While a break from longstanding precedent, USIP’s Robert Barron says that normalization between Israel and the UAE was “perhaps a long time coming … [and] it definitely represents an upcoming generation of leadership in the Gulf.” Meanwhile, questions over Israel’s annexation plans continue to linger.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: If you missed it, that was rather historic flight, 24 hours it's been on the ground, Israel's first of its kind delegation to the United Arab Emirates, getting a royal welcome. Jared Kushner, senior advisor to the president, one of those on the trip. He said that Israel has agreed to suspend annexation for now, after the country had agreed with the United Arab Emirates to work toward normalization, which would make the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel. Iran's supreme leader has called the UAE’s recognition of Israel treason. Here's Jared Kushner:
Jared Kushner (from recording): A lot of people were very envious of the move that the United Arab Emirates made. A lot of people want access to the technology and economy and a lot of the different advancements that Israel has; I mean, Israel's like another Silicon Valley for the Middle East.
Tim Farley: By the way, this is called the Abraham Accord, the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, announcing they had agreed to the full normalization of relations. Let's understand what's in and what is not in the deal and what this means. Joining us is Robert Barron, the United States Institute of Peace program officer for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict program, the Twitter handle @USIP, Robert Barron, welcome. Thank you for being here today.
Robert Barron: Thank you for having me, Tim.
Tim Farley: I know you've written about this and discussed it in general terms. Can you sort of lay out why this is important to people? We've had some discussions about it, but obviously it gets overwhelmed by some of the other things we're talking about. So, help people understand better what the Abraham Accord is about.
Robert Barron: Sure. So, on August 13, we were all sort of settling in with our coffee, the president tweeted that he had a big announcement to make. And within a few minutes, the White House released a joint statement between United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates that they had agreed to normalize relations. This is a big step, the only two countries that Israel has normalized relations with are countries that it has peace treaties with, so that's Jordan and Egypt. This would be sort of a break from the consensus in the Arab world, in the Muslim world that they will not normalize relations with Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state. This is especially the precedent since 2002, with the Arab Peace Initiative, which is spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. And so, for the Emirates to agree to normalize relations with Israel is sort of a break from that. And the reasoning behind this has been coming for a while, the Emirates have had pretty a pretty good working relationship with Israel for much of the past decade. This is largely driven around security concerns.
Both Israel and the Emirates view Iran as the primary concern in the region, but also share interest around economic issues, trade transfer, transfer of technologies, and cross-cultural exchange. The Emirates have worked to sort of bolster its image as a pluralist society. They've invested in cultural projects, or religious exchange, these kinds of things. So, combine those issues with the efforts of the Trump administration to sort of build ties between Israel and the Gulf and here's where we are. Yesterday, as you mentioned, was a big step. An Israeli and American delegation flew directly between Israel and Abu Dhabi to sign the beginning of this accord. They signed a financial services agreement that will open up trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. And that's the first step and we'll see over the next two weeks further negotiations between Israel and the UAE.
Tim Farley: Do you see this as an icebreaker or a one off?
Robert Barron: It's a great question, million-dollar question. So initially, after this was announced, there were a number of rumors that other Arab states may follow suit. So, in contention was Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, potentially Oman, Sudan, Morocco. And as you saw, as well, immediately after the meeting yesterday, Jared Kushner flew to Bahrain to meet with the government there and then on to Saudi Arabia and is rumored to be going to Qatar next, to try to see if he can get momentum for other states to join this step. As of right now, it does not look like there will be other Arab states jumping on this train. The Bahrainis reportedly said that they will not normalize with Israel until Saudi Arabia normalizes, the Saudis said they will not normalize until a Palestinian state is established according to old parameters. And so, it doesn't look like other Arab states are going to be joining this move. But they're still working on it. The American government has put a lot of effort into seeing if they can get some momentum here soundly.
Tim Farley: It sounds like go ask your mother, go ask your father. But, to the point you're making about the administration, I was curious you say that this is, over 10 years, there has been maybe a softening of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. They've had more cooperation. How much of a role did the U.S. play? Maybe specifically, Jared Kushner, if you think you can, you can give us some sense of that. How much of a role did this administration play in furthering this agreement?
Robert Barron: Well, it's unclear exactly the degree to which the Trump administration and Jared Kushner specifically were involved as a broker, but it seems pretty clear that they played a significant role. And this has not just happened under the Trump administration. The Obama administration, particularly at the end under Secretary Kerry, had put some effort into trying to couch a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict into warmer regional ties. What role can the Gulf play and Israel's partner states in Egypt and Jordan, what role can they play in trying to improve the landscape? And so, this is perhaps a long time coming. I think it definitely represents an upcoming generation of leadership and the goals. Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, definitely puts a lot of priority on the Emirates’ security and its regional diplomacy. And this is one more step in that direction.
Tim Farley: There are two other questions and again, Robert Barron with us, USIP program officer for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict program. The two other questions that seemed to me loom large, one, is the U.S. going to sell F35s to the United Arab Emirates? And number two, are they really stopping the settlements that Israel had said that they were going to stop? So, if you could, just those two I think are burning questions for a lot of people.
Robert Barron: Yes, sir. And that's exactly those are two correct questions. Let's take them one by one. The F-35 issue. To give a little bit of background for our listeners, the United States policy is to help maintain Israel's military edge in the region. So, we offer Israel access to the most high-tech technology, military technology, the F-35 being the highest class of fighter jet the United States has available. Only Israel has access to that in the Middle East the moment. Now with this new agreement, the Emirates have said that they would like to purchase F-35. The Trump administration has said that they're open to it. The Israelis have to varying degrees balked at the F-35 sales. They're not thrilled to be seeing technology proliferate throughout the region. But it doesn't seem, it seems like this may move forward and this may again just be an allowance the Trump administration has made for Prime Minister Netanyahu to raise his objections and then proceed. It doesn't seem likely that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are on a path towards conflict at any point so sale of weapons to the Emirates in any case, a lot of Israeli security minded folks would say, there'll be used towards the same end if conflict did break out with Iran, for example. So, the F-35 issue seems like it's moving forward. But again, we still don't know the specifics how it may play out. It may play out more over the next two weeks to a month.
On the issue of annexation and occupation: the issue we have not gotten to yet in our interview is the Palestinians. The Palestinians have, of course, called the Emirati decision a betrayal. It seems to suspend Israeli annexation of thirty percent of the West Bank, which has been what was in the works over the course of the summer. It does not take, it did not put a timeline on that. The Israelis have not said that it's going to be a permanent halt of annexation. They said it's a suspension and Netanyahu continues to say that it's a priority that he has. So, creeping annexation continues. Large scale annexation seems to be stopped for the moment, but it's not halted altogether it seems. Although yesterday was an interesting development, a senior Emirati official, the head of policy planning in the foreign ministry, said that they have assurances for the United States that annexation will not take place, even if the Israelis say it's only a temporary suspension. So, again, the annexation issue is a bit up in the air as far as how far this agreement will go, and how much it will be clarified once you reach a final agreement and a signing ceremony.
Tim Farley: Robert, I appreciate you spending time with us. Thanks for clarifying so many things here on POTUS.
Robert Barron: Thanks for having me.
Tim Farley: Robert Barron, United States Institute of Peace program officer for the Israeli Palestinian conflict program. details to be worked out but still some promise in the Abraham Accord, the agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. He is tweeting @USIP.