The Hindu Explains: Why has UAE signed a peace deal with Israel?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces full diplomatic ties will be established with the United Arab Emirates, during a news conference on Aug. 13, 2020 in Jerusalem.   | Photo Credit: AP

On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump made a surprise announcement via Twitter that two of America’s close allies in West Asia, which had been at odds with each other for decades, reached a “historic” peace agreement. According to the deal, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will formally recognise the state of Israel, while the latter would halt its plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank of Palestine.

The UAE will be only the third Arab country — and the first in the Gulf — to recognise Israel. Though both Israel and the UAE have had backroom contacts in recent years, establishment of diplomatic relationships would be a game changer. There will be formal diplomatic and business contacts, flight services will be launched and both countries could cooperate more directly in regional diplomacy. Moreover, as Saudi Arabia is the de facto leader of the Gulf Sunni kingdoms, it can be assumed that the deal was signed with Saudi blessings. So, the possibility of more Gulf countries following suit cannot be ruled out.

Why did the UAE take this historic decision? And why now? A host of factors, from Israel’s plans to annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to their growing concerns over Iran and close ties with the Trump administration, could have played a role.


The Trump peace plan for Israel and Palestine, announced early this year, theoretically allows Israel to annex its settlements in the West Bank. The annexation was one of the election promises of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a key demand of his right-religious allies. The UAE and other Arab countries have strengthened their contacts with Israel in recent years despite Israel’s deepening occupation of Palestine and the absence of any peace talks. This suggests that the Arab countries are practically ready to live with the status quo of the occupation. But annexation would change the status quo and imperil the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine further. This would put Arab capitals under political and diplomatic pressure and they could be forced to take a harsher line towards Israel, which could strain their ties with the Trump administration as well. By reaching an agreement with Israel in return for Israel’s suspension of its annexation plan, the UAE and its Gulf Arab allies have managed to save the status quo on Palestine.

Even for Mr. Netanyahu, it’s a convenient arrangement. He’s leading a national unity government with his one-time rival Benny Gantz. The Prime Minister is under pressure over his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Mr. Gantz’s party wants the government to focus on the COVID-19 crisis for now rather than annexation. Now, Mr. Nentanyahu could argue before his right-religious allies that he has shelved annexation not because he doesn’t want it but as part of a ‘historic’ deal.

Iran factor

One of the major factors that brought Israel and its traditional rivals in the Gulf closer is their shared antipathy towards Iran. Both sides were wary of President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. Both sides see an ally in President Trump, who junked the Iran deal and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. But the term of the Trump presidency is coming to a close at a time when the U.S.’s policy focus is shifting away from West Asia to East Asia. There are two possibilities. One, even if Trump is re-elected, his administration would stay focused on China, leaving a vacuum in West Asia. A formal diplomatic agreement would allow Israel and the Gulf Sunni kingdoms to prepare themselves better for the U.S. retreat from the region. Two, if a Democratic President comes to the White House after the November election and restores the Iran deal, the current equations in West Asia would change. Israel and the Gulf kingdoms would have to live with what Obama called a “cold peace” with Iran. Even in such a scenario, a formal agreement would help them face a defiant Iran together.

Win for Trump

The timing of the agreement is also significant. It gives a major diplomatic victory for President Trump a few months before election. Mr. Trump’s Iran policy failed to clinch any result. His outreach to North Korea is still inconclusive. The U.S. is withdrawing from Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban is on surge. The U.S.’s ties with China have hit rock bottom. President Trump wanted a diplomatic victory, and his closest allies in West Asia, of course driven by regional factors, have given him one. If more Arab countries open ties with Israel in the coming months, President Trump could claim a major diplomatic breakthrough in the Arab-Israel relations, which had seen at least four major wars in the past.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 7:16:30 AM |

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