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Canada is wrong to welcome the UAE-Israel deal

Far from bringing ‘peace,’ normalization is on track to accelerate military spending and militarism in the Middle East

Canadian PoliticsMiddle East

The first direct El-Al flight to the United Arab Emirates departs Ben Gurion Airport, August 31, 2020. In this photo, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (right), Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (middle) and a delegation of Israeli officials headed by Meir Ben-Shabbat (left) travel to Abu-Dhabi to advance the Abraham Accord. Photo by Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem/Flickr.

When the “Abraham Agreement” between the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was announced on August 13, it was widely celebrated in pro-Israel circles as an “historic peace deal” and the start of a “New Middle East.”

While the exact details of the agreement have not yet been finalized, at a high level the UAE and Israel agreed to establish full bilateral economic and diplomatic ties (a process known as “normalization”), and agreed that together with the US they would launch a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East to expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation.” It was also announced that Israel would “suspend” its plans to annex portions of the West Bank to focus on normalization.

Like many countries, Canada welcomed the deal as a “positive step toward peace and security in the region,” with Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne noting that he was “pleased” with the suspension of Israel’s annexation plans.

However, Canada’s optimistic reaction is a mistake. Far from ushering in peace and security, the deal is bound to increase militarism in the region while cementing the status-quo apartheid reality of the Palestinian people.

A no peace “peace deal”

What makes the celebration over the UAE-Israel “peace deal” so misplaced is that peace has nothing to do with it. While it is true that the UAE will become only the third Arab country to recognize Israel (following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994), unlike those nations, the UAE does not share a border with Israel, and the UAE and Israel have never been at war.

Far from being enemies, Israel and the UAE have been quietly cultivating unofficial relations for years, including in defence cooperation, intelligence, surveillance, and trade in weapons. Together with the US, they are interested in counterbalancing the influence of Iran in the region by expanding military cooperation, and the UAE sees the deal as a way to fulfill its aspiration to become a regional power. In recent years, the UAE has contributed to brutal military offensives, particularly in Yemen and Libya where it has been involved in air strikes and arming militias—with horrific results.

Indeed, the largest benefactor from this deal is likely to be the international arms trade. The UAE is a major purchaser of US weapons, on which it spends an estimated $20 billion out of its annual defence budget of $23 billion. For its part, Israel looks forward to greater access to the UAE arms market that normalization will provide.

Reports also suggest that a potential US sale of F-35 warplanes to the UAE may be the central motivator behind normalization. For years, the US has been looking to sell F-35s and armed drones to the UAE, but such a sale has been opposed by Israel on the grounds that it could erode its “qualitative military edge.” UAE believes the normalization deal will allow it to go ahead with its purchase of the F-35s, and although Israel still publicly opposes any sale, behind the scenes Israeli officials are looking to approve the sale in return for compensation from the US (most likely in terms of military aid).

As researcher Anthony Fenton points out, Canadian weapons manufactures will also likely benefit from such a sale.

It is also important to note that the UAE-Israel agreement has been accompanied by instances of state repression against those who criticize the deal, including by the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt. Most outrageously, an Israeli newspaper reported that the UAE threatened to immediately expel 250,000 Jordanian workers over a single critical tweet from Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Hussein, who promptly deleted it.

US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook met with His Highness Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on June 27, 2020. Photo courtesy of UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Flickr.

Selling out Palestine

If the UAE-Israel deal is not about peace, there is at least one reason why so many have rushed to celebrate it: with the UAE, Israel believes that it has found a shortcut to normalizing relations in the region while circumventing the issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Since Israel was established in 1948, most Arab states have refused to enter into normalized relations with Israel pending a just resolution for the Palestinians. This was the case for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative led by Saudi Arabia, which insisted that a Palestinian state must be created before normalization could take place.

The UAE-Israel deal contradicts this longstanding position, effectively “decoupling” the Arab-Israel conflict from the Israel-Palestine conflict.

For this reason, the deal is widely recognized by the Israeli leadership as confirmation that they do not need to give up occupied territory. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted about the deal, Israel has “not withdrawn from so much as one square meter.”

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians of all backgrounds have expressed outrage over the deal. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause,” and the Palestinian Authority recalled its ambassador to UAE. Hamas xcondemned the deal as “a reward for the Israeli occupation’s crimes,” and a “stabbing in the back of our people.”

Is annexation dead?

The UAE has boasted that its deal has stopped Israel’s annexation plans and saved the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine—insisting that it has received assurances from Israel on this. However, this is wishful thinking. The deal has not stopped the threat of annexation. What Israel has actually agreed to is a temporary “suspension” or pause on any formal announcement.

As a matter of fact, Netanyahu has repeatedly said that annexation remains on the table. This has been echoed by both Israeli officials and key US figures, the latter including US Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner, who noted that “President Trump likes to keep his options open,” and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman who described the suspension of annexation as a “temporary halt,” and clarified that “it’s not off the table permanently.”

At a more fundamental level, Israel’s annexation plans remain consistent with Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century,” which gives a greenlight to substantial annexation while locking Palestinians into non-state Bantustans. As Netanyahu was quick to remind us: “this plan has not changed.”

Simply put, the Israelis could revive their annexation plans at any time. In the meantime, Netanyahu is pushing the creation of 3,500 new settlement homes in the contentious E-1 area (which is splitting the West Bank into two pieces), and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz is preparing to approve the creation of 5,000 new settlement homes throughout the West Bank. As Hagai El-Ad of Israeli NGO B’Tselem warns, the “Israeli state has [already] effectively annexed Palestinian lives,” making the significance of any formal announcement secondary to Israel’s real actions on the ground.

Without any progress for justice for the Palestinians, or for stability in the region, Canada is wrong to applaud the UAE-Israel agreement. Far from bringing “peace,” normalization is on track to accelerate military spending and militarism in the Middle East, emboldening a group of countries who have consistently violated human rights in the region. Moreover, the deal completely avoids the core issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and lessens the incentive for Israel to respect Palestinian human rights.

The truth is that there is no shortcut to peace, and there will be no progress without the Palestinians. Instead of easing diplomatic restrictions on Israel, the international community should be imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Israel as an incentive to dismantle the occupation and come to the negotiating table. As such, the UAE’s opportunistic path is not likely to end division and conflict in the region and may in fact intensify and prolong it. This is not something that Canada should encourage.

Michael Bueckert is Vice President of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). He has a PhD in Sociology and Political Economy from Carleton University. Follow him on Twitter @mbueckert.

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