Gerusalemme, Il primo ministro Benjamin Netanyahu alla riunione settimanale di gabinetto

Beyond COVID-19: Israel’s Step Forward to Normalization

In an unprecedented public address, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last Thursday, June 25, a new partnership with the United Arab Emirates to fight the coronavirus. The announcement came even after both countries said the outbreak was under control in recent weeks.

Israel and the Arab Countries

The announcement Netanyahu made came to highlight, once again, his country’s growing efforts to partner up —if not have formal diplomatic ties— with Arab countries, though they tend to disagree with Israel in light of its conflict with Palestine.

The United Arab Emirates, which is yet to publicly form diplomatic ties with Israel, said the cooperation with Israel was to be reached between both countries’ private sectors, dismissing a state-to-state partnership.

Yet if the Emirates set forth a muted statement that disclaimed state-level cooperation, Netanyahu praised the deal as a “blessing” that would “bring friends closer” and make them “more powerful at deterring our enemies”.

Netanyahu even argues the deal was important for the “well-being” of the Middle East, by creating “opportunities for us for open cooperation that we have not known so far with certain countries.”

Contrasting the Emirates’ claim that the partnership was to take place between four private companies, which it did not name, Israel said would engage both countries’ health ministries.

Awkward Timing? Not So Much

The United Arab Emirates had already cooperated —secretly— with Israel to fight the coronavirus outbreak in recent months, when the Mossad bought equipment from Abu Dhabi and other Gulf countries, such as Bahrain, according to the New York Times and other reports.

But what draws more attention regarding Israel’s last move to normalize its ties with Arab countries is the announcement’s timing. The deal was announced roughly a week before Israel’s plan to proceed to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, putting Palestinians’ hope for statehood further into jeopardy.

Under the Trump administration’s so-called Peace Plan, Netanyahu promised to annex pieces of land that constitute up to 30% of the occupied West Bank as soon as July 1. The move is a violation of international law, according to the United Nations, and has been rejected by most world countries and all Arab ones, including the United Arab Emirates.

The deal, which Netanyahu said stemmed from “intensive contacts in recent months”, also came soon after Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Gargash called for public cooperation with Israel, saying there was no reason not to cooperate, even amid criticism of the annexation plan.

“Can I have a political disagreement with Israel but at the same time try and bridge other areas of the relationship? I think I can,” Gargash said in an interview with the American Jewish Community advocacy group.

Publicizing the Cooperation

Earlier this month, Emirati Minister of State (also ambassador to the United States) Yousef Al-Otaiba also called for cooperation with Israel in an op-ed published in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper.

Al-Otaiba acknowledged that Arab countries have been coming closer to Israel in recent years. Even as he warned against the annexation plan, he wrote that much of the Arab countries “would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties.”

Palestinian rights activists said Al-Otaiba’s op-ed itself was a form of normalization. Though they may not all make it public soon, Arab countries, observers say, are coming to realize that Israel could be a viable partner in trade and, most importantly, in security, with the support of the United States and the growing regional enmity of Iran.

Last year, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a public visit to Abu Dhabi to “discuss the threat of Iran” with Emirati officials. Although there is no diplomacy between the two countries, Emirati officials allowed other visits from Israeli officials in recent years.

In what Israel said was a historical event, the Israeli anthem was played in a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi in 2018. The then minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, attended the event and also appeared on a public tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

In May this year, when Etihad Airways made the first publicly known flight from Abu Dhabi to Israel, carrying coronavirus-related aid shipments to Palestine, Palestinian authority rejected the aid, saying it was an excuse from the Emirates to formalize ties with Israel.

Israel also has a mission representing its interests at the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi.

Secret Efforts to Strengthen Ties

But if some joint efforts were made public in recent years, many others went on secretly. Many reports suggested the two countries cooperated in intelligence as Yossi Cohen, director of the Mossad, made many covert visits to the United Arab Emirates, as well as other neighboring countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, where he met with high-ranking officials and spy bosses, according to the New York Times.

Currently, Only Jordan and Egypt have public diplomatic ties with Israel. Critics have long said Israel cannot expect to normalize ties with Arab countries unless it gave up its annexation plans at least. But is Israel proving such claims to be false?