Talking heads are showering Donald Trump with praise over his surprise unveiling of an agreement that he said would alter the Middle East landscape by building a diplomatic bridge between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
If completed as advertised, the deal would indeed, as Trump tweeted, be a “huge breakthrough,” as it would make the UAE just the third Arab country to embrace normal diplomatic relations with Israel, after Egypt in a 1979 pact and Jordan in 1994.
As with so many things having to do with Trump, however, appearances can be deceiving. This is not the grand Middle East peace deal that the United States president promised to pursue in 2017 when he announced, with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by his side, that “we will get this done.”
“We’ll start a process which hopefully will lead to peace,” he said on May 3, 2017. “Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let’s see if we can prove them wrong, O.K.?”
The “pact” between Israel and the UAE, sadly, is not a peace agreement at all, and it is definitely not an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. By making numerous gestures to Israel during his three and a half years in office while ceding nothing to the Palestinians, Trump has greatly pleased Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, conservative Jews in both Israel and the US and American Evangelicals. But these same actions had appeared to seal the Arab world’s opposition to a major deal.
Then, on Aug. 13, Trump unveiled this agreement between Israel and a small Arab nation.
The most extraordinary aspect of this latest agreement, in fact, could be that an Arab country signed onto the deal even though it cut out the Palestinian side. It may also well be that the agreement will end up having its greatest effect on an entirely different conflict — Trump’s simmering cold war with Iran, which is avidly supported by both Israel and the UAE.
Consider, for example, that the UAE was just weeks earlier part of a group of six Middle East nations urging the United Nations Security Council to back a campaign by Washington to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which expires on Oct. 18. The group, the Gulf Cooperation Council, has been eagerly supporting Trump administration efforts to prevent Iranian-backed interventions in the affairs of its neighbors. The other council members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The UN embargo is part of the 2015 nuclear agreement aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear bombs. Despite the six Gulf nations’ plea, however, the Security Council on Aug. 14 decisively rejected the US proposal, with only the Dominican Republic joining Washington in voting yes. Russia and China, permanent Council members with veto power, voted no while the 11 other members abstained.
The Iran nuclear agreement has extremely strong support around the world, but Trump has called it “a horrible one-sided deal,” and he announced in May 2018 that Washington was pulling out of it. He nonetheless is now widely expected to invoke the pact’s “snapback” provision to reimpose all of the UN sanctions on Iran, despite opposition to such a move from the pact’s remaining parties, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Trump says he is pursuing an all-out campaign to pressure Tehran to return to the negotiating table and accept a stronger agreement. The campaign relies on tough economic sanctions as well as harsh language to achieve its ends. But the effort has so far fizzled. Iran has moved closer to becoming a nuclear state while doing little or nothing to curtail its military adventurism in neighboring countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
The situation has led to speculation that Trump, in a pre-election October surprise, may switch from diplomacy to military action to seek a more definitive end to Tehran’s ambitions. Netanyahu regularly talks up armed conflict against Iran, as does the UAE, a significant buyer of US military goods.
These threads give context to the recognition deal between Israel and the UAE. A deal bolstering cooperation among Washington, the UAE and Israel can only be seen as bad news in Tehran.
So what does this recognition mean for international peace and security? Following the deals involving Egypt and Jordan, Arab nations have stood together against formally recognizing Israel as a way to signal their continued support for Palestinian statehood efforts. Still, statehood has gone nowhere in the last several years.
Admittedly, the Palestinians over the years have blown the diplomatic task they were challenged to carry out, namely building a compelling international case for the so-called two-state solution and pushing it forward. While the rest of the world continued to verbally support that goal, Palestinian leaders have done little to achieve it. That has created an opening for the Trump administration to simply ignore Palestinian aspirations and pursue an alternative approach better tailored for domestic consumption.
Despite an utter lack of international support, Trump simply granted Israel just about anything it desired that was within his power to give. That included US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, slashing the US contribution to internationally administered Palestinian aid programs and ending US efforts to resume long-lapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Trump said recently at a rally: “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the Evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that: the Evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
Then came the Palestinian dream killer, a plan by Netanyahu to simply annex about 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, land long claimed by the Palestinians as the core of their future independent state.
The idea was met with fierce opposition by the international community which, through the Security Council, has for decades insisted that the final status of these lands — including the West Bank settlements that Israel occupies in violation of international law — could be decided only by negotiations between the parties.
Netanyahu, beset by a series of election mishaps, was looking for a dramatic gesture that would help prolong his tenure as the Israeli prime minister. And Trump, locked in his own re-election struggle, was also looking for a big boost; the UAE-Israel agreement may end up being the only major foreign policy victory he can claim after three and a half years of utter diplomatic chaos.
The key to success was apparently a recognition that the annexation plan was so controversial in world capitals that it could not be allowed to go forward. This enabled Trump to offer a package with something in it for both sides. Israel “will suspend declaring sovereignty” over the West Bank land in exchange for the acceptance by Israel and the UAE of “a full normalization of relations,” the parties announced.
“This deal is a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East,” Trump boasted. “Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”
Whether more breakthroughs follow may depend to a large extent on the answer to a key question: What does “suspension” mean? Under the deal, just how long will Netanyahu refrain from annexing West Bank territory?
Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, said flatly that the mutual-recognition deal, though not yet fleshed out, would “stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories.”
Trump, in announcing the agreement, said it meant that annexation was “off the table now.”
But Netanyahu said Trump had asked him only to “wait temporarily” before acting and called the Israeli response “a temporary postponement. It is not removed from the table, I am telling you that.”
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, senior adviser and Middle East point person, simply dodged the question. “Somewhere between a long time and a short time,” he responded when asked what “temporary” meant. Meanwhile, the parties would be focusing on the details of the agreement “for the foreseeable future,” Kushner added.
So can this agreement be called a Middle East peace deal? Well, it’s not as if the UAE had been preparing to organize a new Arab invasion of Israel any time soon. Israel and the UAE have been quietly cooperating diplomatically for some time now.
The pact also does nothing to settle the central conflict long plaguing the region: the enduring battle between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead it allows Trump, Netanyahu and Prince bin Zayed to put that conflict aside and focus on more meddling in Iran.
How will that work out for the region — war or peace? We may know by October.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.