Amid the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s reelection prospects, he has been looking for a chance to dominate the news cycle and portray himself as a winner, a deal-maker, and a leader who can deliver on his promises.
The UAE’s decision to normalize its diplomatic ties with Israel may eventually prove a masterstroke that could have a lasting impact on the course of the US elections. The August 13 announcement, primarily designed to rekindle Trump’s presidential campaign, also seeks to enable the UAE to sway American voters and lure them into choosing the candidate that will best serve its regional agenda.
This move is in line with the UAE’s aggressive, behind-the-scenes push to influence the US foreign policy decision-making process over the past decade and shape it in a way that aligns with Abu Dhabi’s strategic interests.
A self-serving gift to boost Trump’s electoral campaign
As long as Trump is in power, the UAE’s crown prince believes that he still has room to maneuver and a shot at achieving at least some of his foreign policy goals.
It is an open secret that, for the past few years, the UAE has engaged in an unprecedented influence campaign to shape US foreign policy in a way that aligns with its interests, curry favor with influential members of the US administration and members of the Congress, as well as leading think tanks and mainstream media. As such, Abu Dhabi fears the return of the Democrats to the White House could upend its strategy, shattering its dreams of regional hegemony in the Middle East.
In such a scenario, the UAE would no longer have a blank check to engage in a covert campaign to influence the different branches of governments to align with their regional agenda. The UAE might also face a flurry of investigations because of their involvement in many under-the-table schemes to curry favor with the Trump administration by illegally donating money to Trump’s inaugural fund and enlisting a businessman to spy on his administration’s Middle East policy.
The timing with which President Trump announced the normalization of Israeli-UAE ties was well calculated by both Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
Contrary to what many claim, I do not believe the announcement was the result of several months of back-channel negotiations between the two countries.
If anything, the normalization of relations between the two countries has been in order for a while. A number of recent developments had made it increasingly clear that Israel and the UAE would at some point go public with their “normalization” news. It was a matter of when, not if.
The presence of the UAE ambassador in the White House when President Trump unveiled the “deal of the century” in January was perhaps the clearest indication that the UAE had already made up its mind about normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel.
Even more pertinent was the fact that the Emiratis had no qualms about displaying their eagerness to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel without the latter making any concessions regarding the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. In all likelihood, Bahrain and Oman, whose ambassadors were also present during the “deal of the century” reveal, will follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps.
Trump’s potential gains
The timing of the UAE-Israel “peace deal” announcement was purposefully chosen to rekindle the embattled electoral campaign of President Trump.
Since the start of the year, Trump has made a number of calamitous missteps that are compromising his reelection chances.
His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the death of more than 170,000 people, while more than five million have contracted the virus in the US. Many Americans believe thousands of lives could have been saved had the president handled the pandemic properly.
Because of Trump’s poor management of the pandemic, his politicization of the use of masks, and his refusal to increase testing capacity throughout the country, unemployment has reached the highest level in the US since the Great Depression.
To cap it all, Trump showed no willingness to unite the country following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of three police officers last May and the ensuing nationwide protests that rocked the country throughout June.
Instead, he sought to further polarize the country, showing no empathy towards the grievances of Black Americans and threatening to deploy the military to crack down on protesters.
As a result, Trump’s presidential campaign has floundered in recent months.
Joe Biden’s momentum
The president is on the defensive as he painfully watches Joe Biden take a strong lead in the polls. Though Trump has succeeded in reducing his opponent’s lead among registered voters, he is still significantly trailing behind him.
According to the latest poll, Biden is leading Trump nationwide, with 49% of voters saying they will vote for Biden as opposed to 42% voicing their support for Trump. In addition, 53% of registered voters view Biden favorably, compared to 43% for Trump.
The numbers have remained unchanged since July. What is even more worrisome for the Trump campaign is that Biden is leading in five of the six battleground states that Trump clinched in the 2016 elections.
A clear indicator that Trump is nervous and fears losing his reelection is his decision in May to appoint Louis DeJoy, a Republican mega-donor and one of his allies, to run the US Postal Service. Trump has long opposed and decried vote-by-mail, as he knows that it would increase the Democrats’ chance to return to the White House.
DeJoy’s first decision has been to slash the US Postal Service’s budget and reduce overtime for postal workers. But his ultimate goal is to prevent vote-by-mail at a time when most states have decided to carry out the election by mail as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Philadelphia, and Arizona — key battlegrounds where Trump is trailing behind Biden — are the hardest hit by the recent cuts.
To make things even worse for Trump, Biden chose Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first Black and Asian American woman bestowed with this honor. The move, which made headlines worldwide, has energized Biden’s campaign.
Trump’s golden egg
Amid the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s reelection prospects, the president has been on the lookout for anything that would allow him to dominate the news cycle and portray him as a winner, a deal-maker, and a leader who can deliver on his promises.
As America’s COVID-19 debacle worsened and the president paddled and fumbled in a quagmire of his own making, Trump 2020 turned to a last-minute foreign policy miracle to salvage the president’s campaign. This is where the announcement of the UAE-Israel deal comes from. The deal is Trump’s insurance policy, his coup de grace to critics and Democrats who have unceasingly called out his disastrous handling of the pandemic.
Trump, brazenly parading his deal-making credentials, has succeeded in drowning out the media coverage of Kamala Harris and what her appointment means for the country. This has deprived the Biden campaign, even monetarily, from building on the Harris momentum to appeal to more undecided voters.
The “peace deal” depicts Trump as the winner and deal-maker that he has long claimed to be. The media bubble that transpired since the announcement will portray Trump as the president who succeeded where his predecessors failed, helping Israel relieve itself from the pariah state status that has been ascribed to it since its creation because of Arab states’ refusal to engage in normalization.
Most importantly, the “peace deal” is welcome news that will not only appeal to Trump’s pro-Israel mega-donors, but also energize his 70-million strong Evangelical base, which constituted one of the backbones of his 2016 victory.
Recent studies show, however, that Trump has lost some support among the Evangelical base because of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, many Evangelicals do not view Biden as unfavorably as they viewed former President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
According to a recent study, Evangelicals’ support for Trump has slipped from 78% in April to 72% in June. Another indicator of Trump’s shrinking support among Evangelical voters, 78% supported him three months before the 2016 elections against 69% who do now.
By seeking to help boost Trump’s reelection prospects, the UAE hopes to relieve itself of some of the pressure it has been subjected to recently because of the two countries’ silent tension over a number of regional issues.
The US has expressed displeasure with the UAE after a number of Emirati companies awarded 5G contracts to China’s Huawei. Also, with China having emerged as the most serious threat to US supremacy, the increased economic and military cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Beijing did not sit well with Washington.
As a sign of the US’s uneasiness with this growing relationship, the US embassy declined last spring an Emirati offer to provide COVID-19 tests to the embassy, because of the involvement of Chinese companies.
In addition, the UAE has faced increased US pressure because of its attempt to rehabilitate the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, as well as its destabilizing role in Libya.
In June, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, said the UAE risks US sanctions if it forges ahead with plans to support Bashar Al Assad and operate inside Syria.
To cap it all, the US has, for the first time, called out the UAE for its involvement in Libya and support for renegade General Khalifa Haftar.
In July, a high-ranking US official criticized the European Union’s naval mission in Libya for focusing exclusively on Turkey’s violations of the arms embargo while failing to call out the UAE, Russia, and Egypt for their violations. That was the first time a US official has spoken in such terms about the UAE’s involvement in Libya.
A win-win for the UAE
Though the timing of the deal’s announcement suggests the UAE seeks to boost Trump’s chances of re-election, the UAE also aims to ingratiate itself with an upcoming Democratic administration in the event Joe Biden defeats Trump in November.
The UAE is aware that Democrats in Congress oppose Trump’s “deal of the century.” Biden dismissed it as a publicity stunt that “could spark unilateral moves to annex territory and set back peace even more.”
By signing the normalization deal with Israel, the UAE positions itself as the main regional player that convinced Netanyahu to delay annexation plans, thus allowing an upcoming Biden administration to have, at least in theory, room to steer the wheel of the political process back to its course.
The UAE’s strategy to position itself with a Democrat’s administration has already succeeded. Biden has welcomed the signing of the deal and praised the UAE’s decision to normalize ties with Israel as a “welcome, brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship.”
It is unclear whether the announcement of the UAE-Israel “peace deal” will push Trump to realign the US position on Libya and Syria with the UAE, and whether it will prove decisive in propping up Trump’s electoral campaign.
What remains clear, however, is that the deal’s timing seeks to serve Trump’s electoral goals and the UAE’s political agenda rather than to lay the foundation for a genuine path towards peace and prosperity in the region.
As was the case in the past, Israel emerges as the main beneficiary without making the slightest concession to the Palestinians or putting an end to its settlement policy in the occupied Palestinian territories.