Thursday’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are embarking on talks to normalize relations contingent on Israel suspending any annexation of the West Bank is being championed as a victory across the political spectrum.
For those whose primary concern is demonization and delegitimization of Israel, this is a landmark moment demonstrating that Israel’s acceptance and integration into the wider region is only a matter of time and patience. For those who pin Israeli isolation on a Palestinian refusal to negotiate, this is a victory for the concept that relations with Israel should not be hung up on a Palestinian veto. For those who view annexation as a fatal threat to a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and as fundamentally unjust to the Palestinians, removing annexation from the equation even temporarily is a welcome development.
As is often the case, the clear loser is the Palestinian leadership, which is watching others shape events and leaving it and its preferences on the sidelines.
More important than victory laps, however, are the clear lessons that the right and left should take away from this episode. It challenges a core assumption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict held by each side, and any honest assessment of the pending Israel-UAE deal must point out that it demonstrates what both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate got wrong.
The Trump administration took office embracing a core principle that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had espoused for years – that peace between Israel and Arab states did not depend on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This was known colloquially as the “outside-in” approach, and it stood in direct contrast to the traditional post-Oslo thinking on Middle East peace that held an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be the key to unlocking peace throughout the region.
Netanyahu has often spoke about the inevitability of greater acceptance of Israel due to Israel’s strategic capabilities, economic might, scientific and technological know-how, and the confluence of interests that Israel shares with Sunni states in countering Iran. Most analysts and observers on the left of the spectrum accepted this argument but within limits, believing that actual normalization – as opposed to cooperation on all sorts of front that took place under the table – would not happen absent an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The UAE’s willingness to pursue normalization without following the Palestinians’ lead bursts that assumption. Normalization is not the same as a full peace treaty or people-to-people relations, and the UAE’s first step may end up being as isolated a move as the Egyptian and Jordanian peace treaties proved to be.
But there is no denying that it is as clear a statement yet that Arab states do not feel beholden to waiting on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that may never come. The Palestinian strategy for years has been using the anti-normalization movement to bolster its negotiating position opposite Israel, and the left believed that this was an insurmountable hurdle for Israel to overcome. Based on Thursday’s announcement, that is not the case.
The right has its own dubious assumption to contend with as well. As Netanyahu spent the seemingly endless Israeli election campaign talking about annexation with increasing vigor, and the Trump peace initiative was released envisioning Israeli unilateral annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank, the narrative on the right about annexation was that it should be no cause for concern.
In this formulation, annexation was simply a recognition of the new reality, in which the 460,000 Israeli Jews living in the West Bank could not ever be expected to relocate and the Palestinians had to adjust their expectations based on years of intransigence. The theory was that annexation would not be a barrier to peace; it would instead facilitate it by demonstrating to the Palestinians that their consistent no’s were tangibly costing them a chance at statehood. Only by dashing Palestinians’ unrealistic expectations could a peace agreement be negotiated, and neighboring Arab states did not actually care about annexation and would be content to sit idly by.
By tying normalization with Israel to annexation specifically, the UAE has burst this assumption too. Annexation is now clearly and openly the redline that Israel cannot cross if it wants to maintain any sort of public relations with Arab states. It is not credible to argue that annexation will be cost-free, nor is it credible to keep on pushing the dubious line that the annexation approach is the “realistic” one in line with regional developments and commitments. If the UAE, which has been the Arab state most out front in its willingness to engage with Israel, is setting annexation as the price of continued engagement, there is little doubt that Israel moving ahead with West Bank annexation will be an even higher barrier to entry when it comes to more cautious states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Two things can be true simultaneously. Arab states will not allow progress with Israel to depend entirely on progress between Israel and the Palestinians, and West Bank annexation will be an impenetrable impediment to normal and open relations between Israel and Arab states. This makes today’s announcement not a confirmation of the wisdom of Trump and Netanyahu’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a mixed bag that reveals that they were right about some elements and wrong about others.
The Israel-UAE announcement is momentous and cause for celebration, and if the process of normalizing ties succeeds, it has the potential to be transformative for both states, for the wider region, and for U.S. interests. This is all cause for celebration. But anyone who insists that this is a clear victory for the overall vision of the right or the left should refocus their lenses.
Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.