The trilateral agreement of the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates to begin a formal process of normalization between the latter two countries is by any measure a significant development. Should the process be successful, it will mark the third Arab country to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel, furthering Israel’s integration into the Middle East and chipping away at the policy of treating Israel as if it is equivalent to murderous dictatorships or totalitarian states. It will deepen and formalize a tacit alliance between two critical American regional allies and security partners, bolstering U.S. interests and helping to further isolate Iran. While it will not end or even lessen Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, it will move the threat of de jure Israeli annexation off the front burner and provide more time to fend off its prospects. And despite the fact that Israel and the UAE were not at war and had all manner of informal and unofficial security, commercial, and diplomatic ties before the deal was announced, formal normalization will bring another degree of needed peace, stability, and predictability to the Middle East. There are certainly drawbacks to the agreement from the perspective of sidelining the Palestinians and prioritizing stability over democracy, but the overall balance sheet is clearly positive.
What the agreement will not do, however, is make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go away. The deal’s announcement has not only revived the notion of outside-in diplomacy – the idea that Israel can make peace and normalize relations with Sunni states before it does so with the Palestinians – but has also led to claims that it proves that Israel can bypass or ignore the Palestinians entirely and in perpetuity. As outlined above, there are multiple benefits for Israel in the agreement with the UAE and plenty of reasons to cheer it in its own right. But no matter how successful it ends up being on its own terms, it cannot serve as a substitute for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involves an agreement between the two parties to the conflict themselves.
This point should be an obvious one based on historical precedent. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt forty years ago, which was a deal with a neighboring Sunni state struck behind the Palestinians’ back. It was the first crack in what had been an unbreakable unified wall of Arab states refusing to have any contact with Israel, and reset Israeli-Egyptian relations in a fundamental way. It created a new trajectory for that bilateral relationship and for the region at large, particularly in beginning to orient Egypt away from the Soviet Union and toward the U.S. But it did not make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go away. It did not undermine Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the PLO, avert the First Intifada, or end Palestinian terrorism.
Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan over a quarter century ago that was just as critical to Israel’s foreign relations and security. It enabled Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation, extended Israel’s effective eastern security border, removed the immediate danger of armed conflict from Israel’s longest frontier, created opportunities for cooperation on agriculture and water, and chipped away a bit more at Israel’s regional isolation. But it too did not make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go away. The years since the peace treaty with Jordan saw the introduction of suicide bombs into Israeli cities, the strengthening of Hamas, the Second Intifada, and eventually the conversion of Gaza into a terrorist stronghold.
Normalized relations between Israel and other states in the region are great. If they end up making it easier for Israel to get to a deal with the Palestinians down the road, that will be a huge added benefit. But they are not a replacement for an agreement with the Palestinians, and crafting agreements with other Gulf states is not going to make the conflict disappear. For a long time, many policymakers held an incorrect theory about linkage; solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it will solve the other problems in the region. That was a dubious proposition in theory, made eminently ludicrous in practice as the Middle East went through the Arab Spring, multiple civil wars, and a host of other issues having literally nothing to do with anything taking place between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There is now a spreading mirror image theory that perhaps can be termed irrelevance; establish relations between Israel and other countries in the region, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will no longer matter. This rests upon as shaky a foundation as linkage did, but that won’t prevent it from being espoused.
Irrespective of how many deals Israel is able to strike with neighboring states, the fact is that its most pressing and proximate problem will still remain. The deal with the UAE will do many things for Israel, but it will not make the Palestinians go away, drop their desire to see their national aspirations fulfilled, or turn them into Zionists. No matter how many drones Israel sells to the UAE and no matter how much Emirati money is invested in Israeli water and agriculture technology in the Negev, it does not change the fact that Israel still is dealing with a military occupation that is into its sixth decade, still dealing with Hamas in Gaza, and still dealing with how to maintain its Jewish and democratic character simultaneously while ruling over millions of non-citizen Palestinians. As has always been the case, different people will have different answers to these problems, from trying to solve the conflict through two states, to forcing a resolution through one state, to managing the conflict in perpetuity by trying to hold the status quo in suspended animation. But nobody should be confused about what the Israel-UAE accord represents and what it does not. It represents a path forward for Israel in the region and in its relations with other states, but it does nothing of the sort when it comes to moving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the column of problems that have been resolved.