In any normal year, the announcement of a deal that holds out hope of advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East would dominate headlines. But in a pandemic year that also features economic chaos, civil strife, and political polarization, eased tensions between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are all too easy to overlook for a population already overwhelmed by grim domestic stories. That's too bad, because we could all use a little good news.
"US President Donald J. Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, spoke Thursday and agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE," begins the full statement released by the participants on August 13.
As a small but important initial step, both cell and landline telephone service began formally operating between the two countries without the need for restriction-dodging workarounds. Also, Israeli news sites became accessible without recourse to virtual private networks (VPNs). Even as the two governments began communicating, it became easier for their people to do the same without concealing their contacts.
A sign that the deal is a move in the right direction comes from the displeasure directed its way by Iran's hard-line government, which "condemned the establishment of ties with the Zionist regime" by the UAE.
By and large, though, international reaction to the deal, which was brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump, has been positive. A disparate list of countries and figures from around the world expressed at least guarded optimism about the deal.
Heiko Maas, Germany's Minister of Foreign Affairs, said this "can be the starting point for positive developments in the region & give new impetus to the Middle East peace process."
"I have followed with great interest and appreciation the tripartite joint statement between the United States of America, the sisterly United Arab Emirates and Israel regarding the agreement to stop Israel's annexation of the territories," commented Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, president of Egypt, which itself made a historic peace agreement with Israel in the Camp David Accords.
"Today's joint statement…suspends Israeli annexation plans over parts of the occupied West Bank, something the Secretary-General has consistently called for," noted a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. "The Secretary-General welcomes this agreement, hoping it will create an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to re-engage in meaningful negotiations that will realize a two state-solution in line with relevant UN resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements."
As many of the reactions make clear, much of the interest in eased relations between Israel and the UAE comes from Israel's agreement to "suspend" annexations of disputed territory inhabited primarily by Palestinians. Assessments of the importance of the deal depend largely on how big a concession observers see in Israel's stand-down on the issue.
"Israel, and specifically its embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has scored a huge victory," insists Bilal Y. Saab, senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. "In suspending threats to annex parts of the West Bank in return for full normalization of relations with the UAE, he has given himself room to back away from a promise that may have been popular but never realistic."
"Netanyahu can avoid the terrible mistake of annexation while claiming he got something big for it (he did!)," comments Natan Sachs of the Center for Middle East Policy, who sees more of a win-win-win. "The UAE can claim it prevented annexation from happening—from UAE Ambassador Yousef Otaiba's Hebrew-language op-ed warning of the move, to the big carrot of diplomatic normalization. Trump gets to avoid the annexation he himself sanctioned, and all the complications it could have produced, while showing a big win for two of his favorite allies."
That's not to say that everybody is a fan. Not so happy with formalized ties between Israel and the UAE are many Palestinians, who had hoped that normalized relations between Arab states and Israel would be contingent on a better deal for themselves.
"May you never be sold out by your 'friends,'" tweeted Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee, in response to the U.S.-Israel-UAE joint statement.
"The losers, as often, are the Palestinians," Sachs of the Center for Middle East Policy muses. "The impatience in the Gulf with the Palestinians now comes to full daylight. The Gulf won't wait for them any longer, asking of Israel only to avoid declarations of a major change to the status quo."
But for a world grappling with a pandemic, economic turmoil, trade wars, and political chaos, news that two traditional foes are moving toward peaceful diplomatic and trade relations has to be taken as a measure of good news. It means that somebody, somewhere, is at least trying to get along better with the neighbors, rather than pick a new and unnecessary fight.
Whether the promise of the deal will pan out is uncertain. Israel suspended—but didn't abandon—its annexation aspirations, which could mean that annexation continues to loom as a source of conflict. Trouble could come from another source that renders this agreement irrelevant; it's not like the Middle East is short on tension. A change of heart in one capital or another could send everything back to the drawing board. And let's not forget that Palestinians still feel left out.
Among those other concerns, "the UAE-Israel deal could antagonize Iran and drive Turkey, a NATO ally, further into the embrace of anti-American forces," frets Albert B. Wolf of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
For the moment, though, the agreement between the UAE and Israel seems like a reminder of a time long-gone. It's a U.S.-brokered effort to reduce tensions between nations, ease commerce and communications, and build toward peaceful relations. That's a rare bit of encouraging news in an otherwise downbeat year.