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The UAE-Israel deal is Trump's first genuine foreign policy success, experts say

A shared interest in countering Iran has fueled an alignment between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, a convergence that seemed impossible not long ago.
Image:President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at the White House
President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference at the White House on Aug. 10, 2020.Andrew Harnik / AP

WASHINGTON — The groundbreaking agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has delivered a political lifeline to Israel's embattled prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and represents President Donald Trump's first genuine foreign policy success, regional analysts and former U.S. officials said.

Apart from the immediate boost for Trump and for Netanyahu, who both face political headwinds over their response to the coronavirus pandemic, the agreement signals a potential realignment for the Middle East and a victory for Israel's decades-long effort to secure diplomatic recognition from Arab governments, experts said.

For Netanyahu, who faces a looming corruption trial and mounting public criticism of his government's handling of COVID-19, the agreement allows him to drop — for now — plans for annexation in the West Bank that had become a political headache.

The proposed annexation was popular among Israel's right-wing but Arab and European governments strongly opposed it and even the Trump White House had misgivings. By agreeing to set aside the idea in return for normalizing relations with the UAE, Netanyahu could claim a diplomatic coup that would reap benefits for Israel for years to come, analysts said.

The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates national flag on Aug. 13, 2020.Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images

The deal with the UAE was "an elegant way to get out of his annexation mess," said Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior official in the Obama administration now at the Center for a New American Security.

"It's a political winner for Bibi, and it's a political winner for Trump," he said.

Trump called the deal "HUGE" via Twitter, and even Trump's most outspoken critics agreed that the agreement had made history.

"Normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is a historic step that will enhance the security and economic interests of both countries," said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has frequently blasted Trump's foreign policy and accused him of taking the country to the brink of war with Iran. "This breakthrough is a powerful example of how diplomacy can bridge historic divides and advance the United States' interests."

During much of his tenure, Trump has promised a major breakthrough on the international stage but it has proved elusive. Two summits with North Korea's leader produced no major concessions from Pyongyang. A comprehensive trade deal with China never materialized, only a "phase one" agreement that has disappointed some of Trump's supporters. U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and the Taliban are still at war with the Afghan government.

But the deal between Israel and the Emirates to establish diplomatic relations and normal trade ties, which the White House helped broker, represented a concrete success for Trump, who said there were plans to hold a signing ceremony soon in Washington.

The agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE illustrated the changing dynamics in the region. In recent years, Arab Gulf states have drawn closer to Israel due to a shared hostility toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. Those same Gulf Arab governments have increasingly placed a lower priority on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue that not long ago would have made Thursday's agreement impossible.

"The Emiratis would not have considered it not that far back," said Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"This is a huge coup for Israel to break through that barrier of Arab rejection."

In 2002, the UAE and other Arab states backed a Saudi-led peace plan that offered diplomatic relations with Israel only if it fulfilled conditions on recognizing a Palestinian state. But since then, concerns about Iran's network of Shiite proxies across the region and its nuclear ambitions — as well as President Barack Obama's diplomatic overtures to Tehran — pushed Israel and the Emiratis closer, prompting cooperation between Israel's Mossad intelligence service and the Gulf Arab countries.

Palestinian leaders called the deal a betrayal of the Palestinian cause, and Iran and Turkey echoed the accusation. But Trump and his deputies said they hoped other Gulf Arab leaders would follow UAE's lead.

Thursday's agreement was the product in part of an earlier diplomatic failure. Trump's proposed peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promoted by the president's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, went over badly among Arab governments, not to mention among Palestinian leaders who rejected it outright.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, playing for support among right-wing settlers, used the plan to go ahead with his vision of annexing parts of the West Bank, even though the peace proposal envisioned that as part of a broader agreement that would include some concessions for the Palestinians.

But as he pressed ahead with plans for annexation, Netanyahu ran into fierce international pressure, including from Gulf Arab countries, and his allies in the Trump administration were ambivalent. Netanyahu was in a bind.

The UAE's influential ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, warned the Israelis in an op-ed article in June that if they pursued annexation, they could forget about improving diplomatic and economic ties with Arab governments.

The op-ed, published in Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper in Hebrew, was titled: "It's Either Annexation or Normalization."

"We wanted to speak directly to the Israelis," Otaiba said of the op-ed. "The message was all the progress that you have seen and the attitudes that have been changing towards Israel — people becoming more accepting of Israel and less hostile — all of that could be undermined by a decision to annex the West Bank," he told the Emirati newspaper The National.

Otaiba's op-ed helped open the door to the deal, Kushner told reporters on Thursday, saying it created "a new option."

Talks then entered into high gear, with the help of Kushner and other U.S. officials, leading to the deal that emerged this week: Israel would abandon its plans for annexation in return for normalizing relations with the Emirates. If the deal goes ahead, the UAE will become only the third Arab state to recognize Israel. Egypt was the first in 1979 and Jordan followed in 1994.

The two governments, however, offered different interpretations of the deal, partly a reflection that they had to sell the agreement to different audiences. Mohammed Bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE, referred to the deal as a "roadmap" to normalization. Netanyahu said the suspension of annexation plans was "temporary."

Israel and the Emiratis are expected to hold talks to flesh out the details from Thursday's joint statement, focusing on plans to open embassies, launch direct flights and forge regular commercial links.

The agreement symbolized the ascendance of the Emirates as a regional player and American ally. A tiny nation on the Arabian peninsula, the Emirates has leveraged its oil wealth to become a commercial hub and a military power, with its fighter pilots and special forces taking part in U.S-led operations.

The deal also allowed the Emiratis to burnish their position in Washington and to distinguish themselves from their Saudi allies at a time when Riyadh has become a virtual pariah in Congress over the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

"It further differentiates the UAE from Saudi Arabia, which is something they've been anxious to do over the past few years, especially after the Khashooggi killing," Alterman said.

The Emiratis' decision to agree a deal with Israel gave Trump a diplomatic win but it also scored points with Democrats, including many who oppose annexation. The agreement could prove useful for Abu Dhabi if Joe Biden wins the White House in November, as the Emiratis hedge their bets, former officials said.

"They're also signaling to a possible Democratic administration that, 'We're pragmatic, we're not ideologues, we're willing to do deals, and we can be a useful partner for you," Goldenberg said.

The Emiratis, a major purchaser of American military hardware, have long pressed for more access to hi-tech U.S. weaponry, including sophisticated drone technology, and it's likely the Trump administration will be keen to accommodate them, former officials said.

"The big question is what did the Emiratis extract in order to take this step and I think it is in the U.S. weapons sales category," said a former senior official.