What the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE means for NYU

Ties between NYU Tel Aviv and NYU Abu Dhabi have always been close, according to university administrators and professors, but eased travel restrictions may make collaboration and cultural exchange even easier.

NYU operates two campuses in Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi. With the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, a new chapter begins for the two schools. (Staff Illustration by Jake Capriotti)

The Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration and signed in August 2020, formalized the normalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Despite a recent diplomatic spat between the two West Asian nations and the uncertainty of Israel’s current political deadlock, the accords will likely hold fast and the two states’ economic and political relations will remain unshaken. The accords might also foster increased collaboration between NYU’s Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi campuses because of eased travel restrictions between Israel and the UAE.  

“The UAE and Israel’s historic agreement to normalize diplomatic ties is an important step towards greater understanding and peace,” Martin A. Mbugua, the associate vice chancellor for external relations for NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote in an email statement to WSN. “NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Tel Aviv have always had an open and collaborative relationship … With the normalization of ties, we look forward to opportunities to further strengthen our academic and research connections between NYUAD and NYU Tel Aviv.”

Benjamin Hary, the director of NYU Tel Aviv and professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, wrote in a statement to WSN that the site was delighted about the Abraham Accords. “NYUTA and NYUAD have always been cooperating within the regular partnership between NYU global sites all over the world and we do not foresee many changes, except, of course, for the relaxation of visa requirements between the countries,” he wrote.

According to professors at NYU Tel Aviv and NYU Abu Dhabi, the normalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE could foster further cooperation between the two West Asian states and NYU’s respective campuses. Lior Lehrs, an instructor at NYU Tel Aviv, said the normalization of ties could further cross-cultural exchange. 

Advertisement

“The fact that NYU has campuses both in Tel Aviv and in Abu Dhabi can enable the university to use the campuses to enhance dialogue and prompt exchange of students,” Lehrs said. “And post-COVID 19, it could bring students from NYU Abu Dhabi to study at NYU Tel Aviv and to travel in Israel and in Palestine and to study and experience first-hand the situation of the conflict.”

Leonid Peisakhin, an assistant professor of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi, thinks these ties will make travel between Israel and the UAE — and, by extension, the two campuses — easier, due to planned direct flights and visa-free travel. Peisakhin agreed with Lehrs, saying the official relations will enhance cross-cultural intellectual exchange.

“Scholars will be able to take part more readily in joint research, participate in research trips, seminars and lectures,” Peisakhin said. “Hopefully, students from New York and Shanghai would also be more willing to consider spending time at the Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv campuses in sequential semesters.”

Political and economic ties between Israel and the UAE had been quietly warming. The official normalization was unprecedented because it broke a decades-old consensus among the majority of Arab nations that any formal recognition of Israel depended upon an end to the occupation of Palestine and the re-establishment of a Palestinian state following pre-1967 borders.

In March, the UAE announced a planned $10 billion investment in Israel, as CNN previously reported. However, Emirati officials accused Netanyahu of attempting to involve them in his reelection campaign and exploit economic dealings for his political gain, sparking what the Financial Times described as a “diplomatic crisis.”

Israelis went to the polls for the fourth time in two years on March 23. Prior to election day, the legislative race and its results were dubbed a “referendum” on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had focused his re-election campaign on Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination program and the normalization of diplomatic ties with several Arab nations, including Bahrain and the UAE.

NYU professor Itamar Rabinovich — the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, D.C. and a former member of the Israeli Defense Force — said this election was primarily focused on Netanyahu’s leadership and tenuous future. Linda Gradstein, a freelance journalist who teaches Journalism at NYU Tel Aviv, said Netanyahu did worse than in the previous election. 

According to Helga Tawil-Souri, an associate professor in the Department of Middle East and Islamic Studies at Steinhardt, Netanyahu’s electioneering and bragging were to be expected. 

“Formal normalization with the UAE is a big coup for Israel, so whomever could have overseen the agreement would likely use it as ‘bragging’ rights,” Tawil-Souri wrote in an email to WSN.

Neither Netanyahu’s electioneering nor his possible loss are likely to fundamentally weaken or alter Israel and the UAE’s newly formalized relations, according to Tawil-Souri. 

“The UAE and Israel have had ‘behind the scenes’ agreements for years now, and the recent normalization accord is more a formality than anything radically new,” she wrote. “Irrespective of which political party may win the Israeli elections, I cannot imagine any change in terms of the normalization agreements. Both nations have much to economically gain from this.”

Rabinovich said the future of the Abraham Accords is “only marginally dependent on the outcome of the elections.”

Dr. Edan Raviv, the assistant director for academic programs at NYU Tel Aviv, echoed Peisakhin and Lehrs, saying the normalization of diplomatic ties is typically beneficial for both countries. Although it is difficult to judge the deal’s consequences on the region’s balance of power, Raviv said, the sociopolitical consequences will become more clear once the pandemic ends and the Biden administration grapples with pre-pandemic foreign policy issues.

NYU Tel Aviv lecturer Jeffrey Jensen has doubts about the extent of the Abraham Accords’ impact on relations between Israel and the UAE. He thinks the deal’s impacts on Palestine and the balance of power in West Asia, however, could possibly be underestimated. 

“The push for normalization of relations came from the US with the thought that it would have an effect on US (domestic) electoral politics,” Jeffrey wrote in an email to WSN. 

The legitimization of Israel by the UAE can be considered a blow to Palestinians and the future of Palestine, according to Tawil-Souri. She said Palestinians hoped for solidarity from other Arab countries.

This is a hope that has been held for decades, even if, paradoxically … Palestinians know that their status is not one that matters much to most Arab governments and heads of state,” she wrote to WSN. “Israeli colonialism has been normalized for a long time already by the fact that it does have normal relations with most of the world and its colonial practices go on largely unobstructed — even if no one is calling a spade a spade.”

Although the normalization of diplomatic ties may herald warmer bonds between NYU Tel Aviv and NYU Abu Dhabi, underlying issues at both campuses linger — even after the university has promised reforms. 

Labor rights scandals and disputes embroil NYU Abu Dhabi, whose campus was allegedly constructed with abusive labor practices, such as wage theft, poor working conditions and a general lack of worker protections. Tel Aviv University — with which NYU Tel Aviv partners for libraries and research labs — is built atop the ruins of a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were intimidated into abandoning during the 1948 war and is allegedly one of Israel’s leading military research facilities. 

The law firm Nardello & Co. reported that nearly one-third of workers at NYU Abu Dhabi lived in poor housing and received late or no pay, in violation of NYU’s own labor guidelines, as WSN previously reported. Student activist groups at NYU have been highly critical of the university’s labor practices and lack of transparency concerning the construction of the Abu Dhabi campus.

“NYU Abu Dhabi … has failed to implement key lessons from a major independent investigation, conducted at its behest, which had concluded that arbitrary, vague, and non-transparent labor standards allowed major human rights abuses to occur in the construction of its campus,” the Coalition for Fair Labor at NYU wrote in a January 2017 statement.

Email Ruqaiyah Zarook at [email protected]

Advertisement

1 COMMENT

  1. The sentence in the article that mentions “re-establishment of a Palestinian state following pre-1967 borders” is in error on two counts. First, there has never been a Palestinian state and thus, although it remains to be determined whether a Palestinian state might be established de novo in the future, it cannot be re-established, as it has not previously existed. Second, the “pre-1967 borders” referred to have never been internationally recognized borders. Rather, these are cease-fire lines established in Israel’s war of independence between the nascent state of Israel and the invading armies of Egypt (in Gaza) and Transjordan (in Judea and Samaria). Transjordan, which prior to 1948 existed only on the east bank of the Jordan River, invaded, seized and occupied Judea and Samaria in 1948, renaming this area the “West Bank” (a name which has stuck), and renaming itself Jordan, rather than Transjordan, as it now occupied both banks of the river.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here