GP Insights # 369, 13 June 2020
On 10 June, following the Executive Committee of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) emergency meeting, UAE's Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash condemned the expected Israeli move to annex parts of West Bank and reiterated absolute Emirati support for Palestinian rights.
On 12 June, UAE's ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba made a rare public appeal to the Israeli public, through an op-ed article titled "It's Either Annexation or Normalization" published in a leading Israeli Hebrew newspaper Yediot Ahronot. Otaiba offered better commercial, military and security ties between the two nations provided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave up unilateral plans to annex West Bank. The ambassador said annexation would upend normalizing ties between the Arab nations and Israel. The article received mixed reactions from Israel. To The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper, al-Otaiba said that annexation would undermine all bilateral exchanges, cooperation and progress.
What is the background?
First, ameliorating UAE-Israeli ties for the Arab world. Ambassador Otaiba's article was a rejoinder to claims by Netanyahu and his right-wing allies that Arab states would pick Israel over Palestinians as they had much to gain in terms of technology, security and commerce from Israel. Otaiba's move is a first for a Gulf diplomat. It positions the impending formal establishment of Israel-UAE ties in a more appealing manner to the larger Arab population. The move by presenting the establishment of ties and cooperation with Israel as the lesser evil becomes a crowd pleaser amongst Arab states and UAE's domestic population. Also, as Israeli analyst Shimrit Meir said, it is an effective attempt to influence Israeli public opinion regarding annexation.
Second, endorsement of Trump-Jared "Middle east plan" by the Gulf States. The proposed US recognition of Israeli settlements on West Bank and a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a highly securitized Israel with borders is to facilitate the latter's security needs. However, the head of Palestinian Authority Mahmood Abbas rejected the plan calling it the "slap of the century".
Last, annexation plans face widespread opposition. Along with Arab states and Israeli left, Israeli settler leaders who were previously its strongest advocates now oppose it fearing it would create a Palestinian state and end prospective of further Israeli expansion.
What does it mean?
First, UAE and Saudi Arabia are attempting to strengthen ties with the US and Israel – a move to counter Iran's influence in the region. A policy of countering Iran is gaining momentum, drifting these states away from their traditional regional policy of devout and staunch support for the Palestinian cause. Recent years have witnessed several indicators of normalizing of UAE-Israel relations – allowing Israel to establish a diplomatic presence in Abu Dhabi under the patronage of the International Renewable Energy Agency; and opening of a kosher catering service in Dubai for its Jewish community. In March 2019, UAE FM Gargash called the Arab move to not have formal diplomatic ties with Israel a "very wrong decision" and said a strategic shift was required for peace.
Second, although Arab states had blunted their criticism towards Israel, UAE along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are saying that annexation is unacceptable. The pre-emptive Arab condemnations contrast the dull statements issued by these states during the US' embassy move to Jerusalem and US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights and Syrian territories captured in 1967.