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UAE's Sheikh Mohammed saves the day — or does he?

UAE's Sheikh Mohammed saves the day — or does he?
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Donald Trump’s electoral prospects appeared to be fading away; for weeks Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE was leading him in every poll. Israel’s Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE, under indictment, could see that his days as prime minister might be numbered. He had failed to suppress the coronavirus; Israel’s economy was in a tailspin. Both needed a deus ex machina. And it appeared in the form of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the shrewd leader of one of America’s most trusted allies, the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE broke the news Thursday: Israel and the UAE had agreed to a peace deal. In exchange, Netanyahu would suspend — not terminate — any moves to annex parts of the West Bank. Sheikh Mohammed gave Trump the headlines he was losing to Biden, and then to Kamala Harris. He took Netanyahu off the annexation hook, which leading Democrats, Trump adviser Jared Kushner, and even his own settler supporters all opposed — the latter because it seemed to indicate a willingness to accept some sort of Palestinian state, even if it was a rump Bantustan.

Almost immediately after Trump’s announcement, Sheikh Mohammed issued a “not so fast” tweet of his own: In contrast to Netanyahu’s use of the term “suspend” to describe his plans for annexation, Sheikh Mohammed tweeted “an agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories.” Moreover, the UAE leader did not promise full diplomatic relations; rather, as he put it, “The UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” 

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In fact, Israel and the UAE already have a bilateral relationship. The two countries have a strong intelligence partnership, and have found ways to do commercial business with each other. There is now a Jewish community in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The community in Abu Dhabi is building a new synagogue, has engaged a rabbi and has been conducting Sabbath and holiday services in a temporary location for some time. Indeed, in a gesture that is an echo of the Ottoman Empire’s welcome to Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, the leader of Abu Dhabi’s Jewish community has suggested to beleaguered European Jewish communities that they would find a welcome home in the Gulf state.

Whether Netanyahu or Trump will actually benefit electorally from the new agreement between Jerusalem and the UAE is an open question, however. Netanyahu still must survive the budget crisis he provoked when he backtracked on his agreement with coalition partner Benny Gantz to issue a two-year budget. By opting for a one-year budget, Netanyahu had been hoping to maintain his hold on power either by forcing a new round of elections if a budget deal with Gantz could not be reached by Aug. 25, or by doing so in a year’s time to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister in accordance with the rotation agreement they made when they formed the present government. 

The challenge for Netanyahu is that the ultra-Orthodox political parties, long a key element of his electoral base, have threatened to withhold their support if he opts for another election. They cannot tolerate the delay of up to six months that would result until a new government is formed, which would deprive them of the government financing that keeps many of their religious schools afloat. The UAE deal does nothing to placate these parties.

As for Trump, who likely still aspires to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the deal is equally unlikely to make much difference to his own electoral prospects. The American public is far more concerned about the ravages of the coronavirus and its impact on the economy and on school reopening. Trump’s failure to come to grips with this three-headed  crisis will not be offset by any deals he might make in the Middle East. Moreover, with Netanyahu’s supporters now making it clear that “suspension” really just means a delay in annexation, the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community that opposes both annexation and Trump is not going to change its collective mind.

Trump’s announcement is certainly welcome on its face. It is all to the good that two important American allies work openly together, whether to oppose Iran or to foster a wider Middle East peace. But the deal will not be the August surprise that changes the trajectory of the presidential election. Trump still needs to pull a rabbit out of his hat sometime in October. But Trump does not wear a hat. It would muss up what he calls his “beautiful hair.” His problems, like Netanyahu’s, are not going away anytime soon.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.