In a remarkable change in the Middle East, three countries — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan — have taken steps towards normalizing relations with the State of Israel in recent months. These are the first countries to do so since Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994. These countries, along with Egypt, are the only four in the Middle East that currently have diplomatic relations with Israel.
This decision marks a radical shift by Arab nations from the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The resolution, upheld by a unanimous vote and signed by both the UAE and Bahrain, established several demands that, until they were met, would prevent signatories from establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Key conditions for peace included establishing a Palestinian state according to the Israel-Palestine borders as drawn in 1967 with East Jerusalem as a capital. Following the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel annexed territory in the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and the West Bank that previously belonged to other nations, some of which it has since refused to cede. The resolution furthermore demanded the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon as conditions for peace.
Israel was condemned by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016 for what the body deemed a “flagrant violation of international law”; the resolution highlighted Israel’s policy of expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, considered Palestinian territory by the U.N. The resolution stated that Israel was violating the Fourth Geneva Convention by neglecting the rights of Palestinians, displacing them, and destroying their villages. As a condition for peace, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received a concession from Israel that the country would suspend its plans to annex large swaths of the West Bank to build settlements, a move that had been a priority under the Netanyahu administration. For over a decade, Netanyahu has supported establishing Israeli settlements on strips of land in the West Bank, such as the E-1 plot only a 15-minute drive from Jerusalem, and during his tenure thousands of Israelis have settled in the West Bank. As Israel has pledged neither to give Palestine sovereignty over East Jerusalem nor to respond to a series of other demands made of the 2002 resolution, the UAE’s decision to normalize relations has been met with chagrin by Palestinian leaders and advocates for the resolution. The U.S., which brokered the deal and is allied with both countries, supports the reconciliation.
The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel has significant implications both for communication between the countries and for the Middle East as a whole. While Saudi Arabia, a key American ally in the Middle East with a major influence on the region’s affairs, has yet to imply that its attitude towards peace has shifted, the trend certainly appears to be one in support of Israel. This trend appears especially to support collaboration in fighting their mutual rivals in Iran, whom they fear for their ambitions to expand their nuclear weapons program and potentially increase hostilities in the region. It is no mistake that Bahrain followed suit within a month of the UAE; Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel can best fight a common enemy when they are on good terms. Normalizing relations could provide the UAE an extraordinary military advantage, as they will have access to military technologies such as the F-35 advanced fighter jet previously unavailable to them due to the influence of the U.S. on Middle-Eastern military affairs. The U.S., although allied with both countries, had sought to preserve Israel’s military advantage over other Arab nations, an arrangement that is expected to become less stringent.
Diplomatic relations will be sealed in coming months as Israel exchanges ambassadors with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, although details regarding Sudan have yet to be clarified. Official embassies are expected to open by 2021. Reconciliation will permit citizens of each state to travel between each other — Israel has already agreed to a visa-waiver policy with the U.A.E. — and conduct business, allowing for greater international investment in Israel. Palestinian leaders have decried these agreements, arguing that Emiratis should not have unrestricted access to holy sites such as Jerusalem while they are forbidden themselves from entering the city’s premises without passing a strict security process.
Although decades have passed since a Middle Eastern country has normalized relations with Israel, recent trends in the region’s affairs and within U.S. politics render this reconciliation one of note but not from left field. Netanyahu’s plans to annex Palestinian territory was bound to face harsh backlash from the global community; temporarily postponing this ambition benefits Israel’s standing on the world stage and serves as a concession that is mutually beneficial for both Israel and the U.A.E. Furthermore, as the U.S. presidential election nears with a potential end for the Trump administration, Israel likely recognized that a Biden administration would be much less supportive of their settlement policy. If U.S. support were to falter, Israel would become much more vulnerable. The movements of Bahrain and Sudan to join the U.A.E. demonstrates that the Israel-U.A.E. agreement is not an exception, but rather it has the potential to reflect a larger consolidation of support for Israel by Arab nations who see an alliance against Iran as a priority of greater importance than any past grievances.
Jacob Rosenzweig is a first-year from New York, New York studying History and Classics.