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The treaty Israel and the United Arab Emirates will sign this week won’t fully normalize ties, but will be the start of a yearlong process that could protect the Gulf nation’s interests as it lobbies to buy the U.S.’s top warplane, according to people briefed on the pact.
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The plan is for both sides to gradually increase cooperation over the course of a year, starting with economic cooperation, continuing with deepened security and intelligence ties, then culminating in the exchange of ambassadors, the two people familiar said on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.
While phased agreements run the risk of never ripening into subsequent stages, the Emiratis apparently concluded that’s “less risky then waking up one morning and finding out that their major move — historic move — turns into a fiasco,” said Nimrod Novik, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator and a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum think tank.
The signing ceremony is scheduled to take place on Tuesday at the White House. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be there but the de facto leader of the UAE, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, will not, detracting from what’s been touted as a “historic” first agreement between Israel and a Gulf Arab state.
A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment on the accord. The UAE Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. A Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. was focused on helping the two sides implement the agreement.
Drawn together by a shared distrust of Iran and mutual interest in technological innovation, Israel and the UAE went public last month with their intention to formalize decades of behind-the-scenes cooperation. Although full normalization will be at least months away, Israel and the U.S. stand to benefit from the optics of Tuesday’s ceremony.
For Netanyahu, it’s a distraction from a bungled response to a raging coronavirus outbreak and his corruption trial. For Trump, it boosts his claims to advancing peace in the Middle East as he faces a tough election.
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For the UAE, though, the step-by-step approach to normalization offers time to measure regional reactions to the treaty and maintain leverage over Israel and the U.S. as it seeks advanced American weaponry, includingLockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 stealth fighter. Trump has indicated he’s open to such a sale, but Israel publicly objects, saying it would compromise its weapons edge in the region, which the U.S. has long vowed to maintain.
“The United Arab Emirates prioritizes the strategic security aspect of the deal as opposed to the economic and diplomatic, people-to-people relations,” said Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics. “This includes, also, the United Arab Emirates obtaining advanced weaponry, particularly the F-35” and advanced U.S. drones.
Full-fledged normalization also remains tricky for the UAE because of resistance within the Arab world as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t resolved.
The Gulf nation has made much of the fact that Israel agreed to suspend annexation of West Bank land the Palestinians claim for a state as a condition of this deal. But if Israel’s fractious coalition breaks down and the country heads to elections again, Netanyahu could come under pressure once more to promise annexation to shore up his hawkish flank.
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And if U.S. President Donald Trump loses his re-election bid in November, withholding full normalization until after the ballot also gives the UAE clout with a new administration.
“Mohammed bin Zayed knows well that there are reputational costs, if not in the United Arab Emirates,” Gerges said. “By keeping a physical distance, a personal distance from a signing ceremony, he keeps his options open” in the sense of not having “personal ownership of the signing ceremony,” he said.
— With assistance by Zainab Fattah
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