It is safe to say that the new peace agreement between the UAE and Israel, officially signed at the White House on September 15, 2020, represents an important strategic shift, and a fundamental turning point for the long-running conflict between Arabs and Israel.
As is customary in the Middle East, this bold step has been met with deeply divided opinions and attitudes. It is not surprising that it has been blatantly rejected by the Palestinian side. Conversely, it could be argued that a peace agreement of this magnitude is expected to have massive implications not only for the relations of the two states involved but also for the entire Middle East region and the international arena.
It is important to note that the UAE-Israeli peace agreement was never presented as the salvation for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but there is no denying that it is indeed a “historic breakthrough" as the first peace agreement between an Arab state and Israel in over a quarter of a century. It can also be described as one of the clearest practical manifestations reflecting the new ideological approach being adopted by UAE’s leadership to address the region’s conflicts and challenges.
With regards to this recent peace agreement and its strategic implications, the last decade of the twenty-first century (2010 to 2020) has witnessed a real and fundamental transformation in the Middle East region, so that it could be said that the regional order that we have known since the end of the Second World War has ended. There have been major international and regional power shifts. The states taking the lead on the Arab world have also changed along with the prevailing visions, interests, priorities, and threats. During this last decade, many geo-strategic projects and non-Arab competing programs have surfaced in the region. Gulf States have had to rise to the challenge and adapt to these geo-strategic changes by taking rational, realistic, and practical decisions to maintain the stability of the region and ensure the survival of its nations and people. This was no easy feat, mistakes were made, agendas were at times misguided, political polarization mounted, and a lot of resources were drained. Undoubtedly, the situation was not ideal.
In the light of this geopolitical context, the peace agreement between the UAE and Israel, which was described by many analysts and experts as a major strategic move, will surely have broad implications beyond UAE-Israeli relations, Gulf-Israeli relations, or even Arab-Israeli relations. These implications may extend to neighboring regions such as South Asia and the Mediterranean Basin.
The strategic implications of the agreement is nothing short of a game-changer, it will bring about new developments in the region starting with boosting the region’s stability, ensuring prosperity, as well as introducing vital regional projects that serve the interests of the people in fields such as economy, technology, education, medicine, water, energy and agriculture.
If you are among those wondering how this new agreement serves the Palestinian cause, I advise you to consider the first fruit being reaped as a result of this step, which is the cease of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex one-third of the West Bank territories and parts of the Jordan Valley. Contrary to what some analysts believe, this agreement can provide further leverage strengthening the position of the Palestinian cause and reintegrating it with the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is known that the Palestinian cause has long been affected by US-Israeli and US-Arab relations. However, in light of this new peace agreement, more political weight will be given to the UAE, allowing it to intervene more effectively in all the developments concerning the Palestinian cause in a manner that can directly serve the best interest of the Palestinian people.
More importantly, the true benefit of this unprecedented breakthrough is the impact it will have on Israeli public opinion. Fostering an atmosphere of peace and cooperation within the Middle East region, as well as encouraging the shift towards moderation and stability, would show Israel that it has more to gain from taking a peaceful approach in its dealings with Arabs and Palestinians. It will therefore be in Israel's interest to make further concessions on many issues in favor of the Palestinians. This, in turn, would become a new leverage for the Palestinian cause and could then serve as a driving force for revisiting the conflict and promoting a culture of tolerance and justice in the region.
The backlash from Iran and Turkey in light of the UAE-Israel peace agreement was driven by their understanding that this agreement will bring forth further stability and moderation in the region, which will stand in the way of Iran’s policies that aim to spread chaos in the Arab world, as well as Turkey's expansionist policies in Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. It is unsurprising for a state such as Iran, which thrives on instigating revolutions and unrest to be concerned after this agreement. Many Emirati officials have asserted that this agreement is not meant to provoke any hostility towards Iran, but rather promote stability, development, and security. Any reasonable mind would see this as an opportunity, allowing the UAE to serve as a mediator facilitating a less hostile dialogue between Iran and Israel. Iran has a unique chance to capitalize on this new development, especially with the possibility of a new US administration, or even if Trump remains in office, since he asserted his willingness to reach an agreement with Iran within a month of winning the presidential elections. If Iran chooses to seize this opportunity, many regional relations will be transformed, ushering in an era of stability in the region.
As for Turkey, the signing of this peace agreement poses an unexpected strategic shift. Prior to the Justice and Development Party’ accession to power in 2002, Israeli-Turkish relations stood on firm grounds. However, now due to its misleading, provocative, and aggressive policies towards many countries of the region and the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean countries, Turkey’s regional position has weakened significantly. This peace agreement can help Turkey realize that the strategic benefits of dialogue and tolerance far outweigh the immediate gains of coercive, menacing, and hostile policies. If Turkey chooses to learn from this experience, it will positively impact Euro-Turkish relations. The Emirati-Israeli agreement has an unrivaled chance make a real difference in the region by contributing to easing conflicts and reducing tension.
The Emirati decision to sign a peace agreement with Israel is seen by many as a smart strategic move that will undoubtedly serve both parties involved as well as the entire region. The UAE may have been the first country to take this game-changing step; however, the benefits that will surely be gained as a result of its ties with Israel will prompt more Arab countries to follow its lead. As Israel continues to build and expand its ties at the regional level, peace agreements will start serving their intended strategic purpose, which is to boost security and stability as well as improve the quality of life for the people in the region. Such developments will help the Middle East catch up with other regions where countries have been able to develop through dialogue and tolerance that reflected positively on their stability and growth.
* Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, President of the Emirates Policy Center.
** This article was originally published in and translated from Asharq al-Awsat.
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