Piecemeal peace deal leaves Palestinians on the sidelines

So far, there are three beneficiaries of the Middle East peace deal, announced by President Donald Trump this week, and none of them are Palestine. There’s a new anti-Iran partnership in town and it has a powerful friend.

On 13 August 2020, the US president announced the United States mediated the normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Once bilateral agreements to confirm this historic move are signed, the UAE will be only the third country in the MENA region to recognise the state of Israel. The normalisation acknowledges and formalises existing cooperation between the two states which, until now, was largely conducted behind closed doors.

This acknowledgement will allow the UAE and Israel to publicly make inroads on their shared interests: develop and exploit technological gains and solutions in areas like defence and security, energy, low-water and hydroponic agriculture. Both countries have also revealed their effectiveness at exploiting their relationships with the US for strategic gain, allowing the Trump administration to take credit for midwifing the deal.

Despite this, an agreement gives both countries an even stronger hand in their US bilateral relationships – they are both key US security allies in the MENA region and this will build goodwill with their US counterparts which will yield even stronger bilateral relations, and even deeper security and intelligence cooperation. Also, this strengthens the anti-Iran camp in the region, which is important to the current administration and could yet remain a vital strategic goal for the White House beyond the Trump presidency.

It is notable that the UAE has not extracted anything from Israel in exchange for the formal acknowledgement; the deal provides a convenient escape route for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from his promise to expand settlements in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. But the premise that Israel would not establish diplomatic ties beyond Egypt and Jordan until there was a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority and pathway to statehood is now null and void.

In comments following the announcement, Emirati officials restated a commitment to the two-state solution, framing the agreement as a means to further peace talks by halting Israeli settlement building. However, this does not change the parameters of the two-state solution, and ultimately removes a key negotiating tool for those who remain committed to the next steps beyond the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.

This is an Israeli-UAE bilateral move and in its current form will not yield manifest advantages for Palestinians or the furthering of the two-state solution. The UAE will seek to use this agreement to more effectively leverage its growing influence in Palestinian politics, both to counter regional rival Qatar, and to shape the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations in a way amenable to Emirati interests.

Bilateral engagement by countries such as Oman has increased in recent years as officials look for new ways to tackle the ongoing issue of Palestinian statehood or securing allies against adversaries like Iran, but it remains an activity on the margins. Other countries in the region will remain slow to respond to this formal recognition of Israel by the UAE due to domestic pressures and anti-Israeli sentiment. But this will open a new fault-line in the UAE’s mixed relationship with Iran and creates potential for new countermoves by Iran in the coming months, all as the region awaits the outcome of 3 November election.

Niamh McBurney

Head of MENA, Risk Insight