Israel, the UAE, and shifting sands in the Middle East

This week, the UAE and Israel signed a normalization agreement brokered by the U.S. that, after decades of hostilities, brought a third Arab nation into the fold of peace with the Middle East’s predominantly Jewish state, alongside Jordan and Egypt. The agreement, historic by any standards, has also been controversial. It may signal that Saudi Arabia will be next to officially recognize the Israeli state, a move that would certainly cause waves. It may also signal a historic shift away from support for the Palestinian cause and a shift in the Middle East power balance. What does it mean for the region and for Turkey in particular?

Adnan R. Khan: What do you think motivated the UAE to recognize Israel at this particular moment?

Ilter Turan: There are a number of reasons, some of them related to foreign policy and some of them deriving from domestic political considerations. From a foreign policy almost all Gulf nations feel somewhat threatened by Iranian expansionism. They want to become a part of an effort, which they themselves are not strong enough to sustain, by which they would be able to stop Iran. So the price they have to pay for that is to get closer to the U.S., and improving their relations with its closest regional ally, Israel.

But then we can also look at other issues. For instance, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are engaged in a war in Yemen where they have been performing miserably. Their security capabilities have been shown to be limited which they attribute to a lack sophisticated weapons, although I think the problem is simply a rather incompetent military. From that perspective, as a way of gaining access to more sophisticated U.S. weaponry, it seems that the UAE felt it important that it tidy up its relations with the U.S., and therefore Israel.

Adnan R. Khan: There were also promises from the Netanyahu government that Israel would abandon the idea of annexing territory in the West Bank. What do you think this tells us about the UAE’s position on the Palestinians?

Ilter Turan: The policy of the Israeli government has so far been to expand its presence in occupied territories and run these new areas as if they were a part of Israel. The Israeli commitment concerns legalization of their status rather than a change of policy of expanding into Palestinian territory. One might also question whether this sort of commitment to withholding annexation was a particularly meaningful concession in the first place. Even before this agreement, there was a strong negative reaction from the rest of the world to the idea of annexation in addition to some negative domestic Israeli reaction. So, the Netanyahu government was already less than willing to actually follow through on it because the political consequences would be too harsh for Israel to accept.

Adnan R. Khan: Opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinians have always been a cornerstone of the UAE monarchy’s appeal to its people. How will this deal affect that relationship?

Ilter Turan: This is a very interesting question indeed. As has been the case with many Arab regimes, the UAE government legitimized itself in part by being an anti-Israeli force that stood against Israel’s consolidating its place in the Middle East. Now this entire game of legitimacy has been reversed. How they will proceed to persuade their own publics to accept this shift is an open question.

I have a feeling that one of the outcomes will be that domestic opposition to these regimes will now be given added ammunition. In particular, the appeal of Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only reasonably well-organized political opposition in the region, will be enhanced. The Brotherhood now has another reason to challenge these traditional regimes, to call them puppets or stooges of clearly anti-Islamic Western imperialist interests.

Adnan R. Khan: Turkey is one of the countries in the region that has shown an openness to the Muslim Brotherhood. Does this isolate Turkey more in the region?

Ilter Turan: It does seem to consolidate Turkey’s isolation. The only other country that extends some support to the Muslim Brotherhood is Qatar and Qatar’s position has recently shown signs of shifting. So, Turkey is getting to be more and more alone in challenging Israel and in extending support to movements that are challenging the traditional governments in the region.

Plus, even before this agreement, Turkey was not in a particularly influential position. We have to remember: although Turkey does not have an ambassador in Israel at the moment, it does have diplomatic ties and continues to recognize Israel. Whether Turkey will be willing to completely severe ties with Israel is open to debate but highly unlikely.

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