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The Challenges and Opportunities of the Israel-UAE Defense Relations

by Frank Musmar and Irina Tsukerman*

*Dr. Frank Musmar is an expert on the Middle East Politics, a Non-resident research associate at BESA Center and an Advisory Board Member at the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).

Dr. Irina Tsukerman is a human rights lawyer and national security analyst based in New York.

On August 13, 2020, the White House released a statement that the US President, Donald Trump, Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, agreed to full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the statement, the White House mentioned that delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates would meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, environment, and security. However, the announcement did not mention defense relations.

 

Tensions over F-35s

Just days after announcing the normalization deal, the world experienced a spike in tensions. On Tuesday, August 18, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would oppose any U.S. selling Lockheed Martin F-35 warplane sales to the UAE (which the UAE foresee as an edge to defend itself against Iran) despite forging relations to maintain Israeli military superiority in the region. On August 24, the United Arab Emirates canceled a meeting with Israeli and American officials to formalize normalization due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opposition to the U.S. selling Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi.

Under the agreement, Israel has agreed to suspend annexation plans for the West Bank areas, in a move that will block the Iranian’s opportunity to mobilize and breathe fresh air in the ideological backbones of the “Axis of Resistance,” dominated by Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Needless to say, Israel is declared as the main ally of Arabs against Iran, with one remaining obstacle—the Palestinian people. In this context, the Arab Gulf countries foresee the U.S. Trump Administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, as a golden opportunity to overcome the Palestinian complex and join forces with Israel to combat the threat of Iran.

 

The Need for a Defense Arrangement

A threat to this opportunity is neglecting the fact that normalization has to address the defense relations between Israel and the UAE and future Israel normalization deals with other Arab countries. The Shia crescent dominated by the surrogate groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, and southern Iraqi militias, is the mischief of the Mullahs of Tehran, and one of the main threats to Israel and the Arab countries, which requires building strategic alliances and power blocks.

The Arab countries recognize a need for new and practical leagues, such as NATO, to address the defense needs of the Middle East region. The Arab League has consistently failed to discuss any of the urgent challenges that have arisen over the decades within the Arab world, notably the escalating Iranian Shiite rebellion in the Middle East. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not in a better shape either; the 40th December 10, 2019 summit in Riyadh failed to bring the leaders of the six-member states to address the most severe crisis; Iran, the dispute between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, human rights and freedom of expression and defending the cause of democracy across the Arab world.

The Israel-UAE normalization deal is a recognition of Israel's position as a robust regional power competing with Turkey in serving U.S. interests in the Middle East. The Joint Military exercises with the U.S along with the growing public exposure are increasing the deterrent effect of such position. However, political, religious extremism, terrorism, and the proliferation of ballistic missiles and unconventional weapons still represent a threat to Israel. To establish peace in the Middle East, a political alliance or peace agreement has to include a form of a military alliance. The coalition has to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.

 

Opportunities

The Israel-UAE normalization deal is an opportunity for the region to organize a peace conference in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh, and patronages by the U.S along with major regional powers except Iran, to create a political peace momentum and welcome the efforts of other peace ambitious countries, such as Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, and Morocco. The conference will be a chance to discuss future military alliances between the new peace and normalization countries to address the threat of Iran, counterterrorism involving military and non-military measures to address the full spectrum of crises before, during and after conflicts in the Middle East.

Another opportunity is the potential for anti-Iranian military and intelligence activity that will rise if the remaining Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, joining the UAE in normalizing with Israel. According to James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, the opportunity will prepare the ground for a new coalition with 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.

The Israel-UAE normalization deal is an opportunity for Israel and the UAE to organize a joint military technology, defense exhibition, and invite representatives of global companies specialized in manufacturing modern military equipment in Abu Dhabi. The conference will be a chance for academics and military experts to discuss the future of military technology in the Middle East. Such a meeting with Israel's attendance will send a message to the Iranian regime to recalculate its policy in the region.

 

Challenges

Still, implementations of such ambitious projects have their shortcomings as the non-implementation of the seemingly promising White House-backed MESA (or "Arab NATO") reveals. Two years ago, MESA, for a brief period, was the talk of the town. This gathering of Arab allies would provide a cohesive response to Iran's challenge in the Middle East and North Africa. However, from day one, it was rife with controversy over various issues, starting with membership - and at the time, Israel was not yet openly considered. Since the MESA proposal, the regional situation got more complicated. Israel has advanced its relationships with some Arab states through joint airstrikes against Iran-backed militias.

However, for any multilateral collaboration to work effectively the peace agreement with the UAE alone is insufficient; open joint exercises, high-level transactions, and more advanced operations require the level of coordination that is not yet possible. Even intelligence sharing has its limits until these relations are brought to the surface. The UAE forces are comparatively well trained; they were profoundly helpful to the U.S. in counterterrorism operations and in preparing local factions and liberating territories from the Houthi control in Yemen. However, they are a small force, and while they can provide critical intelligence assistance, they are not a substitute for a significant multilateral, regional force, particularly against Hezbollah’s proliferation of missiles in the region.

Furthermore, even Israel, with its formidable air force, in a theoretical scenario, could not take on Iran and all of its proxies simultaneously by itself. While Saudis and others can assists in limited missions against militias, addressing the multiple fronts Israel is facing in conjunction with the additional internal and external threats faced separately by each of those countries would require far more extensive network coordination. Defense relations with the UAE will take time to develop. Still, to have a significant regional alliance against any considerable threat, Saudi forces would have to be willing to participate in these operations on a much higher level, with or without a peace treaty.

Whereas this may be possible soon, depending on how the relationship with the UAE develops and other security factors, this development may still take some time. Israel and the UAE are essentially racing against time but with limited resources. U.S. sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah may slow down their progress, but thus far have not ousted Iranian direct or indirect ground game operations, soft power influence, nor presence in Iraq, Syria, or other states. These issues present additional challenges to the Israel-UAE coordination, given the UAE’s complicated relationship with Iran.

 

UAE and Iran: It’s Complicated

Recently, there was a shooting incident involving the seizing of a UAE-flagged ship in retaliation for an accidental shooting of two Iranian fishermen, even after a UAE official apology. Such action may point to a government-level concern about Iranian smuggling operations near the UAE waters, and a more significant divestment from any Iranian influence on the political level. At the same time, Dubai boasts of a significant Iranian business community is an issue that has been helpful in joint US-UAE intelligence operations to track down illicit financing. However, it gave Iran a degree of leverage and ability to operate in the vicinity, creating tensions externally and internally, and raising security concerns among other countries in the region. The degree of that economic and internal security issue is of concern to Israel, and whether or not it will affect the defense relations remain to be seen. Moreover, another complication that may result out of this growing tension is an increasing GCC split, via a closer relationship between Qatar and Iran.

 

The Qatar Variable

Israel’s relationship with Qatar is an obstacle towards a blossoming defense relationship, because the UAE views Qatar not only as its economic rival but a significant security threat, and along with some other states, has imposed an embargo on Doha. Qatar has limited trade relations with Israel and has been cooperating on financing Hamas in exchange for keeping the Israel-Gaza border quiet. However, Qatar’s role as a credible mediator became complicated through the Qatari Ambassador reportedly given the boot in Gaza, Doha’s vicious propaganda campaign against Israel through its media mouthpieces and a network of global echo chambers and various other operations.

Qatar tried to play all sides, reportedly lying about shutting down trade with Israel and shame other Arab states relations with Israel. Qatar has been monopolizing its relationship with Israel against further Israeli connections with other Arab countries in the region. Such new connections would limit Doha’s role, jeopardize its ability to divide the various players, prevent them from presenting a united front to its agenda, and reported terrorism support. Thus, Qatar has used its U.S. base and participated in symbolic GCC counterterrorism agreements to boost its status, while supporting various terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah. Qatar recently enjoyed a U.S. State Department praise for its role in counterterrorism efforts, while simultaneously being sued by multiple private parties in the United States for an alleged hack of a U.S. citizenunlawful imprisonments of Americans implicating members of the royal family in abductions, rapes, and murdersfinancing terrorism and laundering money towards that goal through its financial institutions and charities, and being investigated for the alleged funding of Hezbollah, first reported in Germany.

Most importantly, Qatar has thrown its relationship with Israel to sow mistrust between Israel and the so-called Anti-Terrorism Quartet, including the UAE. Why did the Israeli security establishment continue with this seemingly doomed relationship, which does no favors to Israel’s diplomatic efforts concerning its other neighbors? Some scholars, such as Daniel Pipes, believe this may be due to tired cynicism and short term thinking of much of the Israeli security establishment, which, after decades of conflicts and tensions with the Arab world does not trust any of them and therefore focuses exclusively on short term gain regardless of long term cost.

Regardless, Qatar’s support of terrorist organizations and rogue regimes, including Iran, should be a common denominator strengthening the growing relationship with the UAE and providing common ground for more effective defense cooperation, particularly on counterterrorism and related intelligence sharing. However, that may be true only if Israel recognizes Qatar’s agenda and danger to its interests and chooses to focus on the long term benefits of strategic depth of its ties with the UAE, and in due time, other countries seeking to join the alliance. Moreover, it should, in the future, be mindful of the intra-GCC tensions and consider how it can pursue relationships with rival states without antagonizing new allies by embracing their declared and undeclared adversaries.

 

Oman’s Role

For instance, Oman, one of the countries rumored to be queueing up for normalization, holds a nearly identical political line to Qatar, is very close to Iran and even hosts secret Iranian bases,  has significant geopolitical differences with the UAE and has a history of hosting Houthis and allowing them to pass between Yemen and Iran. Having mismanaged its economic policy and  failing to implement sufficient measures to diversify from its oil dependence, it is now seeking an alternative market arrangement.

However, Israel may be burdened by this alleged one-sided relationship in more than one way. Regardless of the UAE’s view on this process, Oman objectively presents defense and security complications to both Israel and its new ally. While UAE may provide significant behind-the-scenes assistance on security matters, the UAE’s defense assistance to Israel will be severely limited due to the constraints of the GCC defense treaty obligations. Furthermore, Oman might try to play the two states against each other to advance its interests as well as those of Iran, Qatar, and increasingly, Turkey. Israel taking the bird’s eye view of the shifting regional alliances and moving away from some of the bunker philosophers, which prevented Israel from investing deeply into the behind-the-scenes relations with the Arab states, will pursue relations with whichever states might be helpful, which will lead to a more coherent and effective foreign policy.

 

Russia and China vs the US in the Middle East

Other factors to consider are the roles of China and Russia in the region. Both countries are reaching out to the Gulf States and making the best of the vacuum of power left by the increasingly limited role the U.S. in the region. The U.S. has put pressure on Israel to avoid the sales of strategic ports to Beijing, and Russia is, at best, an awkward counterpart to the traditional U.S. allies in the region. However, in part due to the perception of U.S. partisanship and domestic divisions as inconsistent, and potentially detrimental to regional stability, the Arab states, in particular, are increasingly viewing Beijing as a viable option for business ventures. And for Iran, China is not yet a threat, and so far has been a lucrative counterpart.

Nevertheless, the U.S. may ultimately prevail in forcing Israel, the UAE, and others to choose sides. The prospects for a “New Silk Road” in the Middle East involving both Israel and UAE are waning despite the seeming uptick in business deals and discussions due to China’s and Russia’s increasingly close relations with Iran and collaboration on cyber threats, which have targeted Israeli, Emirati, and American targets in recent months. Beijing’s and Moscow’s naval ambitions may ultimately give pause even the most cynical and wary in the Emirati ranks of U.S. foreign policy considerations given Russia’s contribution to global chaos and its unsavory role in Syria, as well as its recent willingness to push out propaganda for the Houthis in Yemen. China’s tragic history in delivering on its proposed projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is likely a poor fit with Israel and Emirati entrepreneurial drive. Regardless, the willingness of Russia and China to support Iran’s illicit endeavors in the Strait of Hormuz, which threaten both Israeli and Emirati trade interests, may ultimately end up being one of the essential defense issues to bring Israel and Abu Dhabi together.

 

A Way Forward

It is important to note that while Israel and UAE are ironing out all these wrinkles and strategizing, trying to build a relatable communication style, their adversaries have already invested resources into a common regional approach and are far ahead of the game in advancing their agenda, despite various shortcomings. Therefore, regardless of how this defense relationship ultimately plays out, until the two countries find a way to integrate other regional players and develop a cohesive approach, various state and non-state threats will continue to challenge their efforts to collaborate and confront these attacks.

While there are many expected positive effects of the regional integration in the future, in the short term, the Israeli-UAE defense relationship is not a panacea from all ills, and the signing of the deal will not resolve the current chaotic atmosphere; temporarily, additional concerns and endemic underlying differences may add to the cornucopia of obstacles for the new allies. It is up to the leaders to recognize the practical considerations of building up a new relationship and avoiding the pitfalls of expecting too much too quickly as it happened with the F-35s, but rather to implement a series of trust-building measures and to make use of the effective U.S. behind-the-scenes diplomacy to avoid future public faux pas.

15 September 2020

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