Dov Waxman is UCLA’s Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies and director of the UCLA Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. Here, he answers questions about the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that was announced Aug. 13. 

How significant is the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates?

President Trump has characterized it as an “historic breakthrough” in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. This is, after all, only the fourth time that Israel has signed an agreement to establish peace with any Arab state, the first being with Egypt. Then an aborted peace agreement with Lebanon. More recently, a peace agreement with Jordan. This is the fourth, and particularly important in terms of Israel’s burgeoning relationship with Gulf states.

However, the breakthrough is not actually a peace agreement, merely an agreement to try to reach a peace deal. And the practical impact of this upon Israel’s relations with the Arab world and on the region at large remains to be seen because, in many areas, Israel in the United Arab Emirates already enjoyed an unofficial relationship. They already had informal, not official diplomatic relations, and even a trade relationship. It remains to be seen whether other Arab states, particularly in the Gulf world, will follow the UAE now, in which case, this could become an even more important agreement.

Does the agreement put us closer to resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and what does it mean for the West Bank annexation proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

That’s the million-dollar question, whether this agreement will not only be a historic breakthrough in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. Also, will it advance the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which is the most critical peace agreement that Israel needs to achieve for its long-term future? I suspect that this agreement will not advance the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

If anything, it will actually hinder those prospects by sending the message to Israel that it can achieve much of what it wants — normalization with the Arab world and diplomatic relations with the Arab world — without having to withdraw from the West Bank and give up land to the Palestinians. By sending that message, I think it will make the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians harder to achieve.

In terms of the annexation plan, it was really off the table due to the surge of COVID-19 in Israel. All this is essentially allowing Netanyahu now to get something, a big prize, without having to do anything else in exchange. He gets the prize of normalization, an agreement with the UAE. Israel hasn’t even agreed to abandon its annexation agenda completely, merely to suspend it temporarily. And in exchange for this promise, Israel gets this agreement with the UAE. 

From a domestic standpoint, how does this agreement between Israel and UAE help Prime Minister Netanyahu at home and maybe even President Trump in his reelection campaign?

Netanyahu has been domestically assailed in recent weeks. He’s faced growing protests by Israelis across the political spectrum and come under a lot of criticism for his handling of the pandemic in Israel. So this comes at an opportune time for Netanyahu domestically. It plays to his strengths in the eyes of the Israeli public as a great statesman for Israel. It’s not going to make Israelis forget about the corruption charges he faces. It’s not going to lead Israelis to stop demanding he resign because of those corruption charges.

And it’s also going to outrage Netanyahu’s supporters and allies on the right who have given him their support in part because of the expectation that he would carry out this promise to annex parts of the West Bank. In the short term, it gives Netanyahu a domestic political boost. But by alienating his partners and allies on the right, it may ultimately come back to bite Netanyahu politically.

For Trump, it’s clearly and undoubtedly a political boost for him. He can use this as a foreign policy achievement — one of his only foreign policy achievements, in my opinion. But Trump will use this undoubtedly as a foreign policy achievement in running for reelection. It also changes the narrative for Trump domestically away from his poor handling of the pandemic here, and it moves the news media away from focusing on the upcoming Democratic Party convention and the nomination of Kamala Harris as [Joe] Biden’s running mate. And it allows Trump once again to take the limelight and to present himself as a great peacemaker.

Are the Saudis next to sign a diplomatic agreement with Israel?

I would be very surprised if Saudi Arabia were to be the next country to follow the UAE’s lead, although I’m sure the Saudis were well aware of this development. More likely, if other Arab countries choose to follow the UAE’s lead in this, they’ll be smaller Gulf states like Bahrain and Oman, countries that are already close U.S. allies, and enjoy informal relations with Israel.

So, yes, this could encourage other Gulf Arab countries to move forward as well. Whether it does so in part will depend upon the public reaction in the Gulf and across the Arab world.

Let’s not forget this isn’t an agreement between the population of the United Arab Emirates. This is an agreement by the ruler of a country, which is an autocracy and doesn’t really represent its public opinion. And so I don’t think this will lead to a much broader shift in attitudes toward Israel among Arabs in general across the Arab world.

Waxman’s research focuses on the conflict over Israel-Palestine, Israeli politics and foreign policy, U.S.Israel relations, American Jewry’s relationship with Israel, Jewish politics, and anti-Semitism. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and four books, most recently, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2019). He has also been published in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Foreign Policy, The Forward and Ha’aretz, and he is a frequent commentator on television and radio.

To arrange an interview with Waxman, email Jeff Daniels, Nazarian Center communications manager, at jdaniels@international.ucla.edu.