Seth J. Frantzman

The paradox of Israeli peace

The paradox of Israeli peace
Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
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Days after the UAE and Israel announced a deal, Israelis were already talking about trips to Dubai and all the great five star hotels the Gulf offers. At the same time, the country has been speculating about which states will be next in line to make peace. This sense of a coming era of peacemaking is palpable.

However, the reality in the region is that while many countries have been considering closer ties with Israel because of shared threats and interests they are also moving cautiously. Oman is a good example of this paradox. Oman welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a surprise visit in 2018 and it appeared to be pushing regional states, such as the Kingdom of Jordan, to be more flexible with Israel. Omani foreign minister Yousuf bin Alawi phoned Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi two days after the UAE deal. Alawi was thought to have been key to closer relations with Israel. He had met Netanyahu in 2019. But he was suddenly replaced on 18 August with Badr al-Busaidi by Oman’s sultan. This may be a signal that Oman-Israel ties are not forthcoming.

Sudan, also, is flip-flopping on relations with Israel. Netanyahu met Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Uganda in February in a surprise meeting. Sudan has been undergoing political turmoil since the overthrow of tyrant Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Days after the UAE deal was announced the spokesperson for Sudan’s foreign ministry said his country was also seeking to normalise relations with Israel. But the Foreign Ministry rejected his comments and fired him. Other Sudanese parties reject normalisation with Israel, illustrating that it’s not all smooth sailing for Jerusalem in Khartoum.

The prize for relations for Israel would be Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom once known for leading hostilities with Israel has become more open to relations in the last decades. But there is a caveat, say the Saudis: Israel must withdraw from the West Bank and a Palestinian state will need to exist. This is the uphill struggle that Israel faces. Most countries will want something in return for normalising ties. The UAE was a kind of trial balloon and its crown prince Mohammed Bin Zayed has played a central role in the deal. UAE ambassador to Washington Yousef Al Otaiba has written two op-eds in Israel’s largest daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi already have controversy in their path to normalisation. At the centre of the dispute is the sale of F-35s, the American fifth-generation warplane of which Israel already has two operational squadrons flying. Israel’s policy is to maintain a qualitative military edge. That means receiving the most advanced military technology from the US while not having other Middle Eastern states acquire the same level of weapons. The UAE wants the F-35, which only a handful of countries fly. Rumours in Israeli media say Netanyahu accepted the idea of US sales to Abu Dhabi as part of the peace deal, but Netanyahu denies any secret clause exists that encourages the sales.

The F-35 controversy, a bubbling scandal in Israel that could provide gunpowder to Netanyahu’s enemies in upcoming elections, illustrate that the path to the Gulf will be paved with potential pitfalls. Israel is a country founded on moving fast, underpinned by rapid hi-tech growth and innovative military technology. The Gulf is more pragmatic and doesn’t want to upset the careful balance the monarchies enjoy.

Israel and the UAE will likely establish business ties, maybe even a chamber of commerce, and Israel will negotiate flight rights that it hopes to have over Saudi Arabia. Already Israel’s leading defence companies are working on Covid-19 solutions with a Gulf counterpart. It may be a warmer peace than Israel enjoys with Jordan and Egypt, where there are few business ties and fewer civil society ties. However, it should be remembered that Israel had trade offices in the Gulf in the 1990s, part of emerging ties that were scuppered by the second intifada in 2000. It has taken 20 years to get back these emerging trade relations. Now those relations are underpinned by consensus in Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi on the threat posed by Iran and the challenge posed by Turkey in the region. Expect things to move slowly and pragmatically. UAE-Israel relations are a process, not the start of a revolution. To get to the next step both sides will move cautiously if they want to succeed.