On Thursday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his country had reached a historic peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, nobody in Israel saw it coming.
Although in recent years there have been reports about a thawing of relations between the states, the two nations have never had diplomatic relations and Israeli passport holders were not welcome to the Gulf states, apart from a few exceptions.
Now, however, this could all change.
"Today we usher a new era of peace between Israel and the Arab world," said Netanyahu, addressing crowds of reporters on Thursday, after attending a virtual conference with US President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates.
"We announced the establishment of a full and formal peace between Israel and the UAE. It includes the mutual opening of embassies, direct flights and many, many other bilateral agreements," he declared.
According to reports, a delegation headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen will visit Abu Dhabi early next week to finalise the agreement before it is signed between the two leaders in the upcoming weeks.
Embracing the Deal
So far, the agreement has been met with enthusiasm by many in the international community and has caught the Jewish population of the UAE by surprise.
"We as the Jewish community were obviously surprised and warmly welcomed the move," said a statement of the Jewish Council of the Emirates.
"Many of us have been here for some time and it’s very easy to say [that] none of us expected this to happen any time soon. It’s a great testament to the UAE’s forward looking, inclusive vision and we are grateful for the support of the authorities in establishing our presence here," the statement added.
The Israeli public and its politicians were reportedly taken by surprise by Netanyahu's remarks but many rushed to congratulate the premier on the historic achievement.
— יאיר לפיד - Yair Lapid (@yairlapid) August 13, 2020
"I congratulate Israel and PM Netanyahu for making an important step towards the normalization of ties with the UAE," Yair Lapid, head of the opposition, said. "This is the best proof that the best political way is to reach agreements through negotiations, not by taking unilateral measures that would have harmed Israel's security. I also thank President Trump for his involvement in the process."
— גלצ (@GLZRadio) August 13, 2020
"Annexation was a disaster for Israel and its cancelation was the right decision. Now Israel needs to do the most important thing - a peace deal with the Palestinians," said Tamar Zandberg, the chairwoman of left wing Meretz party.
Will the Deal Harm Netanyahu?
There have also been those, However, who have been critical of the move.
"Netanyahu has lost it. He has been misleading us for a long period of time now. And if it turns out that [in exchange for a peace deal] he gave up on Israel's sovereignty [over parts of the West Bank], the premier should be replaced," said David Elhayani, mayor of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, who has been one of the most vocal voices advocating in favour of applying Israeli law over areas in Judea and Samaria, considered Palestinian under international law.
Other heads of regional councils have expressed similar views promising to square accounts with the premier at the general elections, talks of which have become frequent in recent weeks, following Netanyahu's difficulty to pass the nation's budget.
But Zalman Shoval, one of Israel's former ambassadors to the US and a prominent ex-member of the Likud, says Netanyahu's decision to opt for a major geopolitical move instead of inner baseball politics will not harm his re-election chances, if Israel goes to the polls for the fourth time in under two years.
"The overall support of the right-wing bloc has not diminished," said Shoval, addressing the findings of recent polls that showed a sinking support for Netanyahu's Likud party that is projected to get only 27 out of 120 seats at the Knesset, a significant drop from the previous 36 it had received in the last round of elections in March.
"Although it now seems that more votes are going to the extreme right-wing parties, the settlers [currently threatening to remove their support from the premier] are not Netanyahu's natural base. His base lies in the secular circles and they will back the PM for opting for peace and security".
Common Challenges Unite
Over the years, Netanyahu has earned himself a reputation of Mr. Security, a man who brutally curbed the Palestinian threat and who contained Iran. Now he is positioning himself as a leader who brings peace to the Middle East, according to pundits.
Shoval says that Netanyahu's current success lies partially in his persistence to continue and "widen relations with the Arab world" and partially because of common security challenges that brought Israel and the UAE to the negotiation table.
"Israel and the Gulf states have to say a big 'thank you' to Iran because it was the fear of the Islamic republic [particularly their nuclear program] that made this agreement possible," said Shoval.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, the President of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding and the man, who has been advising various Gulf leaders, including those in the UAE, said that the peace deal was made possible due to the threat of Iran but added that there have also been other factors that contributed to the rapprochement.
Unlike some Israeli news outlets that stipulated that the timing of the announcement was connected to the US presidential campaign and was aimed at improving Trump's chances to get re-elected, Schneier believes the idea is detached from reality.
"It might improve Trump's chances with the Jewish community and the evangelicals who have traditionally been associated with the Republicans, but the majority of Americans have no interest in what's happening in the Middle East. Right now they are focused on the fight against racism [triggered by the killing of George Floyd] and the raging coronavirus that's getting out of control".
COVID-19 is also reported to be the glue that bridged Israel and the UAE, believes Schneier, especially as Abu Dhabi understands the need for Israeli medical technology and innovation to cope with the pandemic.
Another element that may have contributed to the thawing of ice was Netanyahu's sovereignty bill that threatened to apply Israeli law over an additional 30 percent of the West Bank.
In January, once the so-called Deal of the Century peace plan was made public, Abu Dhabi interfered on a number of occasions, sending a message to Tel Aviv that a crippling "annexation" could be a deal breaker when it came to the establishment of ties with the UAE.
Now, when the obstacle of that "annexation" has been removed, Schneier says, the UAE has positioned itself as a regional and international power, primarily because "they created a winning situation for the Palestinians and because they saved the notion of a two-state solution".
Palestinians, however, do not appear to agree with this idea, and as soon as the dramatic announcement was made the PA released a declaration saying it was recalling its ambassador from the Gulf country.
Turkey is also threatening to follow suit, while Iran has condemned the deal, calling it "shameful".
Neither Schneier nor Shoval seem to be moved by these declarations, insisting instead that the trend initiated by the UAE will grow.
"I don't think Arab states will stand in line to ink peace treaties with Israel but other countries will certainly follow suit. It is a process that takes time," said Shoval.