Ex-secretary, Ministry of External Affairs
The UAE-Israel deal, brokered by the US, is historic. It will make the UAE the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. The first was Egypt in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has decided to put it out in the open that Israel is not a threat. Some more Sunni Arab states may go that way.
As I read about this development, four memories were revived: an autumn day in Cairo in 1977, the visit of the then External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Abu Dhabi in 1979, seeing Yasser Arafat speak at a gathering that same summer in the same city, and the visit of IK Gujral to Abu Dhabi in 1997.
Six years after its ignominious defeat by Israel in 1967, Egypt had recovered some pride through the Yom Kippur war of 1973 but little else. Its economy was in a shambles and there was no prospect that the Soviet Union connection would enable it to recover either lands lost or improve economic conditions. At that stage, Egypt decided to open up with the US.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter became the US President with the ambition to be the peace-maker between Israel and the Arabs. Egypt was central to this process. The US undertook a quiet diplomatic effort to mediate between Israel and Egypt. On the surface, Egypt continued its usual propaganda against Israel; that it was a Western outpost which would be extinguished as the Crusades had been. That was the sentiment of the Arab street.
In this background, Sadat declared in November 1977 that he was willing to go to the end of the world to spare injury or death to even one Egyptian. ‘I am even willing to go to the Knesset and discuss with them.’ The first reaction in the Cairo diplomatic corps was to dismiss this as just rhetorical flourish but a senior Egyptian political figure told the Indian ambassador, in confidence, not to dismiss it. Soon enough, it became clear that Sadat was serious and a visit was in the works. He was condemned by some in Egypt and in the Arab world as a traitor to the Palestinian cause. But ten days later, he was in Jerusalem addressing the Knesset.
The visit paved the way for the 1979 Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords. It did not lead to larger peace between Israel and the Arabs. Even with Egypt, all that was attained was a hostile cold peace. But for Israel, it did achieve one basic objective: the largest Arab country established diplomatic ties, and in doing so, turned its back to the notion that Israel should cease to exist.
Since Israel’s establishment, some prominent Arab countries had maintained clandestine relations with it. These included Jordan and Morocco. In some years, two prominent Muslim states also—Turkey and Iran—recognised Israel. Thus, below the surface of Arab and Muslim hostility, there was a complex web of ties between Israel and the Islamic world. The non-aligned countries, including India, stood in solidarity with the Arabs on the Palestinian issue and were disappointed with Egypt, which under Nasser was one of its leading founder-members. In 1979, Iran overthrew the Shah and turned its back on Israel.
It was in these circumstances that Vajpayee visited Abu Dhabi in 1979. Two years earlier, when the Janata government took office, there was speculation if India would soften towards Israel because of the Jan Sangh’s positive approach towards it. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan also made a secret visit to India and met PM Morarji Desai. Despite all this, the Janata government continued with India’s traditional support for the Palestinians and maintained strong links with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Apart from charming his hosts with his demeanour, Vajpayee made this policy clear, both privately and publicly, in Abu Dhabi. Indeed, he accused Israel of expansionism.
With Khomeini’s 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran began to spout venom against the US and Israel. Alarmed, the Gulf Arab states sharpened their anti-Israeli rhetoric and increased their support for the PLO. Arafat kept touring Arab countries to remind them of their obligations and he came to Abu Dhabi, too. Dressed characteristically with the chequered kaffiyeh as his headgear, and a holstered pistol around his waist, he spoke of the need for Arab solidarity to drive Israel into the sea. I saw him at such a meeting and he was a striking figure.
The anxieties of the Gulf states, including the UAE, with revolutionary Iran increased through the 1980s that witnessed the eight-year Iraq-Iran war. They increased further in the 1990s, and this became evident when Gujral met his UAE counterpart during a visit to Abu Dhabi in 1997. He arrived there from Tehran, where he had met the Iranian leadership. I was part of his delegation. As the talks were concluding, the UAE minister asked to meet him alone. Gujral looked troubled when he came out of the meeting. He revealed to some of his delegation members that the UAE minister had warned him against Iran. He had gone to the extent of saying that his country could imagine itself being in the same trenches with Israel against Iran!
Clearly, by that time for the UAE, despite the lip service being paid to the Palestinian cause, the principal enemy had become Iran. Israel was not a threat to it in any case. Twenty-three years later in a transformed world, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed decided that it was time to put it out in the open, and with that, it is likely that some more Sunni Arab states will go that way.
Israeli patience backed by its power is prevailing, and the Arabs have no alternative but to accept the inevitable. The Palestinians will continue to suffer and a low-level conflict will continue as the wheels of history turn.
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