Israeli-Emirati normalization: Be careful what you wish for

In the Middle East, the biggest
surprises often come in August. Today’s announcement that the United Arab
Emirates will normalize relations with Israel certainly falls into that
category.

The proximate cause for Abu
Dhabi’s decision may very well have been a (smart) deal with Jerusalem:
recognition instead of annexation. Israel would refrain from annexing any West
Bank territory in return for normalization of relations with the UAE.

This wasn’t as big a lift for
either side as it might have been at previous times. Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu faces serious domestic challenges at home, in particular
over his government’s handling of the pandemic, and is beholden to coalition
partners who believe that annexation would be a mistake. Thus, it would have
been hard for Bibi to push forward on annexation regardless. Agreeing not to do
what he probably couldn’t in return for recognition by another Arab state was
therefore a win-win for him.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces a peace agreement to establish diplomatic ties, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, during a news conference at the prime minster office in Jerusalem, August 13, 2020. Abir Sultan /Pool via REUTERS

Meanwhile, the UAE has been
forging better relations with Israel for years. This was mostly kept private,
even covert, but it was one of the worst kept secrets in a region of badly kept
secrets. Moreover, it was pretty clear that the Emiratis were not unhappy with
people knowing what they were up to, just as long as they retained some
plausible deniability.

The United States has been urging
its Arab allies to normalize relations with the state of Israel since its founding,
so this is a plus for American foreign policy. I also have little doubt that
the Trump administration continued that tradition and encouraged this move. Yet
the fact that this has been a constant of American policy means that it cannot
explain this change.

The deeper cause for this shift
lies in America’s disengagement from the Middle East. This began under
President Obama, and our Middle East allies hated it but hoped that it was an
aberration. They looked forward to Obama’s departure from the White House in
expectation that the next president would return to America’s traditional approach
to the region.

They were deeply disappointed
by the Trump administration, which deepened that trend, often in erratic,
unpredictable, and even dangerous fashion. In particular, the UAE and America’s
other allies in the Gulf were horrified when Washington refused to respond to
brazen, repeated Iranian military attacks on Emirati and Saudi oil tankers in
the summer of 2019, or even to the Iranian drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s
irreplaceable Abqaiq oil processing plant. This was a categorical reversal of
40 years of American policy, the foundation of the US-Gulf partnership and of
their security, which Trump abandoned without a second thought.

Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government
applauded Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal but has been frustrated
by his lack of interest in pushing back on Iran’s aggression around the region.
Israel has been locked in a war of attrition with Iran across Syria and
increasingly Iraq as Tehran builds up its military infrastructure in both
countries and works to tie them — and Hizballah-dominated Lebanon — into a
united, Iranian-led front. The Israelis have repeatedly begged Washington to do
more to help them deal with Iran all to no avail.

Iran is the most important, but
not the only threat that Israel and the UAE share and that has helped bring
them together. Both are also wary of many of the violent Sunni Islamist groups
from ISIS to al-Qa’ida to the Muslim Brotherhood, who detest both of them. Here
as well, Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem see these threats growing as the United States
backs away from the region without leaving strong, stable Arab governments
behind to prevent the bad guys from taking advantage of our departure.

All of this might seem like
good news: The US has pulled back from the region and our disengagement has forced
two of our regional allies to reconcile (as we always wanted) to address a
number of problems that also threaten our interests. And we don’t have to do
anything but applaud. What could be better?

That may turn out to be true, but
let’s remember that this is the Middle East we are talking about, and the best
case is rarely what happens there. In this instance, there are a number of very
important downsides.

Israel and the UAE do not have
the same capabilities as the United States, and Iran is not as deterred by
their capabilities as it typically is wary of getting into a fight with the US.
Iran largely backed down after the targeted killing of Qassem Sulaymani because
it did not want a wider war with the US. It did not back down from attacks on
the UAE (and Saudi Arabia) last year because it did not feel threatened by
Emirati military capabilities.

Our regional allies often
overreact to threats — in part because they lack our capabilities, in part
because they are smaller and closer to Iran, and in part because their
intelligence capabilities are more limited than ours. Both the Israelis and
Emiratis have consistently pursued a very aggressive form of deterrence against
Iran and an even more aggressive approach to combating Islamist groups (whether
that’s Hamas or the Ikhwan). They have also been very willing to mount covert
action campaigns and cyberattacks against their adversaries. All of that tends
to lead to more violent responses, and the danger of greater instability.

And that is what this is really
about. It is about the deepening of ties between Israel and the UAE to more
closely band together to fight Iran and, secondarily, various extremist Islamist
groups. If recent history is any guide to future developments, we should expect
this budding alliance to brawl more with Iran and its other adversaries,
raising the risk of escalation — and the likelihood that the US might get
sucked back in by a wider war.

So let’s not dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back. This is a positive move born of negative circumstances, and whether it leads to a more or less stable Middle East remains very much in doubt.

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