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Middle East Institute Fellow Bilal Saab Discusses Israel And UAE Agreement


Here's why it's a big deal that Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates. Ever since its independence in the 1940s, most Arab nations have refused to recognize Israel. There've been multiple wars, of course. Egypt and Jordan were exceptions over time. And now the UAE, a small but very wealthy nation on the Persian Gulf, joins them. Arab nations have been reluctant to establish relations, partly because they support Palestinians, who were seeking land for a future state. To get UAE recognition, Israel suspended a plan to annex parts of the West Bank. U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called attention to the language there.


DAVID FRIEDMAN: The word suspend was chosen carefully by all the parties. Suspend, by definition - look it up. That means temporary halt. It's off the table now, but it's not off the table permanently.

INSKEEP: So much to discuss here so we've called Bilal Saab, a former official at the Pentagon, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a think tank here in Washington. We should mention, it does receive funding from the government of the UAE, among others. Good morning, sir.

BILAL SAAB: Good morning to you.

INSKEEP: Why did the United Arab Emirates move now?

SAAB: Well, there's a lot to gain from this deal. I think it's a very good one for both nations. It's a win-win. The UAE can claim that it did it for the Palestinians and it saved the two-state solution. But I think it had little to do with the Palestinians, quite frankly. I think they killed three birds with one stone. They solidified their leadership in the Arab world. They built stronger bridges here in Washington with both the Democrats and the Republicans. And sure, they formed a stronger coalition against Iran with the Israelis, a very capable partner.

INSKEEP: You just mentioned Iran. That is one of the reasons, I suppose, that a number of Persian Gulf nations have quietly - and now I guess more and more publicly - collaborated with Israel. They have a common enemy.

SAAB: Right. I mean, what the Iranians just said was pretty much expected. I don't buy the argument that they were a loser because of this deal. I think in the grand scheme of things, the Iranians are a strategic loser because of their project. It's extremist. It offers nothing but political ruin and economic misery. But in the realities of the Middle East, you know, where factionalism and sectarianism reign supreme, I really don't think this deal really harms their interests or slows down their plans or aspirations.

INSKEEP: Let's go back to that word suspend. What does that...

SAAB: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...Really mean that Israel says Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, says, OK, I had a plan to annex parts of the West Bank; I'm not going to do it right now?

SAAB: Well, I mean, it has to survive Israeli politics. Right? So - and these are constantly shifting. Very careful choice of words - and you know, we'll see whether it also survives, you know, the politics here in Washington. You know, they're going to do what they're going to do, which is a ceremony at the White House soon. They're going to meet up, the two nations. They'll hold talks. Maybe they'll open embassies. They'll allow direct flights. They'll deepen commercial ties. But it's a process. OK? The Emiratis are pretty clear that this is a process, and they can bail whenever the Israelis change their mind.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned embassies. Israel, of course, claims its capital is Jerusalem. Other nations have said that should be settled later. Do you think the UAE will open up an embassy in Jerusalem?

SAAB: You know, that's a hard topic. I sure would hope that they do that. I think it's a big-ticket item as part of this deal, and they probably will. But I'd love to see the reaction of the Saudis, too. See, this is why - you know, the Saudi factor is an X factor in this whole thing. I would loved to see the Saudis join this diplomatic party because they are the ultimate prize for the Israelis. If the Saudis recognize the Israelis, this is a big deal. But they haven't yet. It's sort of been radio silence from Riyadh. And you know, they have their own political calculations. They have a lot of very different domestic position than the Emiratis. But I'd love to see the Saudis join at some point soon. And it's - you know, the - President Trump made that possible, and so we'll see what happens.

INSKEEP: Let me talk about where the Palestinians are on this. The UAE says, hey, at least we got Israel to suspend annexing part of the West Bank. But Diana Buttu does not sound very happy. She's a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, often acts as a kind of spokesman for Palestinians. And here's what she said last night. She said she was hoping the UAE would withhold recognition until there's a Palestinian state. Let's listen.


DIANA BUTTU: But instead, they've turned around and stabbed us in the back under this fig leaf that somehow they are the ones that are stopping Israel's annexation, which they're not.

INSKEEP: Is she speaking correctly there?

SAAB: That's some very strong language. I'm not sure I agree with that. Look. At the other day, like I said, this is a very good deal for both nations regardless of what happens on the Palestinian question. If it does so suspend the very problematic, controversial, illegal annexation of the West Bank, great. But I think this has more to do with Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv than anything else, quite frankly.

INSKEEP: Bilal Saab, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Thanks so much.

SAAB: You got it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.