By David Suissa
For years now, I’ve been hearing friends and colleagues tell me, “I just got back from Abu Dhabi” or “I have a conference next week in Dubai” as if they were talking about going to New York or Los Angeles.
In the back of my mind, I would think: I know that business is business, but isn’t the United Arab Emirates (UAE) still Israel’s enemy?
All that changed last week. In return for Israel halting its plans to annex parts of the West Bank, the UAE will launch full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. This is a sea change.
From Israel’s perspective, the genius of the deal is that they gave up a big headache for a big prize. Let’s face it: The idea of annexation — legal or not, approved by the United States or not — was problematic from the start. For one thing, it would further alienate Israel from the rest of the world, including most American Jews and the Democratic Party, which may well win the White House in November.
And with Israel mired in a health and economic crisis, annexation was hardly a priority for Israelis. Even within the right-wing camp, there was opposition to annexation if it meant agreeing to a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, with America reeling from the devastation of the pandemic, and with presidential elections looming, the Trump administration has more than enough on its hands.
In other words, holding off on annexation only had the appearance of a valuable concession, but it was just enough of a cover for the UAE to justify a historic deal.
How historic? For starters, the joint statement from the United States, the UAE and Israel said delegations would meet in the coming weeks to sign deals on direct flights, security, telecommunications, energy, tourism and health care. The two countries also will partner on fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
This suggests that Israel’s new relationship is likely to turn out friendlier and more productive than the ones with Egypt and Jordan, the only other Arab countries with which it has diplomatic relations.
In the Gulf, compared to the rest of the Arab world, economic dynamism is a greater priority. This makes Israel, with its innovative spirit, an ideal partner. That is why in recent years we’ve seen more and more Gulf business conducted with Israel. A shared desire to confront the Iranian threat has only reinforced this mutual interest.
But this business was always unofficial. As often happens in the Middle East, if you’re cooperating with Israel, better not be too loud. Even with Egypt and Jordan, any business with Israel is usually discreet.
The highly public deal with the UAE has broken that ice.
Will it also break the ice with the Palestinians? Will it encourage their leaders to return in good faith to the negotiating table? I doubt it. Palestinian leaders have always had an interest in maintaining a status quo that undermined Israel while keeping their Swiss bank accounts nice and fat. As long as there is no peace agreement, Israel remained isolated and on the defensive.
It’s only in the last few years that Palestinian leaders have paid a price for their chronic rejectionism, but they still haven’t budged. It’s possible that this historic deal with the UAE will compel them to seek an agreement, but we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high.
For decades, the world community indulged the Palestinian myth that the “key to Mideast peace is the Palestinian conflict,” as if there are no other countries or conflicts in the area.
The Arab Spring of 2011, which exposed deep grievances throughout the region that had nothing to do with Israel, was a big crack in that myth. So was the rise of Islamic State and the civil war in Syria.
The deal with the UAE is yet another.
From this day forward, the new message to the Arab world is: Israel is not your enemy. Israel is part of the solution. Israel can be your partner. Don’t give the corrupt Palestinian leadership a veto on your growth and progress. Encourage them to make peace with Israel.And if you live in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you won’t have to hide that you’re going to a water conference next week in Tel Aviv.