UAE secured ‘no guarantees’ on halt of West Bank annexation from Israel, ministers admit

Bel Trew

The Independent  /  August 15, 2020

‘We have understandings, we have built up a certain amount of trust,’ assistant minister for foreign affairs tells The Independent amid criticism from Palestinian leaders.

The UAE has no firm guarantees that Israel will not annex occupied Palestinian territory in the future, Emirati ministers have said.

This is despite normalising relations with Israel in a deal which “suspends” plans to declare sovereignty over land such as the occupied West Bank.

“Nothing is written in stone” should Israel renege on its promises, and there are no “conditions attached” to the surprise agreement first announced by Donald Trump on Thursday night, the UAE’s assistant minister for foreign affairs, culture and public diplomacy, Omar Ghobash, told The Independent. Instead, he said there were understandings.

Although welcomed by world leaders, the deal was heavily criticised by the Palestinian leadership. Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, called it a “stab in the back”, while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said it amounted to a “betrayal”.

Mr Ghobash rejected that reading, saying that UAE was a sovereign state not a “gift” to the Palestinians who decide the terms of any relationship it might develop with Israel. He said the deal put a halt to annexation allowing “breathing space” for both sides to re-engage in peace talks which have repeatedly failed.

“There was no other Arab initiative to revive the two-state solution [to the Israeli Palestinian conflict],” he said. ”Our leaders have taken a very brave and courageous move. It should be seen as that rather than a stab in the back.”

Anwar Gargash, UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, called the agreement a “win-win” for the region, telling The Independent in a written statement that it was a “ray of hope”.

“We understand this as a commitment by the Israelis to stop annexation, not just to pause it, and we expect that dialogue and cooperation will create the conditions for a lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said.

But Mr Ghobash said: “We don’t have any guarantees as such. “ He added. “We have understandings, we have built up a certain amount of trust.”

Late on Thursday Mr Trump announced the surprise US-brokered deal which saw the UAE become the first gulf country to recognise and build diplomatic ties with Israel. It is only the third Arab country to do so, joining Egypt and Jordan.

A joint statement from the US, the UAE and Israel said that Israel would “suspend” its plans to imminently annex swathes of occupied Palestinian territory in a move declared illegal under international law. The announcement also confirmed delegations will meet in the coming weeks to sign deals on direct flights, security, telecommunications, energy, tourism and healthcare.

They are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies and participate in a signing ceremony due to be held at the White House.

But immediately after Mr Trump’s announcement, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to backtrack on terms of the deal saying there was “no change” to his plans to declare sovereignty over swathes of the occupied West Bank,.

The plans were on “temporary hold”, rather than stopped, he said.

The Israeli premier’s comments prompted a slew of criticism from the Palestinian leadership including Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi, who said that Israel was being “rewarded” with Emirati diplomatic ties despite its continued occupation of Palestinian land.

Dr Gargash told The Independent that ”Israelis know that normalisation does not happen overnight and that our commitment to it is linked to the question of annexation”.

The new deal would bolster the two-state solution and help re-start the failed peace process, he said.

Mr Ghobash, who also rejected the notion the UAE was rewarding Israel, said that while Israel had violated international law “shouting about it and condemning it hasn’t done much” while “stonewalling” the country was not working.

Instead the agreement would allow the UAE more of a say in persuading the Israeli to take Palestinian rights into account, Mr Ghobash argued, as “there will be skin in the game for both sides”.

“The Emirates has right from one day, been a strong supporter of Palestinians rights and justice for the Palestinian course,” he continued.

“The [Palestinian Authority] hasn’t spoken to the Americans in two years. While we don’t talk the rest of the world moves on. We believe engagement has to be the way forward.”

Both ministers said that in the coming days there is likely to be an official signing of the UAE-Israel agreement in the White House.

After that, teams from both sides will discuss the administrative and diplomatic issues on a slew of different files including science, technology, food security and tourism.

The deal may open the door for more Middle Eastern countries to follow suit with Palestinian media reporting that Bahrain and Oman may broker deals with Israel.

But there was fierce criticism from Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, longtime foes of Israel.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, said in a televised speech that Mr Trump announced the deal because he needed “an achievement” ahead of US elections. He said he expected a number of Arab states to follow suit in normalising relations with Israel.

Turkey, a powerful regional rival of the UAE, also condemned the deal despite the fact that there are direct flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul.

President Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Ankara may cut ties with Abu Dhabi, adding that history would not forgive the UAE for making a deal which undercut the 2002 Arab peace plan, which had proposed peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory.

Dr Gargash said the slew of criticism was “the price to pay for a very polarised region”.

“Israel and Palestine will decide on the peace solutions here. But for now the threat to the two state solution is off the table. It won’t be off the table forever. But the history of the region is a history of lost opportunities,” he added

Bel Trew is The Independent’s Middle East Correspondent based in Beirut