The “peace deal” is a culmination of years of behind-the-scenes cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, effectively dashing hopes of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Washington, D.C. – US President Donald Trump’s announcement on August 13 about the agreement between the UAE and Israel to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations has made headlines worldwide. The “peace deal” will most likely be one of the most celebrated achievements in some diplomatic circles.
Most international media outlets and American pundits have depicted the “peace deal” as a diplomatic breakthrough that might usher in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — who has lauded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” and described him as the “Arab Spring, Saudi Style” — called the deal a “geopolitical earthquake” and a “huge breakthrough.”
In a typically laudatory op-ed, he highlighted President Trump and Jared Kushner’s genius in brokering the deal behind the scenes and getting the Israelis to give up on their annexation plans, as they are a “deal-breaker” for many Gulf Arab states.
The Washington Post’s pro-UAE and Saudi Arabia columnist David Ignatius described the deal as “welcome news for Israel, the Arabs and the United States.” He called it a “huge achievement” and an “August surprise” in Trump’s presidential campaign.
A stillborn deal
By reading Freidman’s and Ignatius’ op-eds, one could conclude that Trump and Kushner deserve a Nobel Prize for working towards achieving peace in the region, allowing the Palestinians to exercise their inalienable rights to statehood. The op-eds appear to suggest that the UAE-Israel “peace deal” has prevented Trump’s Middle East peace efforts from collapsing.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” is a stillborn deal, one not meant to deliver an independent state to the Palestinians in accordance with international legitimacy, but rather appease the ambitions and demands of Trump’s big donors, such Sheldon Adelson, as well as his 70-million strong Evangelical base.
Trump’s deal just gave full political endorsement to a reality that has taken root on the ground for decades. He has effectively put an end to the myth of the two-state solution, cemented Israel’s status as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital, and dashed any hopes that the Palestinian people will establish an independent state.
Overlooking the facts
A deal that seeks to promote peace is signed between equals who make concessions to one another in order to avoid future military confrontations. Trump’s “deal of the century” does not seek to promote peace.
A deal that was concocted by one party and imposed on the other cannot promote peace. Rather, it is a recipe for more instability and strife in the region, no matter how hard its promoters attempt to laud its merits.
In addition, most observers and pundits mislead people by pushing the narrative that Israel’s decision to suspend its annexation plan of the West Bank is a diplomatic feat that was achieved thanks to the UAE’s dexterous diplomacy.
By doing so, they overlook a fundamental fact: Whether Israel has decided to suspend its annexation plans or not, the occupation of the West Bank is illegal and violates international law. The crux of the matter is that Israel has worked tirelessly to dash Palestinians’ hopes of establishing an independent state.
Israel also has a track record of failing to honor its commitments—the annexation of the West Bank is still a tangible fact on the ground.
On the other hand, calling the UAE-Israel agreement a “peace deal” is a misnomer. A peace deal is usually signed between two states or a group of states who have engaged in a war. This is not the case with the UAE and Israel.
The Egyptian and Jordanian agreements with Israel have been accurately described as peace deals, as Israel has engaged in military confrontations with both countries. In the unlikely scenario that Israel gives up its occupation of the Golan Heights and signs a deal with Syria, this could be described as a peace deal.
The UAE, however, has never engaged in military confrontation with Israel. Therefore, its deal with Israel should not be called a peace deal.
It is rather the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes military, security, intelligence, and economic cooperation between the two countries. It has been an open secret that the UAE has enjoyed strong informal ties with Israel over the past decade.
Behind-the-scenes cooperation between the UAE and Israel
The warming of Emirati-Israeli ties coincided with the inauguration of former US President Barack Obama and appointment of current UAE Ambassador to the US Youssef Otaiba in 2009.
Otaiba’s appointment sought to promote a better understanding of the UAE’s domestic and foreign policies and avoid a repeat of the Dubai Ports World debacle, when US Congress thwarted the state-owned Emirati company from taking control of six major American ports.
Ever since Otaiba’s appointment, the two countries have worked towards the same goal: To curb Iran’s agenda in the region and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. One of Youssef Otaiba’s first assignments was to convince the newly established Obama administration to pressure Iran, crack down on its proxies, and prevent it from acquiring nuclear technology.
Israel and the UAE’s alignment on Iran’s nuclear program became official during a secret meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in a New York hotel in September 2012.
The behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israel and the UAE grew stronger because of the emergence of a second foe: The Muslim Brotherhood. The toppling of the presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen; the war in Syria; and the ensuing election of the first Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt rung the alarm bells in both Israel and the UAE.
Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the UAE, has long viewed the Muslim Brotherhood and the establishment of democracy in the Arab world as existential threats to the status quo in the region, as well as to the continuity of his rule.
Similarly, the establishment of democracy would constitute an existential threat to Israel. Voices of unrest on Arab streets oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. This makes Israel the perfect ally of any Arab partner hoping to curb the Arab Spring’s momentum and perpetuate autocratic rule and instability.
The UAE’s long-standing lobbying campaign in the US
To achieve its geopolitical goals, the UAE has, over the past decade, engaged in a large-scale, multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign.
The UAE has worked to convince American officials and lawmakers of the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology, curb its destabilizing activities in the region, reconsider US ties with Qatar, and, most importantly, shape US foreign policy in a way that aligns with the UAE’s regional agenda.
In parallel to its outreach to members of the Obama administration and members of Congress, the UAE launched a colossal effort to propagate its narrative through think tanks and mainstream and fringe media.
In addition to lambasting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and warning against its destabilizing activities in the region, the main message of that campaign has been that Qatar’s foreign policy and media empire undermine strategic US interests and those of its allies.
Qatar has been depicted as an unsavory ally and portrayed as a state sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, the UAE earned the mantle of the US’s most reliable economic, security, and military partner, as well as the most modern and forward-looking country in the Gulf region.
Exemplifying the UAE and Israel’s coordinated efforts to demonize their foes, think tanks known for their unwavering support for Israel and disdain of Iran, such the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Middle East Media Research Institute, have played a leading role in disseminating an anti-Qatar narrative.
These think tanks accuse Qatar of kowtowing to Iran; supporting terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas; and of playing a double game with the US.
The UAE has also enlisted the services of former US officials who tailored lobbying firms for the purpose of advancing Emiratis’ interest in Washington, as well as neoconservative and pro-Israel journalists and pundits.
Trump’s starring role in the UAE’s regional agenda
The UAE’s longstanding efforts to further ostracize Iran and prevent it from acquiring nuclear technology, however, fell through during the two terms of the Obama administration. Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement was the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in July 2015. In addition, despite the UAE’s lavish lobbying spending, including as the highest lobbying spender in the US in 2015, the UAE’s efforts to undermine Qatar have fallen short.
When Trump came into office in January 2017, UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed saw it as a golden opportunity to continue his unfinished business against Qatar and Iran.
To achieve his agenda in the region, he needed to team up with Saudi Arabia. To get the Saudis on board, he needed to get rid of former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and replace him with the ambitious and more malleable Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Bin Zayed convinced the Trump administration that MBS was the right person to help him deliver on his electoral pledge to his big donors and his Evangelical base. He could help Trump to entrench Israel’s grip on Palestinian territories, as well as in his strategy to curb Iran and choke off its economy.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia — his first overseas destination as president — and the holding of the Arab-Islam-US summit in Riyadh in May 2017 were harbingers of a closer-than-ever cooperation between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the US. That visit also showed the Trump administration was ready to give free hand to the UAE-Saudi alliance in the region in exchange for their support for Trump’s plans for Iran and Israel.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed their blockade on Qatar in June 2017, and Trump posted tweets endorsing their claims against Qatar. It appeared that the winds of change were blowing in favor of the Quartet, who were intent on wreaking havoc on their regional foe by invading it and affecting regime change.
However, over three years after they imposed the blockade on Qatar, the Saudi-Emirati alliance has failed to achieve its goals. Qatar has shown resilience, aborting the unprecedented lobbying and media campaign its neighbors have waged against it, and demonstrated its capacity to adjust to a new geopolitical reality and emerge even stronger than before the blockade.
Despite the over $84 million the UAE spent between 2015 and 2019 to tarnish Qatar’s reputation in the US and ostracize it, it has failed to achieve any of its goals. Qatar has even succeeded in further strengthening its bilateral ties with the US at the economic and security levels with the inauguration of the Qatar-US dialogue in January 2018.
The UAE’s destabilizing efforts have also failed in Yemen and Libya. In Yemen, the UAE was forced to withdraw from the Saudi-led alliance against the Houthis and focus its efforts in southern Yemen, where it supports the Southern Transitional Council. But the UAE did not back down and reconsider their failed foreign policy adventure and their reputational damage.
Because of UAE leaders’ hubris, lack of understanding of history and of present regional dynamics, and because of their reliance on lobbyists, experts, and scholars that are close to Israel and American conservative circles, Emirati leaders are doubling down on their policies.
The UAE’s leaders show no sign of relenting until they achieve their goal of becoming the kingmakers of the region.
No matter how the UAE and its pundits attempt to depict the deal, and no matter how much money the UAE is willing to spend to shape public opinion in its favor and make the world believe its agreement with Israel will increase the prospects for peace in the region, facts speak otherwise.
Israel has been occupying Palestinian land against international law. For years it has strived to establish some degree of diplomacy with Arab countries to break the ostracism it has faced for decades. The UAE has just given Israel that gift.