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Will UAE-Israel deal draw Tel Aviv into Yemen's war? Open in fullscreen

Stasa Salacanin

Will UAE-Israel deal draw Tel Aviv into Yemen's war?

Most Yemenis view the normalisation deal as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 September, 2020

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Divided opinion over the normalisation deal risks complicating already tense relations among Yemen's political factions.
The US-brokered Israel-UAE normalisation deal triggered mixed reactions in the Middle East. 

While some Arab countries have cautiously welcomed the agreement, others view it as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause in favour of rapprochement with Tel Aviv. 

In Yemen, key political factions in the country's conflict remain deeply divided over the sensitive issue. The internationally recognised government led by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia opposed the deal, repeating that they will continue to support the Palestinian cause

"As the Republic of Yemen, our stance on the Palestinian cause and the rights of the brotherly Palestinian people is the same and will not change," Yemeni Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Hadhrami said on Twitter. 

However, members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) - Hadi's nominal allies but fierce political rivals from the south - praised the deal, while their common arch enemies from the north, the Houthis, denounced the agreement. These conflicting opinions further complicate already tense relations within the fragile anti-Houthi coalition.

Key political factions in Yemen's conflict remain deeply divided over the normalisation deal

Despite mixed reactions, Susanne Dahlgren, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and lecturer at Finland-based Tampere University, told The New Arab that "Yemenis, in general, stand alongside the Palestinians and take the news with a critical attitude."

Houthi anger

This is especially true for the Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthi movement, who many believe will try to garner additional support at home as well as abroad for opposing the deal. Some analysts predict that the Houthis may manipulate anti-Israel sentiment and seek to channel the anger of those who reject UAE-Israeli normalisation. 

Read more: A house divided: The battle for Yemen's south

Their leader, Sayyid Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, has already heavily criticised Saudi Arabia and the UAE for siding with "the chief enemy of the Muslim world," Israel.

The Houthi movement, which has on many occasions expressed deep enmity towards Israel and the US, has always presented itself as the true defender of Islam and the Palestinian cause. Ever since the outbreak of civil war in 2014, they have repeatedly accused Israel of participating in the Saudi-led coalition's war against the Houthis.

While Israeli involvement in Yemen's war has been unclear, the Houthi administration's defence minister, General Mohammed al-Atifi, said last year that their forces identified a range of Israeli military targets that they are able to attack, adding that they "will not hesitate even a minute to destroy these targets if the leadership takes the decision to do so."

Though it is unlikely that Yemeni insurgents possess enough capabilities to inflict significant damage to Israel, which is over 2,000 kilometres away from Yemen, the threat has been perceived seriously and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed last October that Iran may use its Yemeni proxies to launch missile strikes at Israel.

Members of the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council have praised the normalisation agreement

Yossi Melman, an Israeli writer and intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, told The New Arab that the long-range missiles which might be installed by Iran in Yemen are of concern to Israel, but it doesn't seem an imminent threat.

While a direct military conflict between Israel and the Houthis is not a plausible scenario, both parties have made it clear that they would not hesitate to respond to hostile moves taken by the other side. 

According to Melman, Israel is not involved in the civil war in Yemen nor has any intentions to be part of it. Israel only monitors the events there because the area has geostrategic importance for Israeli national and security interests, especially maritime interests and the Horn of Africa.

However, Israel certainly has motives to play a proactive role in the region, including in Yemen, and to secure safe passage of its ships to and from its only Red Sea port of Eilat through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and minimise the foothold of pro-Iranian elements in the region.

As Arab countries edge towards Israel, what's next for the Palestinian national movement?

Aden welcomes the deal 

Much friendlier tones came from the southern capital of Aden. Unlike Yemen's government and the Houthi movement, the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council has made several positive comments regarding the normalisation agreement. Deputy Chairman of the STC, Hani Bin Buraik, hailed the accord, describing it as a "courageous decision taken by a wise leader," referring to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed.

However, Dahlgren pointed out that the STC has not issued any official statement. She added that STC deputy leader Buraik praised the deal as a step toward peace and hailed the thought that he might in the future be able to visit Yemeni Jews in Israel and that they could visit Yemen again.

Resisting Israel is a key element of Houthi political propaganda. Nobody in Yemen would like to offer the Houthis political brownie points for standing alone
- Susanne Dahlgren

His tweet raised many critical comments but support, too. "Bin Breik does not know the history of his own country," Dahlgreen said. "Adeni Jews went to London and not to Israel, so he could as well today visit his former co-patrons." Nevertheless, as a former Salafist Bin Breik's comments were a significant gesture, according to Dahlgreen.

The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council has struggled to achieve southern independence in Yemen, and the movement, which claims to represent southerners, may try to use the UAE-Israel accord to gain support for its political goals from Tel Aviv. 

Read more: How the Israel-UAE alliance formalises new
fault lines in the Middle East

Abu Dhabi has been alone in supporting southern secession, viewing a reborn South Yemen as crucial to its interests in the region. The UAE has, however, managed to carefully avoid a deeper spat with its close ally Saudi Arabia, which is a firm supporter of a unified Yemeni state. 

But the extent to which Israel may support the STC remains unclear. While it is likely that Israel will from now on support its new UAE allies over some regional issues, it would be premature to conclude that Tel Aviv would back every single move by Abu Dhabi, including their policy in Yemen.

Since the UAE withdrew from the country last year, it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi would expect any Israeli assistance in Yemen, according to Melman.

On the other hand, technical, material and intelligence cooperation between Israel and UAE will certainly continue. In recent weeks, for example, media reports have appeared about an Emirati-Israeli spy collaboration on Socotra Island.  According to JForum, the official site of the Jewish and French-speaking community, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi are quietly working on a plan to establish intelligence bases to monitor Iranian naval movements and the actions of the Houthis. The reports, however, have not been confirmed.

Nevertheless, Israel has supported several secessionist movements in the recent past, such as the Iraqi Kurds in their independence referendum in 2017 as well as South Sudan's struggle for nationhood. Some Arab observers interpret this Israeli support as part of the broader Israeli strategy of fragmenting Arab states. 

But even if Israel offered assistance to the STC, Dahlgren doubts the movement would ever be willing to accept, as Yemenis are steadfast supporters of the Palestinians and do not want to become entangled with Israel. 

"Resisting Israel is a key element of Houthi political propaganda. Nobody in Yemen would like to offer the Houthis political brownie points for standing alone against the Zionist state," she added. 

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence

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