The peace agreement reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has formalised the thaw in Arab-Israeli relations that has been under way for a few years. As part of the deal announced by U.S. President Trump on Thursday, the UAE would recognise the state of Israel and establish formal diplomatic relations, while Israel would halt its controversial plan to annex swathes of the Palestinian West Bank. It is a landmark agreement given that the UAE is only the third Arab country and the first in the Gulf recognising Israel. It could pave the way for the region’s Sunni Arab kingdoms and the Jewish-majority Israel enhancing regional cooperation against their common foe, Shia Iran . Israel has said it would focus on “expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world”, while the U.S. has expressed hope that more Arab countries would follow the UAE’s lead — Arab-Israeli relations have largely been conflict-ridden ever since the state of Israel was declared in 1948. For Mr. Trump who played a critical role, it is a rare diplomatic victory just months before he seeks re-election. His other foreign policy bets — Iran, North Korea or Afghanistan — were either disastrous or inconclusive. But in the case of Israel and the UAE, both allies of the U.S., quiet diplomacy worked. The U.S. had arranged several meetings between Israeli and Emirati officials last year, which probably laid the foundations for the agreement.
While the deal has the potential to change Arab-Israeli relations for good, it also shows how the Arab countries are gradually decoupling themselves from the Palestine question. The UAE offered full diplomatic recognition in return for Israel’s suspension of a planned annexation, not for any relaxation of the actual occupation. As Prime Minister Netanyahu said, Israel made peace with an Arab country without “our returning to the 1967 borders”. The Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi Arabia initiative endorsed by the Arab League, offered recognition to Israel in exchange for its full withdrawal from the occupied territories. Ironically, the UAE’s peace agreement comes close on the heels of the Trump administration’s back-to-back decisions to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights. Clearly, the UAE has moved away from the Arab initiative. The question now is whether the Emiratis would be able to press the Jewish state to relax its inhuman and illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and start talks between the occupier and the occupied. If it cannot, the UAE-Israel deal would be of little significance for the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership, on its part, should understand the emerging reality in West Asia — the Arab-Israel conflict is coming to a close, but the Palestine-Israel conflict is to continue without any respite.