A historic event took place at the White House in Washington on Tuesday when Israel signed a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and a declaration on establishing diplomatic relations with Bahrain.
The agreements, signed between Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of UAE and Bahrain with President Trump as witness, break Israel’s isolation in the Middle East and opens the door for diplomatic relations with more Arab countries. They may even pave the way for the elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians who for the time being feel betrayed by the two Gulf States.
In fact, this is the third peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, following the treaties with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1984. Israel and the Palestinian Authority were close to a comprehensive peace deal in 1999 but then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat did not get the support he needed from the Arab League to finalise the agreement on Jerusalem.
For the Israeli prime minister, the peace agreement with UAE vindicated his formula “peace for peace” but that is because Israel was never in war with UAE and Bahrein. To achieve peace with the Palestinians, Israel will have to apply the formula “peace for territories” and withdraw from most of the occupied territories.
This however did not cloud the ceremony at the White House. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu took all credit for the agreements – that also serve their political agendas – but the agreements are steps in the right direction. Normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries is in the interest of the peoples concerned and serves the cause of peace in the Middle East.
A historic turning point
The Israeli-Emirati treaty is a full-fledged agreement covering a long list of cooperation areas. It will enter into force after it has been ratified by both parties. For Israel, it implies that the treaty will have to be approved by the government and ratified by the Israeli parliament (Knesset). Until the signature of the agreement, the text was kept a secret even for the government.
“This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony and thanked President Trump. “He is already lining up more and more countries. This was unimaginable a few years ago, but with resolve, determination, a fresh look at the way peace is done, this is being achieved.”
“The blessings of the peace we make today will be enormous,” Netanyahu promised and listed three reasons for his optimism.
“First, because this peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. Second, because the great economic benefits of our partnership will be felt throughout our region, and they will reach every one of our citizens. And third, because this is not only a peace between leaders, it’s a peace between peoples.”
Both agreements mention the need for overall peace in the Middle East and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But such a solution can hardly be based on Trump’s one-sided peace plan which has been rejected by the Palestinians.
The Israeli-Emirati peace agreement states in general terms that the two countries are “committed to working together to realize a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both peoples, and to advance comprehensive Middle East peace, stability and prosperity.”
The joint declaration by Israel and Bahrain states that the two countries will continue “the efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”
Under the radar for years, Israel has developed relations with both UAE and Bahrain based on shared interests. Summarizing the economic importance of the agreements, Professor Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told The Brussels Times that, “The Emirates could become Israel’s gate to Asia and Israel could attract investments from the UAE and Bahrain.”
Politically, Inbar did not exclude that Israel might have to pay a price for the agreements in the form of American sales of advanced combat aircraft to UAE. Netanyahu denies it but Trump has already hinted that this is his intention. “Possibly the UAE will end up with F-35s but Israel will be compensated to keep its qualitative military edge.”
Another issue was the Israeli government’s plan for unilateral annexation – partly based on Trump’s peace plan – of up to 30 % of the West Bank. A condition for the Gulf States signing the agreements was that Israel cancelled the plan. But according to Netanyahu the plan has only been suspended. Professor Inbar commented that annexation is still not definitely off the table.
A future Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement will have to be a mutually agreed compromise. Will the Palestinians accept that they cannot block the peace process between Israel and the Arab world and reconsider their own policy? “They’ll have to adopt a more mature policy and understand that no side can realize all its dreams,” Professor Inbar, the expert on Middle Eastern strategic issues, replied.
In a declaration on behalf of the EU (15 September), High Representative Josep Borell welcomed the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE, and acknowledged the “constructive role played by the US in this respect.” The EU has for many years promoted the development of relations between Israel and the countries of the region, the declaration says.
“A normalisation of their bilateral relations will be beneficial to both countries and a fundamental step for the stabilisation of the region as a whole.” EU also considers that Israel’s commitment to suspend plans to unilaterally annex areas of the occupied Palestinian territory is a positive step and reiterated its commitment to a negotiated and viable two-state solution.
EU has kept a low profile in the normalisation process and was represented at the signing ceremony by the head of its delegation, ambassadors of some member states and the foreign minister of Hungary. Will EU use the momentum to resume the Israeli-Palestinian process?
“EU has consistently argued for the resumption of the talks and been stressing that recent developments are creating a momentum to restart the process,” Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for EU foreign affairs, told The Brussels Times.
“We continue to be ready to help in any way we can,” he said and mentioned planned contacts between High Representative Borrell and his counterparts on the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
The Brussels Times