Six months after the historic signing of the Abraham Accords on the south lawn of the White House (September 15) it seems the UAE-Israel relationship is facing its first real test.
Until now relations between the two countries have been advancing at a very fast pace, producing a series of bilateral agreements (in several fields including science, COVID-19, tourism, culture and technology), direct flights, mutual visits of senior officials and business delegations, an exchange of ambassadors, as well as people-to-people contacts. Furthermore, in media interviews and public statements by senior Emirati and Israeli officials, both sides have praised one another, expressed confidence that the relations are moving in the right direction, and pointed to the tremendous opportunities which the relationship offers not only to the benefit of the two countries, but also to the prosperity and wellbeing of the entire Middle East region.
Against this backdrop, we are witnessing in recent days the first signs of tension between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem, which may be putting the relationship to its first real test, as the UAE announced (March 17) it does not want Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit the country before the Israeli elections on March 23.
For several months, Netanyahu has been making plans to visit the UAE and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). As snap elections were called in Israel in late December, the visit became extremely important for the Prime Minister, who has made the Abraham Accords a key issue in his election campaign. In a year in which COVID-19 dominated the national agenda, Netanyahu took great satisfaction in pointing to the Abraham Accords as his own big diplomatic achievement and the victory of his “peace for peace” doctrine, which stipulates Israel does not need to make any concessions on the Palestinian issue to achieve normalization with Arab countries. In this respect, a visit to Abu Dhabi and a photo-op with Crown Prince MBZ would go a long way in Israeli public opinion ahead of the elections.
Netanyahu and his senior staff, including National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, agreed with the Emiratis on a visit toward the end of 2020, but due to COVID-19 restrictions in Israel, the date of the visit was changed twice. On the third attempt (March 11) reportedly coordinated by Mossad Chief Cohen, the Jordanian government did not allow Netanyahu’s plane to enter Jordan’s airspace, due to an incident a day before involving Israeli security which led to the cancellation of Jordan’s Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah’s planned visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Netanyahu was harshly criticized in the Israeli media and by his political opponents for intending to visit the UAE to propel up his campaign and for damaging the relations with Jordan. In an attempt to minimize the political fallout of his cancelled trip, Netanyahu made public a plan by the Emirati leadership to invest 10 billion dollars in Israel.
This week, Netanyahu made one final effort to make the trip to the UAE before the elections. As the Israeli media began reporting on a possible visit on March 18, senior Emirati officials rushed to announce that such a visit will not take place. One of the architects of the Abraham Accords, former Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote in a tweet that from the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the accords was to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity between Israel and the wider region, but underscoring that “the UAE will not be a part of any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever”. Gargash’s stern message was followed by an Emirati decision to postpone a planned summit meeting in April in the UAE, which was to be attended by Netanyahu, a senior Biden Administration official and leaders of other Arab countries which have normalized relations with Israel. Clearly, Netanyahu’s politicking has upset the Emirati leadership, which has decided to put an end to the PM’s attempts at present. The Emiratis experienced first-hand Henry Kissinger’s infamous assertion that “Israel has no foreign policy; it is all domestic policy”. They also sent a strong signal to Netanyahu that the UAE will not tolerate such behavior in the future. As the Abraham Accords are supported by more than 80% of the Israeli public, the UAE ran no risk in making its position loud and clear. Looking ahead, there is a good chance that after the Israeli elections, once the results are clear, the two sides will reengage with one another, attempting to calm tensions and create new understandings which will allow them to resume efforts to advance their relationship. If Netanyahu remains PM, he will likely have the opportunity to make a state visit to the UAE in the late spring or early summer of 2021.