Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 August 2020
The announcement that the United Arab Emirates and Israel will establish diplomatic ties and normalise relations is hugely significant for the Middle East.
The UAE becomes the third Arab state to recognise Israel, following Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979. Though it has taken decades longer than it should have, Israel is finally becoming accepted as a legitimate stakeholder in the Middle East and part of the regional furniture.
The fact that it has been the UAE — the most moderate and progressive of the Gulf states — to take this step forward should come as no surprise. This move would have been co-ordinated closely with other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. With some luck and some patience, other Gulf states will follow the UAE's lead.
The opening between the UAE and Israel formalises a strategic realignment that has been under way in the Middle East for some time.
For a number of years now, the interests of Israel and much of the Arab world have been converging. Foremost among these interests is concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program, and its regional destabilisation efforts and support to terrorist groups, from Yemen to Syria and Lebanon.
These shared concerns have lead to growing behind-the-scenes communication and co-ordination between Israel and the Gulf states. Private meetings between retired generals and intelligence chiefs at international conferences have provided the means.
The UAE-Israel agreement, announced on Thursday, brings this co-operation out into the open and begins to formalise this bloc.
The UAE and Iran have significant trade, commercial and diplomatic relations, so this move by its near neighbour will undoubtedly unsettle Iran. It will add to Iran’s isolation from the region and compound its economic woes.
The economic benefits of the deal have the potential to be significant. The ability to travel, trade and interact directly is something we take for granted in the Indo-Pacific, but it is exceptionally difficult in the Middle East, and has held the region's development back.
Building ties between the two most economically dynamic parts of the Middle East will provide big commercial and trade opportunities. Direct flights and access between Israel and the UAE will link Israel's technological prowess with the financial, logistics and investment hub of the region – a win for both sides.
There will also be a strategic windfall for the region. Open diplomatic relations and exchanges between Israel and the UAE, and onward to the rest of the Gulf, will improve communication and allow increased co-ordination on security issues.
From the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the growing presence of outside actors such as Turkey and Russia, and the perennial issues of cyber and maritime security and nuclear proliferation, strategic dialogues in the Middle East are never short of subject matter.
The UAE-Israel channel will provide a vehicle to exchange assessments, co-ordinate positions, and if necessary address misunderstandings and de-escalate tensions, a vital piece of security infrastructure in a volatile region.
The White House played an important role, as it usually does, in helping broker this agreement, and deserves credit for this. But the agreement itself speaks to a growing recognition among the Middle East’s major actors that they can no longer rely on Washington alone to keep the peace in the region.
Aware that the United States will no longer always be prepared to underwrite security in the Middle East, as the conflict in Syria has shown, the agreement demonstrates a greater degree of self reliance and strategic maturity.
From Europe to the Indo-Pacific, Washington expects its allies around the world to do more of the heavy lifting to underpin stability. The same is true in the Middle East.
The Palestinians should welcome this deal as it in fact makes a two-state solution more likely and helps the Palestinian national cause.
As part of the agreement, the UAE insisted that Israel take off the table the option of unilateral annexation of land in the West Bank.
This threatened move by Israel would, if carried out, have rendered a future Palestinian state unviable and so would have dealt a mortal blow to the two-state solution.
Beyond this, though, the deal adds measurably to Israel’s sense of security and legitimacy in the region. Diplomatic recognition from the Arab world is a prized strategic asset for Israel.
Only an Israel that feels secure and confident of its place in the region, and that no longer faces existential threats, will be able to make the difficult territorial, security and political compromises necessary to create a Palestinian state.
Efforts towards a durable peace in the Middle East tend to move at a glacial pace – but every so often, the tectonic plates shift and the region takes a quantum leap forward. The UAE agreement with Israel is one such moment.