A skeptical note on Israel’s deal with the UAE

In a deal brokered by the Trump administration, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to normalize relations. In exchange for normalized relations, Israel agreed to suspend its West Bank annexation plans.

The two sentences above point to an obvious problem with the deal. Normalized relations between two states are normal, and usually benefit both states. Why should one — and only one — of the two states have to make concessions in its domestic policy to achieve normalized relations with the other?

Another reason to be skeptical about the deal is that J Street, an anti-Israel outfit, applauds it. On the other hand, Palestinian organizations have blasted the deal, so maybe it has merit, after all.

But these considerations don’t go to the heart of the matter. The key issue for those who support Israel is whether, on balance, the deal benefits Israel. To answer that question, we must consider what Israel gained and what it lost.

I question whether Israel gained much, if anything, by “normalizing” relations with the UAE. The two nations have been working together on a host of issues for years, and with good reason. As this New Yorker article shows, the UAE shares Israel’s fear of Iran and greatly respects Israel’s defense technology. The simple reality is that the UAE’s leaders, like the leaders of much of the Sunni Muslim Arab world, perceive Israel as an ally, not an enemy.

Might this perception change? Only if the current leaders are toppled. But in that event, “recognition” and “normalization” won’t mean anything. They will be nullified.

As for arguments that this deal facilitates the “peace process,” don’t make me laugh. Peace would be with the Palestinians, not the UAE. But the Palestinians remain uninterested in any peace deal Israel would be sane to accept.

What did Israel lose? If you oppose annexation, it lost nothing. Indeed, it gained by stepping back from a misguided policy. This, I’m sure, is how some in the Trump administration — Jared Kushner in particular — see it.

But I don’t oppose annexation of parts of the West Bank. In fact, I favor annexation of established settlements, some of which are basically suburbs of Jerusalem. They should be fully integrated into Israel. For obvious reasons, I also favor annexation of territory on the West Bank that Israel considers vital to its defense if, one day, there is a Palestinian state.

It’s true that Netanyahu didn’t promise to forgo annexation indefinitely. To protect his standing with his coalition, he left open the possibility of annexation at a future date.

As a practical matter, however, annexation is probably off the table now. Under Israel’s power sharing agreement, Netanyahu’s time in charge is running down. Furthermore, it’s clear that the Trump administration, whose Middle East policy is dictated by Jared Kushner, opposes annexation. Joe Biden opposes it even more.

The best argument that Israel hasn’t lost much might be that annexation is mostly a symbolic matter — like “normalization” and “recognition.” The facts on the ground are the facts on the ground, with or without formal annexation. That’s probably why the Palestinians take no comfort from Israel’s concession on annexation.

In the end, therefore, the Israel-UAE deal might be a wash — one kind of largely meaningless symbolism in exchange for another kind.

Where, then, do I come out? My view is that if this is a trade Netanyahu wanted to make, then it’s worth supporting. Israelis are the ones who have to live with these deals. Thus, assuming good Israeli leadership, I tend to go along with their leaders’ calls.

I fear, though, that this is not a deal Netanyahu would have made of his own accord. The deal might be the product of pressure from the Trump administration, especially Jared Kushner — boy diplomat. Indeed, Trump and Kushner seem to be the winners in a deal that, for Israel, may be a wash, at best.

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