Monday, August 17, 2020

By Daled Amos

The Israel-UAE agreement has been described as groundbreaking.
And rightfully so.

But just for context, how long has this agreement been in the making?

One of the key reasons for this agreement, and for potential Israeli alliances with Arab Gulf states in general, is the need for unity in the face of the common enemy of Iran.

But this is not the first time that Israel and Arab countries found a common enemy in their back yard.

In his book "Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes," Abba Eban wrote:

Saudi Arabia, as the pivot of the Desert Storm operation [August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991], began to see Israel as a fellow victim of Saddam Hussein's Scuds and as a potential collaborator in postwar economic enterprises. A year later, it even proposed a transaction whereby Israel would freeze new settlements and Saudi Arabia would cancel the Arab boycott regulations. If Shamir had accepted this proposal, as any other Israeli prime minister would have done, Israel's economy would have taken a forward leap. (p. 638) [Emphasis added]
That was about 30 years ago.
Back then, the common enemy that inspired cooperation was Iraq, not Iran.

Later, the spark that led to the new peace agreement may be a program that was put into action in 2008 in an effort to "rebrand" Israel. The concept was presented that year at the First Nefesh B'Nefesh JBlogging Conference. In an article in The Canadian Jewish News, Ido Aharoni, founder of the ministry’s Brand Israel concept, described how the goal was to focus on the fact that
...aspects of Israel are worthy of promotion, including its culture and arts; its accomplishments on environmental matters such as water desalination, solar energy and clean technology; its high-tech successes and achievements in higher education; and its involvement in international aid, he added.

Getting Canadians – both Jewish and non-Jewish – to see Israel in that light is part of the branding effort. Not only would that change Israel’s image, it could lead to more tourism and investment, educational exchanges and other benefits, Aharoni said.
The idea that rebranding Israel's image could improve its international relations was not mentioned.

Today, we can see that the focus on Israeli accomplishments, especially on water desalination, high-tech successes and involvement in international aid paid off.

The payoff has been more than just good PR. It has led to improved relations with other countries. For example, Netanyahu has developed key alliances with countries in Eastern Europe such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia -- known as the Visegrad Group. One benefit these countries get is that good relations with Israel provide a fig leaf protecting them against accusations of antisemitism.

In return, Netanyahu has gained important leverage against the EU:
o  In 2017, Hungary abstained when the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

o  Hungary joined the Czech Republic and Romania in blocking a European Union statement criticizing the US for moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

o  In November 2019, the EU failed to get all of its 28 member states behind a joint statement condemning the US decision to no longer consider Israeli settlements as illegal. Hungary blocked the move. As a result, instead of issuing a joint statement of the entire EU, they had to settle for a statement by then-EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

o  In January of this year, the EU again failed to get a consensus, when it tried to unanimously condemn Trump's peace plan.

o  Hungary and the Czech Republic are also among the countries that will file an amicus brief with the ICC in response to ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda's statement last December that there was enough evidence to investigate alleged war crimes by Israel.
Obviously, improving relations and building alliances with Arab countries can bring political dividends, as well as economic -- and of course defense against Iran.

But at the beginning of Trump's term, Arab states in the Gulf were not as open to the idea of Israel-Arab alliances against Iran as they are now.

A February 2017 article in The Wall Street Journal noted that plans for Israel to join an Arab coalition against Iran were limited:
The U.S. would offer military and intelligence support to the alliance, beyond the kind of limited backing it has been providing to a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, the officials said. But neither the U.S. nor Israel would be part of the mutual-defense pact.

“They’ve been asking diplomatic missions in Washington if we’d be willing to join this force that has an Israeli component,” said one Arab diplomat. “Israel’s role would likely be intelligence sharing, not training or boots on the ground. They’d provide intelligence and targets. That’s what the Israelis are good at.” [Emphasis added]
The article goes on to describe various reasons Arab members of the coalition gave for opposing the idea of including Israel -- reasons that apparently no longer stand in the way:
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are putting forth their own demands in exchange for cooperating with Israel, officials said. Those two countries want the U.S. to overturn legislation that could see their governments sued in American courts by families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they said.

Arab diplomats have told administration officials they would pursue more overt cooperation with Israel if it ceases settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—something Israel refused to do under intense pressure from the Obama administration.

The diplomats also said their countries’ cooperation would be contingent upon the Trump administration refraining from moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an effective recognition of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital. In recent weeks, the administration has walked back previous statements supporting settlement construction and moving the embassy. [Emphasis added]
And this was years before the idea of "annexation" was broached.

Seen this way, the agreement between Israel and the UAE is something that Netanyahu has been working towards for years.

Commentator Ehud Yaari also sees this agreement as part of a long term plan, referring to this as The Netanyahu Doctrine:
The "Netanyahu Doctrine," as I understood it from many years ago, says simply - instead of letting Israel drown in negotiations that will not lead to an agreement with the Palestinians, we had better make a bypass, a broad flanking movement, that leaves the Palestinian Authority at the end of the line.

According to Netanyahu's view, and not from today, Israel needs to build its international relationship and then leverage it to create a bridge to Arab countries. This is in order to deprive the Palestinians of the right to veto the attitude of the Arabs and others towards Israel.
In 2009, The Telegraph fretted that Israel's isolation -- from the US in particular -- could drive Israel to do something desperate. The problem was that the Obama administration was concentrating on the Arab world -- "Mr. Obama is attempting to rebuild relations with the Arab world in the wake of the invasion of Iraq."

In the end, Obama's success is questionable at best.

But not to worry.

Israel has lots of friends, with the prospect of making even more in the Arab world.

Cartoon by Moshik Gulst, The Israeli Cartoon Project, 2017

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