The most important diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East in a generation meant so little to the man who first announced it on Twitter that within an hour he had moved on to tweeting about football and predicting the collapse of the United States under Joe Biden.
Donald Trump, in full reelection mode, plainly doesn’t think voters will care much about the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
He’s probably right about that: In an American election cycle, foreign policy success gets only desultory attention. At the most, Trump might be able to use Thursday’s announcement to score a minor point against Biden in one of their debates.
But the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation since 1994 has profound, perdurable implications for both countries — and for the U.S. It will mark the legacies of its two architects: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
We can dispense with the polite fiction that Trump made the agreement possible: The prince and the prime minister needed no American prompting. Israel has for years been improving relations with the Gulf Arab states, and it was only a matter of time before one of them took the lead in formalizing the process.
And the UAE was always the odds-on favorite to be the first, not least because MBZ, as the prince is popularly known, has aggressively pursued a policy of expanding Emirati influence, often by marrying his ambitions to American interests.
Between MBZ and Netanyahu, it is the prince who’s taking the greater gamble with normalization. Although the Palestinian cause no longer animates Gulf affairs as it once did, Israel remains highly unpopular among ordinary Arabs.
His spin doctors will try to portray MBZ as a savior of the Palestinians by suggesting he used the lure of normalization to prevent Netanyahu from going through with a planned annexation of large swathes of the West Bank. But this is not an easy sell.
MBZ’s enemies in the region — whether they be Yemeni, Qatari or Iranian — will accuse him of colluding with the Palestinians’ oppressors. The UAE will receive some blame for any Palestinian hereafter killed, hurt or humiliated by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Islamist terrorists may seek to make an example of him, just as they did the first Arab leader to make a deal with Israel: Anwar Sadat.
But MBZ can ride out spasms of public opprobrium. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t need to win any elections. And the security structures of the UAE will undoubtedly be strengthened to ensure his safety. He has obviously calculated that the rewards of normalization far outweigh any risk on his part.
Some of these are obvious. The agreement allows the two countries to openly trade in goods and services, especially of the military and intelligence kind, which MBZ needs for his ambition to turn the Emirati armed forces into a Little Sparta. Israel and the UAE, already united in their perception of the Iranian threat, can now openly join forces against the common enemy.
The other advantages of normalization for MBZ are more subtle. It will, for instance, buy him a great deal of goodwill in Washington, where his clout is already considerable. What’s more, the goodwill will be bipartisan, insulating him from a potential Trump defeat on Nov. 3. Contrast that with the fortunes of his good friend, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which are bound to Trump.
For Netanyahu, the risks of normalization are much lower. Yes, an about-face on the annexation plan will enrage a large section of his political base, and especially the would-be settlers. That may explain his equivocation on the topic. But an exchange of embassies with the UAE would be a diplomatic triumph even his most vociferous critics cannot deny.
Netanyahu has now demonstrated that Israel can make peace with an Arab state without committing Israel to peace with the Palestinians or even a two-state solution. Now that the UAE has broken that taboo, he can hold out for similar deals with other Muslim countries.
In the meantime, Israeli businesses can look forward to making deals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which could serve as gateways to the wider Arab world. Direct flights between the two countries — unthinkable five years ago — may now be only weeks away.
That leaves the Palestinians, for whom Israeli-Emirati normalization spells only further isolation, especially if it inspires other Arab states to seek similar agreements. The Palestinian Authority can respond only with symbolic, and ultimately self-defeating, gestures, such as the decision to recall its ambassador to the UAE. Those able to clutch at straws might hope that the UAE will wield more influence on Israel when the two countries have stronger diplomatic and economic ties. But that is a very thin reed.
For the U.S., there is almost no risk at all: Two allies collaborating openly can only serve American interests. Even if this matters little to Trump, future American leaders will appreciate the agreement he announced.- Bloomberg