The diplomatic moves toward Israel taken by the UAE and Bahrain make it clear that Arab states can act in their own national interest when it comes to international politics, rather than abide by a stale lowest common denominator of “Arab consensus.”
The Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is indeed a historic moment in Arab-Israel relations. While the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty broke the Arab taboo on signing an accord with the Jewish state, that treaty did not bring about the promised normalization of relations, i.e., free movement of goods and people between states. Nor did the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. It reflected only a meeting of strategic interests among elites of the two countries. In contrast, the agreement between the UAE and Israel promises to be the first Arab-Israel “warm” peace. With Bahrain now following in the UAE’s footsteps, a “warm peace process” with additional Arab states may be dawning.
Since the announcement of the deal, the UAE has welcomed Israeli officials, businessmen and tourists in unprecedented fashion. Obviously, Israel too hopes to strengthen economic ties with the UAE and to see Emiratis visit Israel and Jerusalem. People-to-people relations can fortify political agreements. Since Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have agreed to open their airspace to eastwards flights from Israel, the UAE could become the Israeli gateway to Asia.
The name was chosen for the agreement, the “Abraham Accord,” is significant. The common Biblical father figure of Judaism and Islam shows that religion, so often a barrier between peoples, can be a bridge between religious and national communities. Indeed, Abraham, the discoverer of monotheism, taught people to accept a transcendental moral code totally blind to human differences – because all people were created in the image of God.
Religion is still very politically potent in the Middle East. Referencing the Abrahamic heritage lends religious legitimacy to the UAE’s political agreement with Israel. Moreover, by suggesting a mutual heritage, the UAE essentially is acknowledging that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East and the Holy Land; and not, as many Arabs still believe, a foreign interloper or a colonialist phenomenon. This recognition portends additional revolutionary changes in Arab attitudes toward Israel.
Furthermore, the diplomatic moves toward Israel taken by the UAE and Bahrain make it clear that Arab states can act in their own national interest when it comes to international politics, rather than abide by a stale lowest common denominator the “Arab consensus”; a so-called “Arab Street” thinking that is beholden to the intransigent Palestinians.
Indeed, the breakthroughs with the UAE and Bahrain underscore a long-term historic trend whereby Israel is gaining greater acceptance in the Arab world. Over the years, the term “Zionist entity” is being replaced in Arab discourse with the word “Israel.” Arab refusals to be present at any forum including Israelis has softened in informal and private fora, and now finally, it has largely evaporated.
Similarly, the taboo on the study of Hebrew and of Israel at Arab universities gradually was replaced by the need to study the enemy, and now has given way to curiosity about a successful nation.
Beyond these cultural changes, Israel has become a powerful regional actor with much to offer in the strategic game being played in the Middle East.
A convergence of interests between Israel and Gulf states is clear. The aggressive ascendance of Iran and its proxies in regional politics has created a common threat perception. While the UAE and Bahrain still count on an American security umbrella, America is clearly reducing its commitment in the region. A process of lowering the American profile in the Middle East was initiated by President Obama and has been continued by President Trump, requiring some recalibration in foreign policy choices by countries in the region. Israel is a natural partner and an important actor in the anti-Iran alignment.
More recently, the Ottoman and Islamist imperial instincts of Turkey also have forced new regional realignments, to Israel’s benefit. Turkey sent 5,000 soldiers to Qatar to defend it against a Saudi and Emirati blockade that tried to induce change in Qatar’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood branches in the region. Israel is confronted by Hamas – a Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood – which is supported by Qatar and Turkey.
Similarly, the conflict in Libya pits the UAE, Egypt and Israel (and others) against Turkey’s intervention on behalf of the Islamist-linked Tripoli government. The UAE, like Israel, has an interest in the survival of the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt and is financially supporting Egypt, while Turkey sees General Al-Sisi as a usurper of the former Egyptian president and Islamist Morsi. Turkey’s agreement with the Tripoli government on Economic Exclusive Zones in the Mediterranean also impacts negatively Egypt, Israel, and Greece. It is no wonder that Greece, Israel and the UAE are conducting air drills together.
Finally, and not least of all, the recent agreements between Israel and Gulf states have sidelined the Palestinians. Try as it may, the Palestinian Authority has been unable to block rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries. The Arab League declined to adopt a Palestinian resolution to condemn the UAE.
For decades, the Arab world had paid lavish lip service to the Palestinian cause, but no more. There has been little governmental and/or Arab public anger at the Israel-Gulf agreements. Many Arabs understand that Palestinian failure to seize opportunities for peace and statehood no longer entitle the Palestinians to automatic Arab world support.
In all of the peace agreements between Arab states and Israel, the United States has played a very important role. Although it fashionable these days to talk about the “declining power” of the US, American remains an indispensable superpower. (The new agreements relating to Kosovo and Serbia are an additional indication of continuing American relevance in world affairs.) In the Middle East, even after further reductions in American troop presence, the US will continue to hold significant clout. The UAE, Bahrain and Israel count on it.
Published in Israel Hayom 14.09.2020
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.