We here in Israel are dealing with shifting international scenarios that are a bit unsettling: For there is no certainty as to how they will play out.
I allude, of course, to the evolving détente with various nations – primarily Arab and Muslim nations that Israel has long been accustomed to viewing guardedly at best. How should this shifting situation be received and what are its ramifications? Should we be speaking about a promising situation that harbors dangers? Or a potentially dangerous situation that offers great promise? Or dancing for joy?
At present, the heart of this détente rests with the diplomatic ties being established between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to Prof. Hillel Frisch, senior research associate at the BESA Center, the most extraordinary aspect of the new relationship between the UAE and Israel is the fact that it didn’t bring unrest in the Arab street (emphasis added):
“To the surprise of Iranian and Palestinian leaders, the Arab public did not protest the Israel-UAE peace agreement—but they continue to protest Iranian meddling in Iraqi and Lebanese affairs. The lack of protest against the Israel-UAE breakthrough is a sign of political maturity as Arab and Muslim populations clamor for reform at home rather than destructive ideological visions…
“…the lack of demonstrations…was most assuredly noticed by state leaders in the Middle East and their violent proxy organizations. For those leaders who wisely seek to establish relations with Israel, the lack of demonstrations was reassuring, as it lowered the sense of danger emanating from the Arab street regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
And so, we see that something truly is shifting. This treaty, notes Frisch, is “the first to contain the promise of a warm peace.” We see evidence of this in several respects, with talk of a “people to people” peace, rather than one only at official levels.
Even before the first Israeli-US delegation traveled to the UAE to formalize the normalization process, Ellie’s Kosher Kitchen in Dubai had received kosher certification from the OU, the Orthodox Union. “…the head of OU Israel, was flown in by the UAE to oversee the preparation of kosher food for the US-Israeli delegation.”
That high level delegation of Israeli and US officials made history when they traveled via El Al from Ben Gurion Airport to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, on August 31: This was the first Israeli passenger flight to go direct from Israel to the UAE. (There had been cargo flights.)
The Israeli delegation was led by National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat (pictured), while US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Senior US Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner headed the American delegation. From the Israeli Foreign Ministry came an announcement: “We are at the start of an historic process and we intend to advance as quickly as possible the establishment of full ties and opening embassies in both countries…”
Subsequently, an unnamed UAE Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying: “I think the Israelis will be able to obtain travel visa[s] to the UAE from an embassy that will open in Israel…three to five months from now.” In addition there is talk of a UAE consulate to be established in the north, perhaps in Haifa.
Cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman told Army Radio that a security delegation would be heading to the UAE in two or three weeks. And now there are reports, confirmed by an Israeli official, that a formal UAE delegation will pay its first visit to Israel on September 22 ‒ timed to follow a ceremonial signing of the Accord at the White House.
And so Israel’s new relationship with the UAE does seem to be moving in an exceedingly positive direction. What is more, in the wake of this pace-setting deal, there appears to be a new response to Israel exhibited by other governments.
During that historic flight from Israel to the UAE, Saudi Arabia permitted El Al to cross its air space, cutting flight time roughly by half. This was also an historic first: never before had the Saudis given permission for an Israeli plane to use its airspace. Since 2018, Saudi Arabia has allowed Air India flights to Israel to use its airspace, but never before an Israeli-registered plane.
Where the Saudis are concerned, we best not make too much of this gesture – even as it does signal a new responsiveness. Apparently the US had requested that the Saudis open their airspace, and they had agreed because there were US officials aboard.
El Al remains hopeful that standing permission to cross their territory can be negotiated with the Saudis, as this would be a boon for flights to a number of destinations. Without that permission, Israeli flights must go down the Red Sea and around the Arabian peninsula (see map below).
We know that the Saudis are not in any rush to follow the example of the UAE diplomatically: As I noted recently, they are holding to the stipulation of the Arab Peace Initiative which they launched in 2002: No normalization with Israel until there is “peace with the Palestinians, on the basis of international parameters” (i.e., along the 1949 armistice line). But of course, Saudi Arabia now has extensive covert ties with Israel, none of which existed 18 years ago, so the potential for further shift is there.
Following the El Al flight that had received permission to fly over Saudi Arabia, Bahrain announced that that it will permit all services and flights to and from the United Arab Emirates to cross its airspace. Israel was not specifically mentioned but was understood to be included.
Bahrain is miniscule compared to Saudi Arabia, which is the lynch pin in the region.
When the Abraham Accord was announced, it was widely anticipated that Bahrain might be the next Gulf State to forge ties with Israel. This current gesture might signal a first step in that direction.
And there are other nations that seem prepared at this juncture to come aboard fully with regard to diplomatic relations with Israel:
Last week, President Trump hosted a meeting at the White House between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo, which had been a part of Serbia, broke off and declared independence in 2008; there are still disputes about Kosovo’s independence and tensions between Kosovo and Serbia had remained high.
The president successfully negotiated economic agreements between the two parties (this is his forte). In the course of making the announcement about the Serbia-Kosovo economic normalization, Trump also announced that Kosovo was prepared to recognize the Jewish State and normalize ties. This was obviously a package arrangement.
Israel had not yet recognized Kosovo. But in response to this announcement, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that Israel was prepared to establish diplomatic relations with Kosovo.
At the very same time, as an additional part of arrangements negotiated by Trump, it was announced that Serbia, which already had diplomatic relations with Israel, would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Belgrade is to open a commercial office in Jerusalem this month, and will move its embassy there in July 2021. Serbia will then be the first European nation to have its embassy in Israel’s capital.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi later referred to the “mutual recognition between Kosovo and Israel” as “an historic achievement.”
“…I look forward to opening our embassy in Jerusalem…the people of Kosovo and the people of Israel have made a connection that cannot be broken…”
This is an announcement of some import, as Kosovo is a Muslim-majority nation. Kosovo, still on shaky ground diplomatically in many quarters, was obviously eager for Israeli recognition.
With regard to Serbia and Kosovo, I will believe the announcements when I see the results on the ground. Serbia is seeking membership in the EU, and the EU has already informed the Serbs that approval of that membership might be in question if they move their embassy to Jerusalem.
With regard to Kosovo, there have been protests by the Arab League. But Thaçi has tweeted that Kosovo will keep its promise to locate its diplomatic mission in Jerusalem.
Clearly we are on a roll: On Saturday, Lazarus Chakwera, the new president of Malawi, a nation in southeast Africa, announced intention to locate the nation’s diplomatic mission in Jerusalem. Chakwera, an Evangelical Christian, is pro-Israel.
I would say that a diplomatic logjam was broken open with the ties between Israel and the UAE. It would have been a shame to miss this opportunity: and we are as yet only seeing the very beginning.
And so, why do I write about this situation as potentially dangerous? Two issues remain:
The first is the matter of our right to apply sovereignty in Judea and Samaria. My position on this has not changed: The Land belongs to Israel and we must not relinquish our rights under international law and according to long term history and heritage. A delay in the application of that sovereignty can be justified if progress in other diplomatic quarters is positive in the interim. But only a delay.
The question that remains is precisely what Netanyahu agreed to in return for ties with the UAE. I’ve been around on this several times already, and recognize that it’s not possible to come to a firm determination.
There are those who say that Netanyahu could still apply sovereignty now. And in theory he could. But anyone who knows of the timidity of our prime minister with regard to taking bold steps that would not be well received by the international community understands that this will not happen. (I will come back to more on this soon!!)
Netanyahu could have applied sovereignty at several junctures over the past years, but did not. He came forward only when Trump smiled upon this action, as part of his peace plan. But that plan is off the table now, at least for some period of time, as the president saw the deal with the UAE as yielding better results. There are a host of speculations we might visit with regard to this. But what we know is that our prime minister has made it clear that he will not move without American support.
What has considerably reassured me is a statement made last week by director of policy planning in the Emirati Foreign Ministry Jamal al-Musharakh to Israeli journalists as part of a briefing:
Even if Israel proceeds with its plan to declare sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and Judea and Samaria settlements, it will not stop the peace process.
However, Musharakh emphasized that his government had “received assurances” from the American and Israeli governments that the sovereignty initiative would not proceed.
I do not believe that sovereignty is a dead letter, permanently off the table. At this point it is my conviction that we should not focus outwardly on what the Americans or the Emiratis want. It is time for Israel to focus domestically, working towards a government dedicated to our rights and headed by someone prepared to act for those rights. This is our first priority.
The last issue concerns the request by the UAE for American F-35 stealth jets – planes that Israel possesses but the Arab countries do not. The issue of America’s legal commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the Middle East is a serious one. America determines whether a particular sale of arms honors that QME, not Israel. But Israel, of course, weighs in on this.
There are unnamed US sources that claim Netanyahu signed off on this, but our prime minister has been quite vociferous in insisting that he never did. Do I think he did? It’s certainly possible either because he saw this as a done deal anyway, or believed that his not bucking it was the wiser action, as he wanted the UAE deal to go through for important reasons. A public denial of what he sanctioned would not be surprising, but there is no clarity on this.
In any event, it does seem fairly clear that it will go through. The UAE has been seeking these jets for years. “American officials are careful to insist that the new push to sell the weapons to the Emiratis is not a direct reward for their role in the agreement…But they do not dispute that after years of American refusals to sell F-35s to the Emiratis, the change in position is linked to the diplomatic initiative.”
What unsettles me is that there is a military package that the US is apparently prepared to sell to the UAE beyond the fighter jets: Reaper drones and EA-18G Growler jets — electronic warfare planes that pave the way for stealth attacks by jamming enemy air defenses. This was not made clear in the beginning.
In the face of this, there are two questions to be asked:
First, what will the US do to protect Israel’s MQE? There are a number of possibilities that would mitigate concerns about what the UAE will have and we have no answers on this yet – only verbal reassurances that our QME will be protected. There are ways to enhance Israel’s F-35s, and other planes with advanced abilities currently only in the possession of the US that might be sold to Israel. And lastly, the bunker busters necessary to take out Iran’s deeply entrenched nuclear development facilities. At present only the US has the MOAB – the “mother of all bombs” – and it would serve Israel well.
The second question is whether the UAE, which clearly wants this weaponry to deal with Iran, can be trusted never to turn the planes on Israel (the fact that the F-35 cannot fly the distance from the UAE to Israel without refueling in the air aside)?
The argument is made that a regime such as that of the UAE, which is not a democracy, is inherently unstable. Analyst Martin Sherman makes this case, in a recent piece:
“While the normalization with the UAE could definitely entail significant benefits for Israel, it is still somewhat premature to celebrate the onset of lasting amity—rather than enmity—in the region.”
But then there is Col. Richard Kemp, a former military commander of much experience who now writes on international and military affairs. He calls the deal between Israel and the UAE “perhaps the greatest step forward in world peace for decades.”
What I have done is to consult with Dr. Moti Kedar, an academic who specializes in Arabic culture and spent 25 years with IDF Intelligence. He assures me that the UAE, because of its political nature, is exceedingly stable. I would like to return to what he says in more detail as space and time permit.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.