The Emirati-Israeli Peace Treaty: Potential Regional and Strategic Implications

EPC | 16 Sep 2020

The formal signing of the UAE-Israel peace treaty at the White House on 15 September 2020 marked a "historic moment", according to the description of US President Donald Trump, whose administration sponsored reaching this treaty. Accordingly, full diplomatic relations would begin between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, and joint UAE and Israeli delegations would be involved in signing bilateral agreements in the fields of investment, tourism, communications, technology, civil aviation, health care and the environment.

This is the first US-sponsored Arab-Israeli peace treaty in nearly 25 years, that is, since Jordan signed the Wadi Araba treaty in 1994. It constitutes the culmination of a long path of rapprochement between the Arab and Israeli sides, which began since the conclusion of the Oslo Agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis in 1993 and the following steps for rapprochement between the Arab and Israeli sides, the most important features of which emerged in the reciprocal opening of commercial offices between Gulf countries such as Qatar and the Sultanate of Oman and Israel in the 1990s, and the reciprocal opening by the Kingdom of Morocco and Israel of liaison offices in Rabat and Tel Aviv in late 1994, as well as Mauritania’s tendency to fully normalize diplomatic relations with the Israeli side and the exchange of ambassadors between the two countries in late 1999. However, this rapprochement path was disrupted by the faltering Camp David talks between the Palestinian and Israeli sides in 2000 and the subsequent developments.

Expected repercussions of the treaty for the Palestinian cause and the peace process

The implications of the peace treaty between the UAE and Israel can be read according to the following facts:

  • While the treaty marks the beginning of bilateral relations between the UAE and Israel, the main UAE demand for concluding the treaty was the cessation of the annexation of Palestinian territories, which comes in support of the Arab and international positions based on the two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  • The UAE affirmed that its role is to revive peace opportunities and pave the way for them. However, it stressed that the Palestinian and Israeli parties are the ones concerned with reviving the peace process, meaning that the UAE has not presented itself as an alternative to the Palestinians. Rather, the UAE continues to adhere to its position in support of the just Palestinian demand for the establishment of an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
  • The UAE-Israeli peace treaty would remove the security and strategic burden that Jordan and Egypt could have suffered from if Israel had annexed more Palestinian territories.
  • The peace treaty between the UAE and Israel has managed to convince the US decision-maker of the need for the presence of Arab actors in the peace process, after the US administration had lately tended to marginalise the Arab role and proceed with unilateral agreements with Israel on an issue that is the focus of Arab attention, namely the Palestinian cause.

Post-treaty prospects: the emergence of a new collaborative and strategic environment in the region

According to the opinions of many, the peace treaty concluded between the UAE and Israel constitutes a "strategic shift" in the course of Arab-Israeli relations. The repercussions of this treaty would go beyond the course of bilateral relations between the two countries to influence the strategic reality in the Middle East as a whole. The most prominent expected strategic repercussions and implications of this treaty could be indicated as follows:

1. The rise of the "regional stability" trend

This treaty constitutes a victory for a trend that has existed in the Middle East for a long time. That trend advocates that expanding and deepening the extent of interactions between the parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict constitute the most important gateway to achieving stability in the region and reducing the chances of a clash between its parties. It is based on the arguments of many theories of international relations, mainly the Communication Theory of Karl Deutsch, and the arguments of both the functional and neo-functional theories. The essence of those theories is that the greater the volume of interactions between the political units in a given region, the greater the opportunities for building confidence between both the formal and informal political, economic and social elites, and the greater also the opportunities of forming common interests between those elites, especially in the field of political economy. This would lead in the long term to the formation of groups that advocate stability in the relations of the parties, and therefore stability in the region in general.

This trend also draws on historical experiences in some regions, especially Southeast Asia, which managed to neutralise the numerous conflicts and border disputes between its political units in favour of focusing on development and economic cooperation issues. In the ultimate analysis, this led to the creation of huge common interests among the countries of the region, which eventually contributed to limiting the opportunities for military conflict and building successful development experiences. The signing of the peace treaty between the UAE and Israel would constitute an important opportunity for this trend to once again advocate its arguments, especially given the economic weight of the UAE in the region.

2. Increasing the association between the Gulf region and the Middle East "centre"

This treaty is expected to contribute to deepening the association between the Arabian Gulf region and the heart of the Middle East. This would deepen the interaction between the various sub-components of the region. Historically, the Arabian Gulf region has enjoyed a degree of specificity and was relatively distant from the conflicts of the "centre region", predominantly the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many factors have contributed to perpetuating this specificity, including the nature of the political and economic systems in the Gulf region, and the variation in the priority order of the main threats. The Iranian threat has had a high priority for the Arabian Gulf region compared to the priority of other patterns of threat in the "centre region."

The peace treaty between the UAE and Israel would undoubtedly contribute to deepening the state of association between the Arabian Gulf region and the Arab/Middle Eastern "centre region", as a direct outcome of the increase in the volume of interaction and political and economic dealings between the two parties to the treaty. The chances of this transformation would become even greater if other countries in the Gulf region joined this direction, especially after the Kingdom of Bahrain joined the peace locomotive. While there are huge historical dealings between the UAE and a number of "centre" countries (some of which were direct parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict), the inauguration of a phase of intensive interaction between the UAE and Israel would undoubtedly deepen the volume of the Gulf's interaction and association with the centre region due to factors related to the peculiarity of Israel, as a principal party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in addition to the horizons that would be opened by this treaty for political and security cooperation between the two sides. This would attach more weight to the issue of regional security in general, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause in particular, on the security agenda of the UAE and the Arabian Gulf region, turning them into important parties in managing this conflict and facilitating the paths of its settlement in a fair way.

3. Implications for the regional strategic axes

This treaty is expected to have important repercussions regarding the strategic axes in the region. in this connection, reference could be made to two important outcomes. First, the treaty would contribute to strengthening what has historically been known as the "axis of moderation" in the region which – in addition to the UAE – brings together Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as opposed to another radical axis that mainly brings together Qatar and a number of non-Arab countries as well as some organisations and "sub-state" actors. The separation between those two axes took place over long years based on the positions of their respective parties on a number of important issues in the region, including the position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, given that a disagreement persists between the two sides over the mechanisms of managing that conflict. While the axis of moderation tended to give greater consideration to mechanisms of negotiation and direct dialogue, the opposite axis tended to rely on radical mechanisms, including violent, "sub-state" organisations.

In this sense, it could be asserted that the UAE’s accession to the countries that maintain "normal" relations with Israel would contribute to strengthening the "axis of moderation" in general, and the position of the countries of this axis regarding the way to manage the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, in the face of the radical axis, especially with the potential increase in the role of the UAE in the field of managing the Arab-Israeli conflict after the signing of the peace treaty with Israel.

Second, the treaty is expected to increase the opportunities for UAE-Israeli cooperation and coordination with regard to the Iranian threat, both in terms of the specificity of this threat for countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in general, and for the UAE in particular, especially in light of Iran's occupation of islands belonging to UAE sovereignty, and the priority given by Israel to the Iranian threat in recent years. The Gulf-Israeli coordination with regard to the Iranian threat would also contribute to deepening the security interdependence between the Gulf region and the "centre" region, given the specificity of this "threat" for both sides, which would increase the scope of ​​the Gulf-Israeli security consensus.

4. Launching new paths for regional economic and technical cooperation

The peace treaty between the UAE and Israel could establish strong relations between the two sides in qualitative areas such as the economy, trade, medicine, health, and technology in general, and information and communications technology (ICT) in particular, as well as cooperation in the field of seaports. This would be facilitated by a number of factors, mainly:

  • The UAE is not a direct party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite its strong and unconditional support for Palestinian rights. The absence of common borders between the two sides reduces the degree of sensitivity in developing their relations in those areas.
  • The nature of the UAE as a "cosmopolitan" country (a country that is founded on respect for cultural and religious diversity and pluralism, and the capability to accommodate this diversity and benefit from it). This unique "cosmopolitan" nature in the region provides a basis for openness on the one hand, and a decline in the opportunities of resistance to sectoral cooperation between the UAE and Israel, on the other hand.
  • The absence of extremist and violent religious organisations in the UAE, which is an important additional factor that contributes to facilitating sectoral cooperation between the UAE and Israel. The presence of those organisations in many other Arab countries has contributed to blocking this cooperation over the past decades, due to the success of those organisations in the religionisation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
  • The increase in the number of non-traditional threats, which creates wide opportunities for cooperation between the two sides. The Covid-19 pandemic constitutes an important model in this field, in addition to other challenges such as climate change. This is also facilitated by the important Israeli experience in a number of those areas.

In addition to the opportunities of bilateral cooperation, there are important opportunities for tripartite or collective cooperation between the UAE, Israel and other parties from outside the Arab world, such as China, India, and others. The opportunities of this cooperation increase against the background of the UAE's strong relations with those countries in the economic and technical fields, especially the field of energy and renewable energy. In this connection, bilateral cooperation could be extended to cover a wide list of fields, through the mechanism of "joint projects", both at the level of investments and research activities.

Opportunities to advance UAE and Arab interests with the US

While the UAE-Israel peace treaty would achieve the mutual interests of its two direct parties as well as of the current US administration, the Palestinian cause, the security and stability of the Middle East, and the possibility of opening new horizons for regional cooperation on various tracks, it would also provide the UAE and the Arab states that support the peace track with an opportunity to advance their interests within the US, the most important superpower in today's world, as follows:

1. Accelerating the UAE's acquisition of advanced US weapons. The process of buying US weapons usually requires between six and eight years. In addition, it requires the approval of the US Congress, given that the next US administration could backtrack on it in the event that Trump loses the presidential elections that will be held on 3 November 2020. Despite the US commitment to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military superiority in the Middle East to preserve its security, that commitment is waived if the country that will acquire the US weapons has a peace agreement with Tel Aviv. After Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel, they were able to acquire advanced US weapons in light of the non-opposition by US lawmakers from the Republican and Democratic parties in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to the US arms deals with the two countries.

2. Increasing partisan support for the consolidation of US-UAE relations. The UAE-Israeli agreement would increase the strength of the alliance between the US and the UAE, which would limit the chances of introducing a change to it with the change of US administrations. US support from both the Democratic and Republican parties would increase for strengthening and consolidating relations between the two allies. In addition, the UAE would be distinguished from Washington’s other regional allies who have become the targets of criticism by US lawmakers.

3. The UAE and the Arab powers would play an influential role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. By strengthening communication with Israel at several levels, the peace treaty would enable the Arab powers to increase their influence within the US to help reduce the practices of the Israeli occupation, and to directly engage in the peace process instead of settling for a marginal role in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

4. Taking into account the interests and national security considerations in the event that the Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins in the 2020 presidential elections, especially in view of the expectations that former officials in the Barack Obama administration and those who negotiated with Iran on the previous nuclear deal would assume high-ranking positions in the new US administration, and mounting indications that the US would return to the previous nuclear agreement which is jointly considered by Israel and the Gulf and Arab states as weak and ineffective. The UAE-Israeli agreement would drive the new US administration to attaching more importance to the interests of the US allies in the region.

Conclusion

  • The peace treaty concluded between the UAE and Israel constitutes a strategic shift in the course of Arab-Israeli relations. The repercussions of this treaty are likely to go beyond the bilateral track of relations between the two countries so that it would affect the strategic reality in the Arab/Middle East region as a whole. The treaty is expected to help deepen the state of association between the Arabian Gulf region and the Arab/Middle Eastern "centre" region, given the increase in the volume of political and economic interaction and dealings between the two parties to the treaty. It may also have important repercussions with regard to the strategic axes in the region, considering that it would contribute to strengthening the "axis of moderation" in the region which brings together – in addition to the UAE – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, in the face of another radical axis that brings together Qatar, Turkey and Iran, along with some organisations and sub-state actors. The treaty would also support the position of the countries of the axis of moderation on the way to manage the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular, in the face of the radical axis, especially with the potential increase in the role of the UAE in the field of managing the Arab-Israeli conflict after the signing the peace treaty with Israel.
  • While the UAE-Israel peace treaty would achieve the mutual interests of its two direct parties as well as of the current US administration, it would provide the UAE and the Arab states that support the peace track with an opportunity to advance their interests within the US, through accelerating the acquisition by the UAE of advanced US weapons such as the advanced F-35 fighters, and increase the support by US partisan circles for strengthening the US-UAE relations. It would also allow Arab powers to increase their influence in the US in a way that would allow them to directly engage in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process instead of settling for a marginal role therein, in addition to the possibility of taking into account national interests and national security considerations in the event that Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the November 2020 elections.

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