President TrumpDonald TrumpHillicon Valley — State Dept. employees targets of spyware Ohio Republican Party meeting ends abruptly over anti-DeWine protesters Jan. 6 panel faces new test as first witness pleads the Fifth MORE’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will establish formal ties is an historic diplomatic achievement.
But experts are split on the impact it will have on dynamics in the Middle East, with some saying it’s a recognition of facts on the ground in an effort to counter Iran and others framing it as a reflection of short-term political goals rather than long-term strategy.
Critics, meanwhile, are seizing on a key agreement that the U.S supports Israel freezing any plans to annex parts of the West Bank, undermining a significant part of Trump’s plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Here are five takeaways from this new development in Middle East diplomacy.
Trump gets pre-election foreign policy boost
Trump can now tout a foreign policy win less than three months before the presidential election. The normalizing of ties between Israel and the UAE was a key portion of his administration's “Peace to Prosperity” framework for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many on both the right and left praised the move, including Trump's Democratic presidential rival, Joe BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE, who argued in a statement that the agreement was the culmination of "efforts of multiple administrations," including the Obama administration. Biden said he was "gratified" by the announcement of the deal, and added that he and his vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisJoe Manchin should embrace paid leave — now The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden defends disappointing jobs report Harris's office undergoes difficult reset MORE (D-Calif.), would "seek to build on this progress" if elected in November.
The plan was a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy platform and the culmination of two years of work by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report Watchdog finds no money has flowed out of agency tasked by Trump admin to fight pandemic MORE.
The UAE was one of the most visible supporters of the peace plan when it was first unveiled in January, despite widespread rejection by the international community and the majority of the Arab world.
Yet that support was almost lost when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE came close to annexing territory in the West Bank in July that was identified under the Trump plan.
The announcement between the U.S., Israel and UAE on Thursday specifically said annexation was off the table.
“This appears to be a decisive victory for the Kushner approach, where regional interests and regional peace win out over annexation,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research with the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
But Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., said the deal likely came from a push by Abu Dhabi as part of their own interests to boost support for Trump.
“I think this is an open attempt by the Emirates to take advantage of, what they believe, is a presidency in trouble,” he said. “They want Trump to stay in power.”
A step forward by the UAE raises questions for other Gulf and Arab states
Only Egypt and Jordan have active peace treaties with Israel. All other Arab nations had agreed in 2002 to not recognize Israel until there was a negotiated solution to the Palestinian conflict as well as a sovereign Palestinian state.
The moves by the UAE bury that idea, Jahshan said.
“We’ve been looking for somebody to bury the dead body of the two-state solution. Nobody would. This one does the same thing to the other comatose idea, which is the Arab initiative.”
Yet bold steps by the UAE are unlikely to be followed immediately by other Gulf and Arab countries, said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“This kind of breakthrough requires extensive preparatory, behind-the-scenes work. The UAE is probably the most diplomatically agile Gulf state, and is willing to take risks,” he said.
“And this move is a risky one that will expose it to attack from many Palestinians, Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Other Gulf states will probably wait to see how things develop. In the longer term, the two countries most likely to follow are Bahrain and Oman.”
A shifting political dynamic in Middle East
Omari said the UAE’s decision to move closer to Israel is likely to deepen existing intra-Arab tensions but are unlikely to create new ones.
“Some Arab states, namely those under Iranian influence (Syria and Lebanon), Qatar, and some North African states may seek to expel or freeze the UAE's membership in the Arab League,” he said. “But the UAE is part of a strong Arab grouping that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others and they will not desire to see their ally undermined. The Palestinian Authority will have to balance its anger against this move with its desire not antagonize key Arab allies of the UAE.”
Schanzer, of FDD, said that the move by the UAE may have strengthened the Israeli relationship with Jordan that was under immense pressure over the threats of annexation.
“The fact that the UAE has apparently halted the Israeli discussion of annexation likely means that the most apparent irritant in the Jordanian-Israeli relationship has been removed,” he said.
Iran drives decisions for Trump, allies
The public uniting of Israel and the UAE comes as the Trump administration is increasing its campaign against Iran in its push to destroy the last parts of the Obama-era nuclear deal and signal to Tehran it is ramping up pressure.
“Iran is at the center of the convergence of interest between Israel and the UAE, both of who see it as an existential threat, and this step will bolster the anti-Iranian axis,” said Omari, of the Washington Institute.
But Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the new public alliance provides an opening to show the power of diplomacy and dialogue that Tehran should take notice of.
“Iran will most likely condemn this agreement, but it should make the leaders in Tehran consider how outdated and counterproductive their refusal to recognize Israel is,” Slavin said. “The region needs dialogue urgently among all its members, especially long-time adversaries. That said, portraying this move as mostly 'anti-Iran' will only make regional reconciliation more difficult.”
But will it resonate with voters?
Thursday's announcement was greeted with excitement by Washington's foreign policy establishment. But the effect it will have on the election is likely to be minimal.
“Foreign policy is just not very salient right now at all,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of Political Science at Emory University.
Voters are more focused on the pandemic, the economic crisis and racial justice issues that have garnered attention in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
“In this particular election, foreign policy issues are way down the list,” Abramowitz said.
The UAE-Israel alliance will likely reinforce to Trump’s base that he is the best president for Israel, but do little to sway on-the-fence voters whose most pressing concerns are the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the economy.
“Those kinds of issues matter a great deal to people who care about them,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “But for the broader public, the only issues that really matter right now are the pandemic and the resulting recession, with a dose of racial justice and urban unrest.”
For Trump’s detractors, the freeze on annexation will likely be seen as a welcome move but not an indication of unique or superior diplomatic skill. Moreover, progressives will see it as recognition of the failed policy of annexation they have long argued killed any hope of negotiations with the Palestinians and normalized ties with Arab states.
“The Trump administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, both of which pushed annexation, are now effectively acknowledging that annexation is indeed a barrier to normalized relations between Israel and its neighbors,” said Michael Koplow, Policy Director of the Israel Policy Forum. “Taking it off the table is exactly what has to be done.”