Photo Credit: The White House
Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahya sign agreement at the White House, September 15, 2020.
by Josh Lalonde
At a September 15 ceremony at the White House, representatives of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Israel signed declarations normalizing relations between the two Arab states and Israel. U.S. President Donald Trump described it in a tweet as a “HISTORIC day for PEACE in the Middle East.” Far from promoting peace, however, the agreement instead cements the pre-existing alliance between Israel and the authoritarian monarchies of the Gulf, who have never been at war with Israel in the first place.
Spoiler alert: the motivations for this deal do not include a genuine desire for peace.
The agreement negotiated by the UAE requires Israel to “suspend” its proposed annexation of portions of the West Bank — although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that the suspension is only temporary.
To understand what the agreement is truly about, then, we need to trace the winding political road that led Netanyahu to commit himself to annexation — as well as the motivations which were really behind the deal. Spoiler alert: these motivations do not include a genuine desire for peace.
The Road to Annexation
Ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has exercised de facto control over the West Bank without officially declaring legal sovereignty over the area. Annexation of the West Bank — or “Judea and Samaria” as the Israeli government sometimes calls it, using Biblical names that evoke a vision of restoring a legendary “Greater Israel” — has until recently remained a mere dream of some members of the Israeli right, such as sometime Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennet.
However, in the past year, proposals for annexation of parts of the West Bank have been advanced by Netanyahu and by Jared Kushner, son-in-law and advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump.
On September 10, 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a second Knesset (parliamentary) election in a six month period, announced a plan to annex the Jordan Valley region within the West Bank. His goal was presumably to shore up support by drawing on nationalistic fervour, while distracting from his own legal troubles. (Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust yet has refused to step down.)
When the September 17 election resulted, like the previous one, in a deadlock, Netanyahu took up the call for annexation again. This was Netanyahu’s third election campaign in the span of a year. This time, he campaigned on Trump and Kushner’s so-called “Deal of the Century,” under which all existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank would be annexed to Israel. A Palestinian state would then be formed on the remaining non-contiguous fragments of the region.
Although the plan was heavily weighted in Israel’s favour, the small concessions that it did include — such as a halt on new settlement construction and eventual recognition of a Palestinian state — were too much for some members of the Israeli right. David Elhayani, leader of the Yesha council, an umbrella organization of settlers in the West Bank, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the plan was “a scam.”
Hoping to retain the support of these elements for his coalition, Netanyahu therefore argued that there was no need to wait for Palestinian agreement to the plan — which was unlikely to be forthcoming anyway — before beginning annexation. Instead, Israel should unilaterally begin the annexation process on July 1, and only then negotiate the details of the agreement with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from the subsequent March 2 election weakened. It was only able to retain power by negotiating a coalition and power-sharing agreement with rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party.
Gantz had campaigned in opposition to Netanyahu and unilateral annexation, but ended up joining a government that supported both. He had previously expressed approval of the Trump-Kushner plan, but promised to somehow negotiate its implementation with the Palestinians rather than impose it unilaterally.
However, faced with yet another deadlock and the prospect of a fourth election in just over a year, Gantz made an about-face and agreed to prop up Netanyahu. In exchange, Gantz’s party would fill half of Netanyahu’s cabinet and he would assume the position of prime minister after 18 months, in November 2021.
On March 25, Trump proclaimed U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights region, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed by Israel in 1981. Until Trump’s statement, no state other than Israel had recognized the region as part of Israel. The proclamation was met with widespread international condemnation, including from close U.S. allies like the UAE and Bahrain.
The announcement also followed Trump’s December 2017 statement recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and transferring the US embassy there, where previous presidents had refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, also captured in 1967. These moves could be interpreted as a sign of the U.S.’ positive disposition towards unilateral annexation of the West Bank, which was likewise occupied in 1967
In the weeks leading up to the July 1 deadline, Netanyahu continued to insist on his readiness to proceed with annexation. Yet reports of internal misgivings continued to surface. A Haaretz opinion poll this past March showed that only 42% of Israeli Jews supported some form of annexation of the West Bank, while a full 30% didn’t know whether or not they supported it, and another 28% opposed it — hardly the passionate response Netanyahu had hoped to evoke. Furthermore, as Israel saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in late February, all previously-established plans were disrupted.
In short, the deadline came and went with no change to the legal status of the West Bank.
Normalization with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
After the non-event of the July 1 deadline, and with Netanyahu’s continued political struggles now compounded by the pandemic and its attendant economic crisis, annexation became a secondary issue in Israeli politics. However, the U.S., Israel, and the United Arab Emirates stated in an August 13 announcement that the latter two countries would begin normalizing their relations, reintroducing the issue of annexation. The three countries, along with Bahrain, ultimately signed declarations normalizing relations on September 15.
Under the agreement negotiated by the U.S., Israel would “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas [of the West Bank] outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace,” while the UAE would become only the third Arab country (after Jordan and Egypt) to officially recognize Israel.
Although the announcement described the agreement as a “historic diplomatic breakthrough [that] will advance peace in the Middle East region,” Israel and the UAE were never in fact at war. Since at least 2015, in fact, they have had unofficial relations that neither state has bothered to conceal. The agreement did little more than make the existing relationship between the two states official, while providing an opening for stronger economic ties and military or security co-ordination.
Palestinian political representatives have nearly universally condemned the UAE’s normalization with Israel as a betrayal of their cause and of Arab solidarity. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told the Palestinian news agency Wafa that the “decision is at the expense of the legitimate Palestinian national rights,” Al Jazeera reports. Adding to the sense of betrayal, the Arab League rejected a Palestinian motion to condemn the agreement.
The UAE, like other Arab countries, refused to recognize the state of Israel after its formation in 1948 amid a UN-sponsored partition of the British-controlled Palestine mandate. The conflicts surrounding the partition led to a war in which Israeli militias expelled approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, an event which Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba,” or disaster. While Israel has tended to argue these refugees left “voluntarily,” at best they were fleeing for their lives. The right of return is also recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and several other international human rights conventions.
In subsequent wars with surrounding Arab states, Israel gained control over the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza strip, and the Golan Heights region of Syria, all of which have remained under Israeli control to this day. Although Egypt in 1978 and Jordan in 1994 signed peace agreements with Israel, the remaining Arab states maintained official stances of non-recognition until a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue is reached.
In 2002, the Arab League adopted a resolution affirming that normalization with Israel would depend on the end of Israeli occupation of territory captured in 1967 and the formation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In recent years however, a number of Arab states, especially Gulf states like the UAE, have engaged in clandestine and even open relations with Israel on an unofficial basis.
UAE Motivations for Normalization
What motivated the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel now? A popular answer among commentators is that they have a common regional enemy in Iran. Iran forms the backbone of the so-called “Axis of Resistance” which includes both state (Syria) and non-state (Hamas, Hezbollah) actors opposed to Israel and the U.S.
Meanwhile, the UAE is a close U.S. ally and previously supported opposition forces in the Syrian war. Furthermore, the UAE is, alongside Saudi Arabia, one of the leading members of the coalition supporting the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Yemen against the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.
The position of the UAE in the Persian Gulf leaves it vulnerable to a potential attack from nearby Iran. Also, the oil exports on which its economy depends are forced to travel through the narrow Straits of Hormuz, which could easily be blocked by Iran in the event of a conflict. An alliance between Israel and the UAE would put each country in a stronger position against Iran and its regional allies, and in particular would allow the UAE to buy military equipment from Israel, which has one of the world’s leading defence industries.
Although there is truth in this answer, it’s also inadequate — especially when it comes to explaining the timing of the decision. Other moves by the UAE in recent years have tended to de-escalate tensions with Iran and its allies. In December 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Syria after closing it in 2012, implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The UAE has also drawn down its presence in Yemen, seemingly distancing itself from the Saudi-led effort to push the Houthi forces out of the constitutional capital Sana’a, instead focusing on establishing bases in the south of the country. Finally, the UAE sent four planeloads of medical supplies to Iran between March and June in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two countries’ foreign ministers spoke as recently as August 3 about the need to co-operate in facing the pandemic.
What may lie behind the timing of the move is instead the UAE’s increasing concern about the threat posed to its regional interests by Turkey. Turkish foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become increasingly aggressive — even as Erdoğan has grown increasingly authoritarian — with repeated Turkish military interventions in Syria, Libya, and Iraq over the last few years.
In Libya in particular, Turkey and the UAE find themselves on opposite sides of the protracted war, with Turkey supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UAE being the main backer of the Eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar. According to a report by Middle East Eye, in April the UAE offered to pay $3 billion (U.S.) to the Syrian government to continue or restart fighting against Turkey, in order to pin down Turkish military resources in Syria and prevent a transfer to Libya.
Turkish state-run media has also accused the UAE of supporting the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization. More concretely, the UAE has aligned itself with several Eastern Mediterranean countries (Greece, Egypt, Cyprus), as well as France, in opposing Turkey’s moves to secure access to oil and gas fields in the region by redrawing the marine boundaries of the various Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the area.
In light of all these factors, it seems likely that the UAE is hoping to draw Israel — with its powerful military and sophisticated defence industry — further into the anti-Turkey bloc. This aspect of the agreement would have to remain secret since Turkey, a NATO member, is still officially an ally of the U.S. and Israel, despite increasing tensions in recent years.
Yet another motivation behind the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel is the F-35 fighter jet. The UAE has long sought to acquire this fifth-generation jet from the U.S. to upgrade from its current fleet of F-16s. However, it has been prevented from doing so by the U.S.’ agreement with Israel to ensure the latter’s “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East, even over other U.S. allies like the UAE.
CNN reported that Jared Kushner secretly worked on selling F-35s to the UAE in conjunction with the normalization agreement with Israel. There may even have been a secret clause to the agreement waiving Israel’s objections to the arms deal. The alleged F-35 deal was apparently negotiated without the knowledge of Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, according to the Times of Israel.
However, shortly after the announcement of normalization, Netanyahu publicly declared his opposition to the UAE acquiring the jets. He rejected as “fake news” the reports that he had agreed to such a deal as a condition of normalization.
In response, the UAE cancelled a scheduled public meeting at the White House with Israeli representatives, as Axios reported. As of the time of writing, there is no indication whether or not a UAE F-35 deal will go ahead. But Israeli security officials were, according to World Israel News, planning a set of requests for further military equipment from the U.S. that would enable Israel to maintain its advantage over the UAE even with F-35s.
What then is the result of the agreement between the UAE and Israel? Each country has offered differing interpretations. The UAE’s de facto ruler Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammad bin Zayed stressed that the agreement “stops” annexation, while Netanyahu claimed that it only “suspended” annexation, which would still eventually proceed.
Meanwhile, as Reuters reported, Trump stated that annexation was “right now off the table” at the August 13 announcement, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman added: “The word suspend was chosen carefully by all the parties. ‘Suspend’ by definition, look it up, means a temporary halt.”
Israel’s de facto rule over the West Bank — which denies political rights for its Palestinian inhabitants — continues, while its blockade of the Gaza Strip has intensified in recent weeks in response to incendiary balloons being released onto Israeli territory.
Other Arab states’ normalization
In the wake of the announcement of the normalization agreement, speculation circulated that other Arab states might move to normalize relations with Israel. One of the first states suggested was Saudi Arabia. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia is a authoritarian monarchy and U.S. ally who has had unofficial relations with Israel for several years.
Another country mentioned as a possibility to normalize with Israel was Sudan. Covert Sudanese ties with Israel date to the era of former president Omar al-Bashir.
Yet ultimately disagreements within the Saudi and Sudanese governments seem to have stopped — or suspended, at least — moves towards normalization. While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has met with American pro-Israel organizations and is generally regarded as in favour of normalization, Prince Turki al-Faisal has stated flatly that Saudi normalization would depend on the formation of an independent Palestinian state, in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a rift between the Sudanese military — which supports normalization as a step towards greater security co-ordination with Israel — and the civilian leadership, which so far has argued that the transitional government does not have a mandate for normalization, and that this could be decided only by an elected government.
Other rumours concerned Bahrain, which immediately welcomed the announcement of the UAE’s normalization agreement. However, on August 26, Bahraini state media reported that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa had told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Bahrain was committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and its call for the formation of a Palestinian state as a condition of normalization with Israel.
Yet only a few weeks later, on September 11, the U.S. announced that Bahrain and Israel would normalize relations. Bahraini opposition groups expressed their disapproval of the agreement, as did Palestinian leaders. Bahrain ultimately attended the signing ceremony at the White House on September 15.
It isn’t surprising that, as a settler-colonial state that is itself built on the genocide and displacement of Indigenous peoples, Canada should find common cause with the settler-colonial project of Israel.
Canada’s Response to Annexation
Canada’s long-standing official position on Israel-Palestine has been support for a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state, with direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to reach a comprehensive peace agreement. However, successive Canadian governments have also maintained and even deepened ties with Israel, such as by signing a free-trade agreement in 1996. This is in spite of Israel’s continual construction of settlements, access roads, and a border wall that encroach on the pre-1967 West Bank territory, leaving nowhere for a Palestinian state to be established.
Under the current Liberal government, then foreign affairs minister (and now Deputy Prime Minister) Chrystia Freeland in October 2018 affirmed Canada’s “unwavering and ironclad” support for Israel. This came at a time when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were violently repressing weekly “Great March of Return” protests at Gaza’s separation fence, killing hundreds and wounding thousands of protesters.
In this context, it is no surprise that current Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne immediately announced Canada’s approval of the Israel-UAE normalization agreement. This August 13 statement echoed the Trump administration’s characterization of the deal as a step towards “peace and security” in the region.
Of course, the statement does not explain how facilitating arms sales to an authoritarian monarchy engaged in a bloody war in Yemen furthers the cause of peace.
At the same time, Champagne reaffirmed Canada’s support for the two-state solution and welcomed the suspension of the annexation threat. A similar statement was issued by Global Affairs Canada on Twitter on September 11, immediately following the announcement of Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Israel.
Despite congratulating the Israeli government for not annexing areas of the West Bank, Canada was conspicuously quiet during the months over which the threat of annexation was active. The official “Foreign Policy CAN” Twitter account has not tweeted anything about the West Bank since 2018, nor has Global Affairs Canada made public any opposition to the annexation threat, as the EU and several of its member countries did.
In a vague statement concerning the U.S.’ proposed “Middle East peace plan” released on January 28, Foreign Minister Champagne made no mention of annexation. A government response to Israel’s annexation plans did not come until Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about a letter signed by 58 former diplomats and politicians, including former ambassadors to Israel and cabinet ministers, which called on the Canadian government to take a stronger stance against annexation. Only then did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau express his “deep concerns and disagreement with [the Israeli government’s] proposed policy of annexation,” and stated that “unilateral action by either side is unhelpful in the cause of peace.”
It is instructive to compare this answer to the statement on the Global Affairs Canada website commemorating the sixth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region from Ukraine. Trudeau carefully warned both Israel and Palestine against unilateral action — although only one was actively threatening any such move. Yet the Global Affairs statement explicitly characterizes the Russian annexation as illegal and “unequivocally condemns” it.
It is equally instructive to note that Trudeau’s answer contained no indication that Israeli annexation would cause any disruption to Canada’s relations with the country or diminish its “ironclad” support. In fact, Trudeau has repeatedly condemned the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign — which calls for governments such as Canada’s to impose sanctions on Israel — as antisemitic. By contrast, the Canadian government has imposed strict sanctions on the Russian-occupied Crimea, as well as on individuals involved in the government of the region.
Commentators have suggested that Canada’s support for Israel was a factor in its failure to be elected to one of the non-permanent United Nations Security Council seats in June. Most of the world, it seems, is not fooled by Canada’s occasional expressions of “concern” or “disapproval” towards a particularly egregious action on the part of the Israeli state. Nor is it surprising that, as a settler-colonial state that is itself built on the genocide and displacement of Indigenous peoples, Canada should find common cause with the settler-colonial project of Israel.
If annexation of parts of the West Bank does proceed in the future, the world will remember Canada’s enthusiastic support for the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization with Israel, rather than the inevitable tepid condemnatory statement the Canadian government will issue.