Israeli-Arab Negotiations 101
The Israel-UAE Normalization Agreement: How Netanyahu Made Lemonade from a Lemon…Twice
The normalization agreement reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – announced by the United States, Israel and the UAE in a Joint Statement on August 13, 2020 and dubbed the “Abraham Accord” – was quickly lauded as a positive development for the parties involved and their allies. The United States, Israel and the UAE all can point to advantages to be gained in security, trade and cultural exchange. Egypt, Bahrain, European states and others expressed appreciation that Israeli unilateral annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank was halted, seemingly preserving a two-state solution. Pro-Western, moderate Middle Eastern countries which prioritize regional stability also saw the agreement as a positive step for combating regional threats – most notably from Iran and its partners, including Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Yemenite Houthi rebels. The announcement inspired phrases such as “game changer,” “geopolitical earthquake,” and “paradigm shattering” in the press.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu extolled the agreement as a peace treaty on par with those accomplished by two of his predecessors: Menachem Begin, who signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, and Yitzhak Rabin, who signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. In fact, however, regardless of the title the parties may assign to the “Abraham Accord,” this agreement is not a peace treaty, because there has never been a war between Israel and the UAE and the UAE has never been considered an enemy of Israel. Nor is the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE a novel phenomenon. More than 25 years ago, after the signing on September 13, 1993 of the Oslo Agreement, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres began a process of leveraging Oslo to establish normal relations between Israel and many Arab countries, including Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE. As Legal Advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in the mid-1990s, I was directly involved in negotiating some of these normalization agreements which resulted in opening Israeli representation offices, under various titles, in those countries (and vice versa), as well as establishing a wide range of trade and other connections.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu deserves sincere kudos for this accomplishment, which re-starts the post-Oslo normalization process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. After Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations under the Oslo blueprint were derailed and the Intifada of the early-2000s began, many of those Arab countries closed their representation offices. In many cases, their relations with Israel continued, and in a few cases even expanded significantly, but those countries insisted on keeping their relations with Israel confidential. The need for secrecy – often a very poorly kept secret – resulted from a desire of those Arab countries not to be perceived as betraying their Palestinian brethren. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative – spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and agreed to by 22 member states of the Arab League and 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – required that normalization with Israel be deferred until after the Palestinians reached a peace agreement with Israel. Netanyahu’s accomplishment, therefore, is not that he achieved a normalization agreement with the UAE (very friendly relations existed between Israel and the UAE for some 25 years), but rather that, under his stewardship, the UAE agreed to come out of the closet and bring those relations to light, without waiting for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Other, similarly situated Arab countries appear to be contemplating following suit.
As a veteran negotiator observing these developments from the sidelines, I was fascinated by how, in reaching the UAE deal, Netanyahu – viewed widely in Israel as a political magician – managed to pull two rabbits out of his hat at once. Simultaneously, he was able to cast aside his own, ill-conceived unilateral West Bank annexation plan – which, given near-universal international opposition, he had decided not to pursue anyhow, rendering the value of his concession to the UAE imaginary – and, in casting a bad idea aside, he succeeded in trading it for a real prize – normalization of relations with a third Arab country. Indeed, a two-trick pony.
Getting Rid of the Unilateral West Bank Annexation Plan
After Bibi cancelled (or, as he has termed it, “suspended,” presumably indefinitely) his unilateral West Bank annexation plan as one of the central terms to reach the Israel-UAE normalization deal, he’s reinvented himself as a very reasonable and responsible politician – a premier statesman – even though he himself conceived the disastrous annexation plan which jeopardized more than it stood to gain.
This brings to mind an old Jewish joke that I used many times during international negotiations, to explain to my Israeli colleagues why I added what appeared to be unnecessary and strict requirements to a draft agreement before presenting it to the other side. It was clear that the other side could not and would not accept these impossible conditions but, as I explained to my colleagues, I added them to serve as bargaining chips to be thrown away as part of the negotiations’ “give and take” process. And, of course, the other side always did the same.
The joke goes like this:
A Jew living in a small Eastern European village visited his Rabbi to seek advice.
The Jew: “Rabbi, my small, two-bedroom house is very crowded. Besides me and my wife, there are also our seven children and my mother-in-law. I don’t have enough room. What should I do?”
The Rabbi: “Bring a goat into the house and let it live with you and the family.”
The Jew: “But Rabbi, there’s no room for a goat in the small and crowded house!”
The Rabbi: “Bring a goat in the house, I tell you, and come back to see me in another month.”
In a month’s time, the Jew returns to the Rabbi.
The Jew: “Rabbi, things are much worse now. With the goat in the house, there is even less room for us to move. The goat is noisy, smelly, and it leaves its droppings everywhere in the house.”
The Rabbi: “Now, get rid of the goat!”
The next day, the Jew returns to the Rabbi smiling widely.
The Jew: “Thank you, thank you Rabbi! All of a sudden, our house is huge. There’s no noise, it’s clean, the air is fresh and everyone is very happy.”
I am under no illusion that Bibi initiated his unilateral annexation plan to serve as a “goat” to ultimately be “taken out of the house” and traded for something else, such as the UAE deal. Bibi truly thought that his terrible plan was a good idea. But the end result is all the same. Before Bibi launched his unilateral West Bank annexation plan, the situation in the West Bank was terrible. Permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians have not taken place since 2014, and positions of both sides seemed increasingly irreconcilable. Israel meanwhile has continued to expand its settlements in the West Bank, making a viable Palestinian state less likely by the month. To add insult to injury, breaking from a long tradition of trying to serve as a honest broker, in the past three years President Donald Trump took several steps siding with Israel on key issues in dispute, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, thus effectively removing Jerusalem from the negotiating table. Further, in his Peace Plan, President Trump proposed Israeli annexation of 30% of the West Bank in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Permanent Status Agreement. No wonder that the Palestinians were irritated to a point of complete despair, and the Israeli right felt emboldened to push the envelope.
Netanyahu could have given the Palestinians some hope, if he had embraced another central aspect of Trump’s Peace Plan – the creation of an independent Palestinian State (even the incomplete one the Trump plan envisioned). He had vaguely done this once before – during a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 – but has avoided repeating this endorsement since then. Rather than offering the Palestinians any optimism to grab onto, which could have potentially led to real negotiations, Netanyahu did just the opposite. Instead of seeking negotiations, and indeed, instead of accepting Trump’s entire Peace Plan at all, he decided to cherry pick only one part of it, annexation of 30% of the West Bank and launched it as a unilateral annexation plan. The international condemnations of Bibi’s plan were so strong that it became clear that, if Netanyahu proceeded to implement the plan – which would have necessarily brought havoc to Israeli-Palestinian relations and in the long-term undermined Israel’s Jewish-majority and democratic tradition – he would have been near solely to blame for an incurable crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations, and for Israel’s own domestic and international crises.
At the eleventh hour (and with the help of the UAE and the US), Bibi took the goat out of the house and, with the evaporation of his unilateral annexation plan, the entire world appears to have heaved a big sigh of relief. Bibi is again regarded as a responsible statesman who skillfully engages in regional realpolitik. Everyone is happy again. Except, of course, for the poor Palestinians.
Exchanging an Imaginary Price in return for a Real Prize
But removing the goat doesn’t begin to describe Netanyahu’s masterful maneuvering in the annexation-for-normalization tradeoff. Bibi actually used the Israel-UAE deal as a ladder to climb down from the tall annexation tree which he had been climbing since January. After Bibi announced his plan to annex 30 percent of the West Bank unilaterally, he faced nearly universal opposition. The idea had the unique power to draw condemnation across the board: Arab countries, Europe, the leaders of the U.S. Democratic Party and some Republicans, the Israeli left and center (including Bibi’s coalition government partners in the Blue & White Party), as well as the leaders of the Israeli right-wing settler community (many of whom oppose the plan because it is part of Trump’s Deal of the Century, which also involves establishing a Palestinian State in the other 70% of the West Bank), and even reportedly from the White House. Thus, Bibi found himself condemned from his left and right; friend and foe; and all over the map.
When Bibi allowed July 1st– the date for commencing annexation activity, per his emergency unity government agreement with Blue and White – to come and go, it became clear that Bibi‘s determination to pursue West Bank annexation had lost steam, in no small part because of the surge in coronavirus cases in Israel, which shocked the Israeli economy and generated large anti-Bibi demonstrations throughout Israel. Netanyahu also faced strong, comprehensive opposition to the plan.
Still, it seems the primary reason was that Jared Kushner – the main author of and driving force behind President Trump’s Deal of the Century – backtracked on Bibi’s unilateral annexation plan, after initially endorsing it implicitly. He did so by demanding that the annexation plan must also be approved by the Blue and White Party, knowing well that the leaders of that party oppose unilateral annexation. Kushner also seemingly finally came to appreciate the risky consequences annexation may create, as outlined by his friend Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba in his op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth in June.
In international negotiations, the parties’ “give and take” often involve one party paying a price to the other party in return for gaining a prize from the party on the other side of the table. One party’s price is the other party’s prize and vice versa. Here, according to declarations made by Netanyahu and UAE leaders, the basic tradeoff purportedly was as follows: Israel paid a price (halting the unilateral West Bank annexation) in return for gaining a prize (normalization agreement with the UAE). Similarly, the UAE paid a price (entering into a normalization agreement with Israel, thus irritating the Palestinians and their Arab supporters) in return for a prize (stopping Israel’s unilateral annexation).
In fact, however, at the time the Israel-UAE deal was concluded, Netanyahu no longer intended to pursue annexation and, as such, the price paid by Israel in halting it (and the prize received by the UAE) was completely imaginary. In fact, for both parties, Israel forgoing annexation served only as a pretext – a helpful excuse to justify the deal to those irked by the agreement. But even if Bibi had not decided against proceeding with annexation, unrelated to the UAE normalization deal (that is, if he did make a real concession to the UAE in agreeing not to annex) it would still be an imaginary price for him to pay. It was just a goat all along: it wasn’t there before Bibi launched his annexation plan. So, Bibi truly created something out of nothing.
After the “Abraham Accord” was announced, it was leaked to the press that the deal’s real prize for the UAE was Bibi’s promise to not object to American sales of the sophisticated F-35 aircraft to the Emirates. (Under past Israel-U.S. agreements and bolstered by U.S. Congress legislation, Israel has a quasi-veto right over the sales of sophisticated weapon systems to Arab countries that could diminish Israel’s military superiority). And while Bibi has denied that he agreed to the UAE arms sales, the U.S and the UAE continue to indicate that it was part of the deal. Apparently, the tacit understanding was that Bibi would raise his formal objections to the F-35 arms sales but would not challenge President Trump’s overruling of Bibi’s complaints.
But here too, even though allowing the United States’ F-35 sales to the UAE was more of a real Israeli concession (that is, a price), it was still quite an imaginary price to be paid. The UAE has never been an enemy of Israel and has no interest in attacking Israel; in fact, with Iran as a common enemy, the UAE is essentially an ally of Israel. The UAE is also located far away from Israel and cannot conceivably be a threat to Israel. And finally, like the West Bank annexation plan, Israel first objected to the UAE arms sales and then Bibi removed the objection. So, the price paid by Israel is, again, just a goat.