Base set by UAE-Israel deal must be built upon
The UK will have noted the agreement between the UAE and Israel with more than academic interest. The two states are friends of the UK and strategic allies, despite their very different historical relationships. It has long been an aim of the UK to see Israel plugged fully into the region, economically and politically. The Arab world, needing to diversify its economy and with a rapidly increasing population, will benefit from the consequences of such a change. But for this to happen it has always been assumed that “normalization” would be as a consequence of agreed political change between Israel and Palestine, and that the missed opportunities of the past would have been overcome. As UAE Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Anwar Gargash still emphasized this week in a UK newspaper: “We eagerly anticipate the day when we can see an independent and sovereign Palestine alongside the State of Israel.”
But the UAE-Israel agreement has not come about as a result of that change. There are a number of other good reasons, including the growing security relationships between those who feel threatened by common sources, as well as the economic gains to be made. But the overwhelming sense of the agreement and its timing will be seen as marking out a seismic shift in thinking in the region, and an attempt to move away from the history and memory that traps the Middle East in its past more often than it opens doors to its future.
As surprises go, it was pretty big. A White House not unreasonably under siege has been a serious party to the public affirmation of an already steadily building relationship. The extent to which the agreement has emerged from a position of strength or as a salvage job from a road crash depends on the view taken of the Trump peace plan. Some will claim that this was the idea all along: An audacious attempt not to solve everything, but to move the peace process forward, knowing it could not be achieved in full. I do not buy that. The UK, along with many others, did not believe that the proposals, particularly those of annexation, could deliver a deal between the two parties, one of which had been humiliatingly excluded from the table for some time. Quite correctly in my view, London voiced its opposition.
But it is also true that, as time went on, however tempting it was to rally behind a “no annexation” platform, that was not a policy in itself. Something else had to happen. Stopping annexation was a vital step, not least to Jordan, which faced an existential crisis if it went ahead. Significant pronouncements from King Abdullah II and the UAE through its ambassador in Washington seem to have landed with the US, as well as important Israeli voices, if not the Israeli government. Annexation would have left a status quo of occupation, “facts on the ground” settlements and not just a stalled peace process, but one effectively in reverse.
However tempting it was to rally behind a ‘no annexation’ platform, that was not a policy in itself. Something else had to happen.
This matters to the UK, for we are irrevocably tied to the Balfour Declaration and all its consequences. The centenary in 2017 drew attention in Parliament not just to the existence of the state of Israel, but also to the unfulfilled second element of the declaration and our strong commitment to both. The uncompromising statements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at the beginning of July, warning Israel — of which Johnson is a passionate supporter — of the dangers of annexation, should not be glossed over. It will be key to how the UK sees the next developments.
Somehow, therefore, an opportunity emerged from the undeliverable Trump deal. I wrote in Arab News three months ago, on May 20: “Perhaps, therefore, this moment of hesitation provides — once again for the eternal optimists in this process — an opportunity. We should be encouraging Arab leaders to seize it.” I hope this is indeed what has been seized by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
The agreement has not so much changed everything, but rather affirmed what has already changed; hence the understandably anguished reaction in Ramallah. But that reaction is also not a policy in itself. Israel has made one agreement on the basis stated by the UAE for an end to annexation (despite Benjamin Netanyahu insisting it has merely been delayed) — no mean achievement when one considers the fears on display just weeks ago. The agreement appears applicable not only to the existing Israeli and US administrations, but significantly also to new, different ones. But if “normalization” is to proceed with others, the base set by the UAE must be built upon. It must be possible to bring a revived and restructured Arab Peace Initiative into the equation, which should demand effective post-Palestinian election participation and continuing international encouragement.
It is hard to see the effective seizure of an opportunity for decisive change in the Middle East without some further evidence that those who claim “no one cares” about the Palestinian people are wrong.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK