Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
“Everybody said this would be impossible”. With these Trumpian words, on August 13th, the US President announced the “Abraham Accord”, an agreement brokered between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. The agreement will normalise relations between the two regional powers – making the UAE the first Arab Gulf state and the third Arab nation to do so.
For Trump, it was significant as a foreign policy victory for him to use in the run up to the November election. But what does the deal mean for the parties involved – who stands to gain and who will lose?
For Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, the deal is a political boon on two fronts. For one, it is a face-saver. In the run-up to the last elections, he announced his intention to annex portions of the West Bank. After international outrage and a lukewarm US response, it was quickly recognised as untenable. The UAE deal is an excuse for Netanyahu not to proceed with the plan and still claim victory. Notably, the deal does not rule out the annexation; it delays it. In his remarks, Netanyahu stated unambiguously that the planned annexation “remains on the table” and he would “never give up our rights to our land.”
But also, it fulfils an important political goal: the recognition of the state of Israel in its current borders by the Arab world. Previously, normalisation of relations was conditional on Israel reverting to its pre-1967 borders, as outlined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative – something they were firmly against. By recognising Israel now, the UAE effectively normalises the status quo – a major victory for Israel.
The UAE’s chief gain is acknowledgement of its ascendant position as a regional heavyweight. With its close ties to the US and assertive foreign policy, the deal solidifies its position as a regional power. It also means previously clandestine ties with Israel can now be brought into the open, bringing additional economic, security and technological benefits.
The question is, why now? Israel and the US had vested interests in concluding the deal and announcing it swiftly. The popularity of both leaders has decreased massively recently, and they desperately needed a foreign policy victory to tout. For the UAE, the timing seems less significant.
The answer is probably the inverse: why not now? By emphasising Israeli abandonment of their annexation plans, the UAE are depicting themselves as Palestinian defenders. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, describes the deal as a time-buying initiative for Palestinians. For the UAE, this was an opportunity to normalise diplomatic ties.
As often in the Middle East, the Palestinians lose. Their hopes for an autonomous state have suffered yet another setback as the principle of “land for peace” is destroyed.
A spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian state, called it “treason”. An emergency session of the Arab League was called for and the Palestinian ambassador to the UAE was withdrawn.
But other than these largely symbolic gestures, Palestinians are essentially powerless. The deal was presented to them as a fait accompli. As Gargash himself admitted, Palestinians – (and other Arab states) – were deliberately left out of the negotiations because it would have “jeopardize[d] the deal”.
In the same statement, Gargash defended the deal, stating “there are no new lines that have been redrawn.” In a sense he is right; they were not redrawn. Instead, lines Israel had unilaterally laid – which were previously unacknowledged – have now been reinforced, all but ending any chance of a two-state solution.