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Faculty Q&A: Normalization Agreement Announced Between Israel and UAE ​

Photo for Faculty Q&A: Normalization Agreement Announced

President Trump announces the Israel-UAE agreement from Oval Office of the White House, August 13, 2020.
(Credit: Scavino45/White House via Twitter).

UCLA Professor Dov Waxman, The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies and the director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, talks about the significance and implications of Israel and the United Arab Emirates announcing an opening of diplomatic ties.

Professor Dov Waxman points out this is the fourth time Israel has signed a deal for peace with an Arab state (others being with Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan). The joint statement of the US, Israel and the UAE announcing the agreement was released August 13, 2020 by President Trump.

How significant is the agreement today between Israel and the UAE?

President Trump has hailed this agreement as a "historic breakthrough" paving the way to peace between Israel and the Arab world. This is, at best, an exaggeration. What has been achieved is not a peace agreement, but an agreement to formalize relations between two countries – Israel and the UAE – who were never at war and who already have unofficial, discrete relations. Upgrading this relationship will facilitate Israel's growing relationship with the UAE and with other Gulf Arab states, and more of them may now follow the UAE by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Put simply, this is good for Israel, and bad for Iran. But it's still a long way from a genuine peace between Israel and the Arab world. A broader, regional peace still depends on Israel's ability to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and this still remains a distant prospect.


Does the agreement put us closer to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what does it mean for the West Bank annexation proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

The agreement only ensures that Israel will not carry out its plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank for a while, but this was already unlikely to happen as a second wave of COVID-19 infections took annexation off Israel's short-term agenda. Formal annexation could still happen in the future since Israel has only agreed to temporarily suspend annexation, not permanently renounce it. Since formal annexation of parts of the West Bank will make it harder to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, preventing this from happening – if only temporarily – does help the prospects for peace. But since Israel has no intention of stopping its de facto, 'creeping annexation' of West Bank land, a resolution of the conflict remains very unlikely. I doubt, therefore, that this agreement will help to advance the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which is the most critical peace agreement that Israel needs to achieve for its long-term future. If anything, it will actually hinder those prospects by sending the message to Israel that it can achieve much of what it wants – normalization with the Arab world and diplomatic relations with the Arab states – without having to withdraw from the West Bank and give land to the Palestinians. By sending that message, I think it will make the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians harder to achieve.


Back in June, it was reported Israel and the UAE were cooperating in the fight against the coronavirus. Is the pandemic offering Israel a rare opportunity to build partnerships and lasting peace with Arab and Muslim countries?

 expect this agreement will pave the way for the exchange of scientific expertise and technology, including in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. So in that respect, the pandemic threat, both to the UAE and Israel, may have helped to bring about this agreement at this particular time (although it had been in the works for a long time before the outbreak of the pandemic). The major contribution of the coronavirus to bringing about this agreement is that the surge of the coronavirus in Israel delayed Netanyahu's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, and now Netanyahu is able to present this delay as a concession in exchange for a historic agreement with the UAE.


From a domestic standpoint, how does this agreement between Israel and UAE help Prime Minister Netanyahu at home and maybe even President Trump in his reelection campaign?

Netanyahu has been domestically assailed in recent weeks. He's faced growing protests by Israelis across the political spectrum and come under a lot of criticism for his handling of the pandemic in Israel. So this comes at an opportune time for Netanyahu domestically. It plays to his strengths in the eyes of the Israeli public as a great statesman for Israel. But it's not going to make Israelis forget about the corruption charges he faces, and it's not going to lead many Israelis to stop demanding he resign because of those corruption charges. In the short term, it gives Netanyahu a domestic political boost, but it's going to outrage many settlers and some of Netanyahu's rightwing supporters who have given him their support partly because of their expectation that he would carry out his promise to annex parts of the West Bank. By angering and possibly alienating his rightwing supporters and allies, this agreement may ultimately come back to bite Netanyahu politically. For Trump, it's undoubtedly a political boost for him. Trump can use this as a foreign policy achievement – one of his only foreign policy achievements, in my opinion – in running for reelection. It also changes the news media narrative about Trump away from his disastrous handling of the pandemic, and it shifts media attention away from focusing on the upcoming Democratic Party convention and the selection of Kamala Harris as Biden's running mate. It allows Trump once again to take the limelight and to present himself as a great peacemaker.


Are the Saudis next to sign a diplomatic agreement with Israel?

I would be very surprised if Saudi Arabia were to be the next country to follow the UAE's lead. More likely, if other Arab countries choose to follow the UAE's lead in this, they'll be smaller Gulf states like Bahrain and Oman, countries that are close US allies and already have informal relations with Israel. Whether this agreement will actually encourage other Gulf Arab countries to upgrade their relations with Israel will depend upon the public reaction in the Gulf and across the Arab world. Let's not forget that this is an agreement made by an unelected, autocratic ruler, so it doesn't necessarily reflect public opinion in the UAE, let alone in the wider Arab world.


To arrange interviews with Professor Waxman, contact Jeff Daniels, communications manager for the Y&S Nazarian Center: jdaniels@international.ucla.edu