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Video: Peace for Peace – Israel, the UAE, and the Arab World

Yossi Kuperwasser

Israel’s “Abraham Accord” peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, signed on August 13, is “a game-changer” the Jewish state was “waiting [on] for so long.” It alters relations among Middle Eastern countries and movements in several positive ways, according to Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, Israel Defense Forces (Ret.).

Speaking on the Jewish Policy Center video webinar on September 10, Kuperwasser, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said “for the first time” peace between Israel and an Arab state has been reached “not based on ending a war … and returning land” but rather on mutual advantage. And instead of angry criticism from other Middle Eastern players when Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, or grudging tolerance when Jordan did likewise in 1994, “this time everyone likes it.”

Not everyone, of course, Kuperwasser noted. Palestinian leadership continues to assail the UAE for “treason” and Iran’s leaders threaten retaliation against the emirates in response to potential Israeli attacks, but they currently sound like minority voices.

“Egypt was boycotted in the Arab world” when it recognized Israel and signed a peace treaty, the former director-general of Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs recalled. This even though Israel yielded the Sinai Peninsula—captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War and held in the 1973 Yom Kippur War—with its Israeli-developed oil fields, air bases and the new town of Yamit and outlying villages.

But in reaction to the Israeli-UAE agreement, “the Palestinians can’t convince the Arab League to meet to take action against it.” Instead, Palestinian Arab leadership is hearing from politicians and scholars in what Kuperwasser calls “the Sunni pragmatics”—including Persian Gulf states like the emirates, Bahrain, Oman and even Saudi Arabia—that the time has come to drop their 100-year struggle against the Jews and their state as an intrinsic part of the Middle East.

For the UAE, “the agreement with Israel was the right thing to do … it was not imposed on them.” And Sunni pragmatists believe “Palestinians should do the same,” finally recognizing there is not going to be any “return” of the descendants of Arab refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. They must understand that a “two-state solution” will comprise one Jewish state and one Palestinian Arab state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not two Arab countries west of the Jordan River, one with a Jewish minority.

Intransigent after all these years

Still, “when Palestinians hear this … they go crazy,” Kuperwasser said. Meanwhile, many others in the Arab Gulf countries are “talking about cooperation” and new achievements in reciprocal relations, unlike after Israel’s treaties with Egypt and Jordan, he noted.

This means Palestinian Arab “veto power” over general Arab-Israeli relations has been broken, he added. Palestinian leaders no longer can dictate to other Arabs the nature of their relations with Israel, especially not after U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital and proposal of a two-state deal that explicitly recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

And the possibility that Jerusalem eventually will extend Israeli sovereignty to significant parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is more likely to be determined in Washington, D.C. than Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah, Kuperwasser said. It has been the United States, not the UAE, that recently pressured Israel to delay extending sovereignty, he asserted.

Kuperwasser noted that Sudan’s interim government—limited legally in what it can do—seemed to be moving toward recognizing Israel and Bahrain also might follow the UAE. After Saudi Arabia first allowed a direct flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv over its airspace to the UAE, and then on September 9 said it routinely would permit Israeli overflights “other countries understand the message,” Kuperwasser said.

Long-standing covert and semi-public relations between Israel and the UAE made reaching a formal peace agreement easier, he observed. “Not everyone is at the same stage, but other countries will follow suit,” even if partially at first. Once the emirates broke the psychological barrier, “there was no way back.”

The game-changing nature of the deal can be seen in part in that “for many years everyone was telling us ‘You can’t have normal relations with the Arabs unless you submit to the Palestinian whims’” and go back to the pre-’67 war armistice lines “and put yourselves in extreme danger,” Kuperwasser said. “Here we prove that was fiction.”

European old-think

Even though many European officials, some members of the Democratic Party in the United States and the Palestinian leadership “wanted to push us back” to the pre-’67 lines in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, now the later “have to rethink their narrative,” which “was based on all kinds of lies” about Jewish national legitimacy in the Middle East.

Still holding to the ’90s American-European paradigm of pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Arabs for diplomatic progress is the European Union. Kuperwasser said E.U. leaders recently “threatened Serbia if it opened an embassy in Jerusalem … to freeze its E.U. membership” application—already 11 years old.

Unlike the E.U., apparently, many Arab countries “have a more important issue than the Palestinians. The Sunni pragmatic states are fighting radical Sunni” Muslims and “only Israel is, for sure, a powerful state to count on to fight the radicals,” he stressed. The United States is, of course, the most powerful potential force in this struggle, but “eight years of the Obama administration showed these Arabs” that Washington might not be ready to support them quickly in a crisis.

Israel also is the only country openly and directly fighting armed aggression by Iran’s non-Arab but radical Shi’ite Muslim regime, Kuperwasser said. Iran too endangers the “Sunni pragmatic states” and “we know what we need to know [about Iran] when we need to,” he added, enhancing Israel’s attraction for Sunni pragmatists.

Kuperwasser said he believes “Israel will be safe” even if a Palestinian Arab state is established west of the Jordan River because wide-ranging security provisions will not depend on the old armistice lines.

The UAE reportedly wants F-35 combat aircraft from the United States—the most modern American warplane, which Israel and a handful of other countries have received. The emirates deserve to be compensated by the United States, Kuperwasser said. Whether that takes the form of top-of-the-line F-35s remains to be determined.