An expert take on the Israel-UAE accord

Ian Lustick, political science professor who specializes in Middle East politics, gives his take on the significance of the U.S.-brokered agreement and what it could mean for the region.

Earlier this month, a U.S.-brokered agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates enabled the two nations to establish diplomatic ties. Israel says it will scrap plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank as part of the deal. President Trump has billed the accord as a major breakthrough in Middle East relations, but some Palestinian officials say it instead makes peace between them and Israel more challenging.

Two flags of Israel flying alongside one flag of the United Arab Emirates.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan this week, touting the agreement and urging other Middle East nations to reach similar accords. 

Penn Today spoke with Middle East expert Ian Lustick to get his take on the significance of the UAE deal and what it could mean for the region. Lustick’s latest book, “Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality,” makes the case for a new way of looking at Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Why is this accord significant?

It is significant as a successful maneuver by Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates to gain, for each, political advantages that they would not otherwise enjoy. For Netanyahu, the agreement yielded a temporary distraction from his approaching trial for corruption and gave him an excuse not to issue statements about annexation of portions of the West Bank that he really didn’t want to make anyway because of the questions about West Bank Palestinian rights that such declarations would raise, and because of objections from Washington.

The agreement also placed his political frenemy Benny Gantz into the uncomfortable position of objecting both to annexation and the terms of a peace deal with an Arab country. The UAE, meanwhile, could surface its increasingly close but hidden relationship with Israel while deflecting criticism for betraying Palestinians and Arab interests by hailing Netanyahu’s commitment not to move forward with annexation as a condition they imposed on the deal. The Trump administration also made marginal gains from the deal because it added at least the appearance of a success to their tattered and even embarrassing record in Middle Eastern policies.

Do you consider it a positive development?

Positive for the UAE, and especially for the UAE military if they do get the super-advanced warplanes from the United States that seems part of the deal; positive for Netanyahu; and positive, if in a minor key, for Trump-Kushner. It’s a wash for Israelis, a negative for the Palestinians, and fairly inconsequential in its direct effects on the region.

What are some issues that could potentially complicate the deal?

Eventually Israel will do things in the West Bank that will push the UAE toward ending normalization, or, more hopefully, there could be some things Israel avoids doing because of UAE threats. The issue of the delivery of U.S. F-35 stealth fighter-bombers to UAE has already angered and even shocked many Israeli security experts and members of Netanyahu’s coalition. Israeli-UAE ties might also draw Israel deeper into the UAE-Egypt-Saudi alliance which is behind, among other things, the civil war in Libya. 

What does the accord mean for the region overall?

Not that much, except that it marks a continued trend toward a division in the region between a bloc of authoritarian Arab regimes (like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt) based on traditionalist political formulas, economic wealth, and coercion linked with the United States and Israel versus an alignment of regimes, often equally authoritarian but with democratic or revolutionary pretenses, such as Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

UAE joins Egypt and Jordan as an Arab country with diplomatic ties with Israel, and that does tend to normalize Israel’s domination of Palestinians, both in Gaza and in the West Bank, as a condition that will not be reversed by war or united Arab or Muslim action.

What implications does this have for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians? 

None. No negotiations were in the works, and there is no sign, even without annexation declarations, that meaningful talks will begin since the minimum positions of Israel and the Palestinians are too far apart to make talks anything but a charade. 

Whether that charade happens has nothing to do with the likelihood of a peace agreement. Instead it will be the United States that determines if it is in its interest to revive the image that there is a peace process by cajoling Israel and the Palestinians to restart talks about talking. 

Ironically, one negative effect of the Israel-UAE deal is the false encouragement it offers to those who still think that permanent Israeli control of the West Bank has been prevented and that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a two-state solution might actually succeed.

Ian Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman Chair in the Political Science Department of the University of Pennsylvania.