Arab countries, none materialized after the Trump Administration moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or when it unveiled its “vision” for the Middle East.

An unusual series of coincidences to provide a breakthrough. The United Arab Emirates was suffering economically, politically and militarily. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the UAE hard. Its two main sources of revenue – oil and tourism – were directly affected by the coronavirus. Oil prices plummeted and air travel nearly came to a standstill.

The UAE- and Saudi-led political conflict with Qatar was not going anywhere. Small, oil-rich Qatar was able to circumvent an economic siege. Attempts to weaken it backfired, making Qatar more independent politically and able to overcome this unfair blockade.

Militarily, the UAE suffered repeated defeats. The war in Yemen was going nowhere, and it was costly for the Saudis and the UAE in both money and lives. The UAE also had problems in Libya. UAE support for military strongman Khalifa Haftar was not producing any military breakthroughs. Haftar’s siege of Tripoli’s internationally recognized government ended in defeat and humiliation for him.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump also had serious problems. Public opinion polls were regularly showing the US president trailing his Democratic opponent by double digits. Israel’s leader was facing corruption charges and nightly protests outside his residence, with demonstrators demanding his resignation.

It is unclear what hidden deals were made to enable a UAE-Israel agreement. The public portion of the agreement talked about full normalization in return for a murky Israeli decision to “delay” annexation. The US was brought in at a later stage to give the UAE-Israel agreement an international cover.

A number of important questions remain to be answered before one can say whether this agreement is indeed historic or whether it is simply an accord by three leaders with major troubles who are trying to divert attention and to boost their own domestic standing.

Major questions remain: Will the Israelis live up to their commitment? Will other Arab countries follow the UAE and conclude a peace treaty with Israel? The initial backlash from Palestinians and other Arabs, despite the public support from many leaders, will make any country think long and hard before following the Emirati move.

Despite the hoopla around the UAE-Israeli agreement, little change will occur on the ground. Israeli officials can say as much as they want that this is a win for them because they did not have to trade land for peace, but they cannot ignore the elephant in the room.

The nearly 6 million Palestinians in the occupied territories are not going anywhere and they are key to any peace in the Middle East. Until and unless there is a serious effort to end the Israeli occupation, all the efforts to bypass it and avoid dealing with Palestinians will ultimately fail.