Washington – Last week, Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced a deal: The Arab state would formally recognize Israel in exchange for Israel halting annexation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank. This followed a public invitation by the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yusef al-Otaiba, a highly respected diplomat and a good friend of mine.
The ambassador laid out the deal in clear, respectful language. The U.S. administration of President Donald Trump helped coordinate the details, building on work that presidential adviser Jared Kushner has been facilitating as part of the larger (and thus far unsuccessful) push for an overall peace deal. Reflecting earlier work by the Bush and Obama administrations to bring the Arab and Israeli sides together, it is an important bipartisan step toward Israeli-Arab rapprochement that may in time bear significant fruit.
Throughout my tenure as supreme allied commander of NATO, I came to know Israel well. I became particularly close to the head of the Israeli Defense Forces, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and his deputy commander, then-Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz. Both remain important figures in Israeli politics. Indeed, the first phone call between the UAE and Israel, on Sunday, was conducted by Ashkenazi and his counterpart in the UAE. Gantz, who went on to command the IDF, is now alternate prime minister in a shaky coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu. Benny (as even junior officers called him when he wore stars on his shoulder) is also the minister of defense.
The influence of these two pragmatic former military leaders is obvious in the new arrangement with the UAE. Gantz has emerged as a centrist voice for cooperation with the Arabs, negotiation with the Palestinians, alignment with the United States and NATO, and above all the creation of real deterrence against Iran. Both Gabi and Benny understand Iran’s lethal threat to Israel — a key impetus for this move to come closer to the Arab Gulf states.
Indeed, for the past decade, both generals have been quiet advocates of cooperation with Arab countries, including not only traditional partners Jordan and Egypt but also the UAE, Oman and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia. When I visited the Saudi Kingdom last year, I found enthusiasm for Israeli partnership. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have already cooperated with Israel on missile defense, intelligence sharing, reconnaissance (both airborne and at sea) and cybersecurity.
Not everyone is thrilled about the deal. The Palestinians feel, as usual, not sufficiently consulted nor appreciated for their long suffering at the hands of Israel. They have rejected the agreement as an election-year “stab in the back,” and pointed out that Netanyahu says the promise to stop annexations is “temporary.” They see it as a break in the wall of Gulf Arab solidarity against formal relations with Israel.
On this, they are correct. Given the lack of demonstrations by the “Arab street,” other Israel recognition deals may soon follow — first by Bahrain and Oman, and eventually Saudi Arabia.
Above all, the deal is worrisome to Iran, because it reflects the Arab world’s growing recognition of Persian Iran’s long-term threat: its growing population and its persistent campaign to consolidate influence in Syria, parts of Iraq and other the Shiite Arab states. Especially if the remaining Gulf Arab states join the UAE in recognizing Israel, the potential for anti-Iranian military and intelligence activity will grow significantly. The new coalition could create advanced early warning systems against Iranian missiles; a connected command and control network for missile defense; naval operations in the Red Sea, northern Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf; shared military technology; and a regular exchange of intelligence.
Three forces will determine whether this turns out to be a momentary flash of optimism that fails to bring broader strategic outcomes or usher in a new era of Israeli-Arab cooperation. The first is domestic politics in Israel, already teetering on the shaky governing coalition of Netanyahu and Gantz. If Israeli conservative pressure pushes Netanyahu to resume annexations, the humiliation for the UAE would hinder further activity.
A second factor will be Iran’s response — dramatic actions by the Persians would consolidate Arab antipathy, potentially leading to more recognitions.
And finally, U.S. influence will play a role. Whether Joe Biden becomes president or Trump remains in office, the U.S. will probably do what it can to move this initiative forward. But Biden, unlike Trump, might put more emphasis on renewing a deal with Iran.
However this spins out, the current deal is a positive development for Israel, the UAE and the U.S. in a tactical sense. When I visited Israel as NATO commander, I was privileged to spend time and exchange books with former President Shimon Peres. The last time I visited him before he died, he gave me a biography he’d written of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in which he wrote, “We should use our imagination more than our memory.” A broader Israeli-Arab alignment is a leap of imagination that benefits both sides, the U.S. and the region.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
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