UAE’s Decision: A Wakeup Call or Ground Reality? – Asif Durrani

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UAE’s decision to recognize Israel although surprising was on expected lines as it had developed relationship with Israel for the past many years. Israeli presence in Abu Dhabi was allowed when Abu Dhabi became the headquarter of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in 2010. UAE’s announcement, which the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called as “Abraham Agreement”, has been premised on the pretext that Israel has agreed to stop annexation of Palestinian territory, which is an indicator to show how carefully the whole drama was enacted with the American help.

The authors of this decision may have calculated multiple advantages accruing, foremost being enhancing President Trump’s political capital amongst the Jewish lobby for the forthcoming elections and to sell his Peace Plan for the Middle East announced in January this year. Second, other GCC countries may be next in the line to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Third, a divided Muslim world offers the best opportunity to promote “One-State” formula by assimilating Palestinians in “greater Israel” and close this chapter forever. Already far-right in Israel, including Mr. Netanyahu, are propounding the idea of one-state with formidable support in the US.

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres and Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden, have praised UAE’s decision although with regard to Israel’s annexation plan the latter said: “Annexation would be a body blow to the cause of peace, which is why I oppose it now and would oppose it as president.” Contrary to the expectations, Saudi Arabia broke its silence after a few days of announcement and made it clear that it would not follow the UAE until the Jewish state has signed an internationally recognized peace accord with the Palestinians.

As for reaction in the Islamic countries, Palestinian leadership, including Hamas, Iran, Turkey and former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohammed have condemned the decision.However, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain and Oman have welcomed the decision. Similarly, China, European Union, UK, Germany, France and Spain havelauded and supported the decision. Therefore, overall reaction has been favourable to the UAE.

Pakistan’s reaction was measured in view of the sensitivities involved due to domestic pressures and expectations in the Middle East. While noting that the UAE’s decision to recognize Israel will have “far-reaching implications”, the Foreign Office Spokesman reiterated Pakistan’s “abiding commitment to the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, including the right to self-determination”.

Since parallels have been drawn between the Palestinian and Kashmir disputes, the Pakistani Spokesman had to remind the world that “for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace, Pakistan has consistently supported a two-state solution in accordance with the relevant UN and OIC resolutions as well as international law.” For political and religious reasons Pakistan cannot dilute its stance on Palestinians right to self-determination as by implication it would amount to diluting its claim on Jammu and Kashmir as enshrined under the UN Security Council resolutions and reiterated by the OIC in its various declarations. It is unlikely that Pakistan would be forthcoming in criticizing the UAE’s decision, but at the same time it is not going to take any decision in haste. Pakistan would prefer to adopt a wait-and-see policy, especially at a time when the Muslim world is a divided house.

In real politick, the UAE has exercised its sovereign right to establish its relationship with Israel even if its decision may be criticized by some countries. It also begs the question as to what material change did the Arab League or OIC could bring about in the past seven decades to mitigate the plight of Palestinian people?Even if cosmetically, the UAE’s decision has extracted an understanding from Israel that it would suspend annexation of Palestinian territory. Emotional statements or accusation of “sellout” are not going to remedy the situation. A realistic assessment, based on ground realities, would reveal a sorry state of affairs with the Muslim world which, despite tremendous natural and human resources, is beholden to the western powers’ goodwill. In reality, Muslim world lacks technological or military prowess to make a difference in the global affair.

In the Middle East context, Iranian factor has dominated the UAE’s decision rooted inserious tussle between the Iranian brand of political Islam and Arab monarchies which have been resisting Iran’s revolutionary agenda and zeal with the support of America and western allies. Obviously, Iran’s revolutionary euphoria of initial days calling for “liberation of Harmain Shareefain” (Makkah and Madinah) or subsequently playing “Shia card” has been a source of discomfort amongst the conservative Arab states. UAE’s decision demonstrates that to secure their interests, the GCC countries may go to any extent, including shaking hands with Israel.
Not only that, most of the GCC states got alarmed when Obama administration courted Iran for signing the nuclear deal in 2015 known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It hastened Saudi attack on Yemen in the hope that Obama Administration would delay the signing of JCPOA due to Iran’s involvement in arming the Houthi militia in Yemen. However, once Obama went ahead with the nuclear deal, the GCC countries proffered to make common causes with Israel to oppose Iran in the region. For Israel, Iranian ingress in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinian Hamas and Yemen poses serious threat and a rare opportunity to put up a common front, together with the GCC countries, against Iran. Israel’s offer of access to hi-tech, including weapons, and cooperation in agriculture and food security have been additional temptations for the Gulf states to normalize relations with the former.

Turkish assertive role has been a new phenomenon in the Middle East politics. President Erdogan’s pan-Islamism has become a source of worry for the Gulf States as they apprehend that an emerging alliance between Iran and Turkey may be detrimental to their interests. Although Iran and Turkey do not see eye to eye on many regional issues, including Syria, the question of leadership in the region has somehow crept into the psyche of the contending states. Meanwhile, involvement of China and Russia on the Syrian issue and Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) has further alarmed the GCC countries to look for the counter-measures. Therefore, new alignments emerging from the UAE-Israel agreement should not be surprising for the countries of the Middle East or for that matter the Islamic world.

Pakistan’s measured response has been criticized by some commentators although major political and religious parties in the country have avoided criticizing the UAE’s decision. It is obvious that Islamic countries, including Arabs,prefer individual interests over Islamic causes. Hence pan-Islamism remains confined to OIC declarations. In such a depressing scenario, choices for Pakistan are limited; the best course available is to maintain the status quo, educate the people about ground realities and recognize Israel only when OIC as whole or majority of Muslim countries do so. There is no hurry.

Writer is a former ambassador to UAE and Iran