Normalisation of UAE-Israel ties will be year-long process

JERUSALEM • The treaty Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will sign this week will not fully normalise ties, but will be the start of a year-long process that could protect the Gulf nation's interests as it lobbies to buy the US's top warplane, according to two people briefed on the pact.

The plan is for both sides to raise cooperation over the course of a year, starting with economic cooperation, continuing with deepened security and intelligence ties, then culminating in the exchange of ambassadors, they said.

While phased agreements run the risk of never ripening into subsequent stages, the Emiratis apparently concluded that is "less risky then waking up one morning and finding out that their major move - historic move - turns into a fiasco", said Dr Nimrod Novik, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator and fellow at the Israel Policy Forum think tank.

The signing ceremony is scheduled to take place today at the White House. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be there but the de facto leader of the UAE, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, will not, detracting from what has been touted as a "historic" first agreement between Israel and a Gulf Arab state.

Drawn together by a shared distrust of Iran and mutual interest in technological innovation, Israel and the UAE went public last month with their intention to formalise decades of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

Although full normalisation will be at least months away, Israel and the US stand to benefit from the optics of today's ceremony.

For Mr Netanyahu, it is a distraction from a bungled response to a raging coronavirus outbreak and his corruption trial. For Mr Trump, it boosts his claims to advancing peace in the Middle East as he faces a tough re-election bid.

For the UAE, though, the step-by-step approach to normalisation offers time to measure regional reactions to the treaty and maintain leverage over Israel and the United States as it seeks advanced American weaponry, including Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter.

Mr Trump has hinted he is open to such a sale, but Israel objects, saying it would compromise its weapons edge in the region, which the US has long vowed to maintain.

"The United Arab Emirates prioritises the strategic security aspect of the deal as opposed to the economic and diplomatic, people-to-people relations," said Dr Fawaz Gerges, Middle Eastern politics professor at the London School of Economics. This includes the UAE obtaining advanced weaponry, particularly the F-35, and advanced US drones, he added.

Full-fledged normalisation also remains tricky for the UAE because of resistance within the Arab world as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved.

The Gulf nation has made much of the fact that Israel had agreed to suspend annexation of West Bank land the Palestinians claim for a state as a condition of this deal.

But if Israel's fractious coalition breaks down and the country heads to the polls again, Mr Netanyahu could come under pressure once more to promise annexation to shore up his hawkish flank.

And if Mr Trump is not re-elected, withholding full normalisation until after the vote gives the UAE clout with a new administration. "By keeping a personal distance from a signing ceremony, he (Prince Mohammed bin Zayed) keeps his options open" in the sense of not having "personal ownership of the signing ceremony", said Dr Gerges.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2020, with the headline Normalisation of UAE-Israel ties will be year-long process. Subscribe