Relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates have steadily improved over the years. However, hurdles remain before the next step can be taken.
The previous week, the Emirates delivered fourteen tons of medical supplies to Israel in an attempt to support Palestinians in their fight against COVID-19. It was the United Arab Emirates’ first publicly reported direct flight to Israel, as both countries do not have any official diplomatic relations.
Nevertheless, the Emirates remain the Gulf State with the closest relationship to Israel. Meanwhile, the relationship between Abu Dhabi and Ramallah remains tense. Accordingly, the Palestinians refused to accept the delivered aid.
Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtajjeh said in the government-linked newspaper Al Ajjam that the Palestinians had heard about the delivery from the newspaper and that it had not been coordinated with the Palestinians but with Israel only. The Maan news agency, which is also close to the Palestinian leadership, quoted officials as saying that it refused to serve as a bridge for Arab states that wanted normalization of relations with Israel.
UN Steps Up
Now the aid is being delivered through the United Nations. A UN official stated on Thursday that the relief supplies were still in customs clearance at the airport, would be released in the coming days and that further distribution was being negotiated. Besides, the UAE donation was directed to the United Nations relief program and not to the Palestinian Authority. Therefore, the medical device could also be brought to the Gaza Strip. The latter was currently also being discussed with Hamas.
Meanwhile, while the Emirates affirm old positions, in particular criticism of Israel’s planned annexation in the West Bank, which is described as both “illegal” and “counterproductive” for peace, it is nonetheless continuing its steps for formalizing relations with Israel – with or without annexation. They are moving ahead despite Palestinian dismay and opposition.
UAE Signals its Shifting Perspective
In December 2019, Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed shared an article of the British paper Spectator on Twitter that talked about a new alliance between Israel and the Gulf States. It followed a visit of former Israeli Foreign Minister Katz to Abu Dhabi months earlier.
These are the latest examples of increased relations and collaboration and are particularly notable for being displayed in public. However, the reason is not based on a newfound love for the Jewish state but due to their common enemy: Iran. Just as much as Israel, the UAE is also cognizant of Tehran’s hegemonic aspirations in the region. Furthermore, with the United States being Israel’s ally, the UAE is more inclined to make further concessions to Israel than ever to enjoy more of that support as well.
President Barack Obama had already tried to persuade the Gulf States to move closer to Israel. Unlike President Trump, however, he did not succeed. While Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran resulted in the nuclear agreement and angered the Gulf States, Trump resigned from the latter and has since adopted a “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran, to the delight of the Gulf States. In return, the Emirates are ready to establish a more amicable relationship with Tel Aviv.
One Step Forward Two Steps Back?
Nevertheless: in the process of the Arab world becoming more amicable with Israel, one continuous to see a step forward and then a step back again. One reason remains the anti-Israel Palestinian leadership and particularly Hamas. However, The UAE is also a victim of their own society.
The fact that the Israeli government is increasingly publicizing its cooperation with the Emirates carries a risk for the UAE, as internal counter-reactions must be feared. After all, while the respective governments are starting to establish amicable relations, anti-Semitism in the Arab world has not simply disappeared.
A fruitful relationship and indeed, friendship with Israel will thus only be possible if the UAE reforms not only its leadership but also its whole society further. However, the latest developments can nonetheless be considered yet another step in the right direction.