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Israel-UAE Deal More About Iran, Less About the Palestinians
Iranian demonstrators hold placards in front of the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Tehran, during a protest against the opening of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, August 15, 2020. (Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Israel-UAE Deal More About Iran, Less About the Palestinians

Peace agreement will lead to alliance against Tehran but not a military pact, analysts say

When Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed agreed to a peace deal with Israel last week, he said he did so to stop Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory.

The Palestinians swiftly rejected the Emirati assertion, with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat telling The Media Line the Israeli annexation plan was “on hold anyway.”

“If countries want to make their relations with Israel bilateral, they can stand up and say we are abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative [of 2002], we are abandoning the commitments of the Arab summits. But let them not say they are doing it for the Palestinians. They are doing it because there is a man in Washington called Jared Kushner, who’s linking anyone who breathes anywhere in the world with Netanyahu’s blessings,” Erekat said.

The Israeli-UAE agreement sent shockwaves through the Middle East.

Prof. Eytan Gilboa, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the deal was more about a shared desire to counter and contain Iran’s influence in the region, and less about the Palestinian issue.

“The answer to this is a counter-alliance; a new strategic alliance, based from the Gulf states and including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel,” he said.

Israel and the Gulf states perceive Iran as an existential threat.

“Iran is trying to build a Shia alliance, in the shape of crescent starting in Tehran, going to Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon. There are two other players; Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza,” he said.

Gilboa calls this yet to be created counter-grouping a “Sunni alliance.”

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that more than any other Arab country, the UAE shared Israel’s threat perceptions.

Tension between Turkey and the UAE is also on the rise. Both countries are involved in several disputes around the region, backing different warring factions, for example in war-torn Libya. Turkey accuses the UAE of spreading chaos in Libya and Yemen, while the UAE has condemned “Turkey’s military interference in Libya,” he said.

“They [the UAE and Israel] not only agree on Iran, … they also strongly agree on Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood as major and growing threats,” Ibish noted.

Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, told The Media Line that the UAE’s involvement in the region played a major role in the agreement with Israel.

“There are concerns about the deal, that it might embolden Abu Dhabi’s destabilizing and malicious activities in the region such as in Yemen and Libya. And also, that it might provide the UAE with the needed shield to protect it from being held accountable for its involvement in these conflicts,” Bakeer said.

Gilboa agrees in part with Bakeer’s assertion that the rivalry between Turkey and the UAE may have pushed the latter closer to Israel. But he insists that the threat from Iran is far more important to the Gulf states.

He described the so-called Iran-Shiite alliance as “aggressive and offensive.” Its aim is to “change governments and it wants to change situations in the Middle East, so the counter-alliance is a defensive alliance.”

Other Gulf states such as Bahrain and Oman, Gilboa said, will join the counter-Iran grouping for the same reasons. “Obviously, an alliance is much stronger than individual states, so the more countries and resources you have for it, the more power you have.”

Israel has been collaborating on security and intelligence matters with Egypt and Gulf countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia for years. The difference is that now the relationships are going public.

Gilboa said that this will lead to a more effective way of dealing with Tehran.

“The stronger this alliance is, the better the chance to limit the Iranian expansion in the region,” he said.

Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of American studies at Tehran University, does not believe the UAE deal will bring Israeli forces closer to Iranian shores.

He added that the UAE will not allow Israeli military presence on its territory. “I’m sure the Emirates would never sign a [military] pact [with Israel], because that would have major consequences for the regime and the Iranians would not be forgiving.”

Iranian military superiority will deter the UAE from allowing an attack to be launched from its territory, Marandi said.

“The Emirati [citizen] population is one million and the rest are foreigners, and if there is any conflict between Iran and the Emirates it will be over within hours because the infrastructure of the Emirates is very close to Iranian territory and can be easily destroyed,” he said.

Actually, there are 1.4 million Emirati citizens among the country’s 9.5 million residents.

Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line that Saudi Arabia is not on the list of Gulf states ready to follow in the UAE’s footsteps.

She said Abu Dhabi put its own interests before anyone else.

“I think that for the UAE it’s really about prioritization of their interests. They long had sympathy for the Palestinian cause but they also have an interest in a relationship with Israel,” DeLozier said.

It is no secret that the UAE and other Gulf states have been inching closer toward establishing ties with Israel in the last few years. Many Israeli officials, business people and athletes have visited Gulf states such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. The security and intelligence sector has seen steady cooperation, where several Israeli firms have sold Gulf states advanced cyberweapons.

The UAE sees itself as having much in common with Israel, in that both are technologically focused, both are small states, and both are interested in military prowess, DeLozier said. “Also, there’s the Iran problem; one of the things that pushed the relationship forward was the Iran [nuclear] deal,” she added.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia said it will not follow the UAE in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told reporters during a visit to Berlin that “peace must be achieved with the Palestinians” on the basis of international agreements before any normalization of relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia also considers Iran an enemy and has concerns similar to those of Israel regarding Tehran’s growing influence in the region.

Gilboa does not expect Riyadh to go public with its relationship with Israel in the immediate future. “Not in the next two years at least. They will watch what is happening with the Gulf states, Morocco, Sudan. … They will not be among the first, they will be among the last.”

Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui, a manager at the TRT World Research Centre, told The Media Line that the young and powerful Saudi crown prince’s image has been greatly tarnished by accusations that he had advance knowledge of the horrific murder of Saudi dissonant and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.

Cherkaoui said Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was “zealously following the steps of his mentor, the UAE’s crown prince,” but he is not in a good position at the moment.

“MbS is facing a difficult year after he initiated a disastrous energy-price Armageddon against Russia. MbS’s actions have left the Saudi economy in shambles and as a consequence, he is facing considerable backlash domestically,” Cherkaoui said.

Gilboa said that a lack of trust in US policy in the region played a big role in the agreement between Israel and the UAE.

“What happened during the Obama years was complete neglect of the pro-American Arab allies in the Middle East, as well as Israel. [President Barack] Obama wanted to disengage from close relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Israel, and his biggest failure in the eyes of Israeli and Sunni Arab leaders was the nuclear deal with Iran. So, if you don’t have the United States supporting you, you have to rely more on regional alliances,” Gilboa said.

He added that President Donald Trump was doing almost the same things that Obama did.

Trump almost pulled out all but a few hundred US forces from Syria, he is working to pull US troops out from Iraq and Afghanistan, and under his watch the Gulf Cooperation Council has been greatly weakened by internal divisions, creating a major obstacle to developing any coherent policy toward Iran, Gilboa said.

“They [the Gulf states] especially don’t trust the Democrats. And since the Democrats have a good chance at winning the presidential election, the Gulf states are telling themselves that they have to organize before they see another disaster coming from the Democrats,” he said.

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