The Abraham Accords pay off for Israelis and Arabs

JERUSALEM — Buoyed by progress in normalization with three Arab countries that could mark a game-changer for the Middle East, Israel is beginning to see itself as a key player on the world stage.

Then-US President Donald Trump sponsored the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020, and a separate statement with Morocco followed three months later. The accords formalized what had been covert security ties between nominal enemies and paved the way for full-fledged partnerships in security, economics, culture and other areas. It was, for an administration cursed in its foreign policy, a rare success. And for Israel, he provided a rare opening.

Besides the belated peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the failed interim autonomy agreement with the Palestinians, Israel has been at an existential war with much of the Arab world since its founding. But since the Abraham Accords, Israel has been striving to show that peace pays off, and it hopes to leverage its improved regional position for sizable gains.

JERUSALEM-Buoyed by progress in normalization with three Arab countries that could mark a game-changer for the Middle East, Israel is beginning to think of itself as a key player on the world stage.

Then-US President Donald Trump sponsored the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020, and a separate statement with Morocco followed three months later. The accords formalized what had been covert security ties between nominal enemies and paved the way for full-fledged partnerships in security, economics, culture and other areas. It was, for an administration cursed in its foreign policy, a rare success. And for Israel, he provided a rare opening.

Besides the belated peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and the failed interim autonomy agreement with the Palestinians, Israel has been at an existential war with much of the Arab world since its founding. But since the Abraham Accords, Israel has been striving to show that peace pays off, and it hopes to leverage its improved regional position for sizable gains.

“Apart from Syria and Lebanon, there is no other Arab country that we are not engaging with and that is not engaging with us,” said Eliav Benjamin, director of the ministry’s Middle East department. Israeli Foreign Affairs.

Skeptics dismiss the deals as merely a mechanism for US and Israeli arms sales and dealings with dictatorships that allegedly use Israeli spyware. Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack said Israel’s normalization was made possible by “Pegasus diplomacy”, referring to the export of Pegasus spyware made by the Israeli company NSO, and a similar technology that has allowed hardline regimes to spy on their own people. For Mack, the security aspect of standardization is paramount.

But normalization has created a new world of opportunity for Israel to finally taste a part of the region in people-to-people terms. A Holocaust Memorial Exhibition opened in Dubai, academic exchanges are underway with Morocco, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center provides health care in Bahrain. The seat of Arab enmity, which was undermined but not broken by earlier peace accords with Jordan and Egypt, appears to be receding.

Even with Saudi Arabia seen as the biggest prize, things are moving forward, with Israeli companies cooperating with their Saudi counterparts “in different ways, shapes and forms,” Benjamin said, adding that more time would be needed for that to happen. diplomatic relations are established.

Normalization – the creation of formal economic, diplomatic, security and other ties – has changed Israel’s relationship with part of the Arab world. But the question remains: is official Arab recognition recognition of Israel’s strategic prowess as a potential ally against Iran and its export of revolution? Or is it simply a betrayal of the Palestinians who yearn for freedom from Israeli occupation? Or both?

Israel is happy with the way normalization is going, though analysts stress it’s too early to tell if it’s a honeymoon or something that will mature and last. Israel, at least, feels emboldened. Projecting its influence from Western Sahara via Morocco to Sudan – through its ties to the generals who led the 2021 Sudanese coup – to the Persian Gulf, Israel now increasingly sees itself as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

“It should be obvious to the international community that we are not just a legitimate player but a key player,” Benjamin said. “The countries that were hesitating are interested in hearing what we have to say. In a tough neighborhood, we rose to the challenges. Israel punches above its weight, but rightly so. »

With its normalization partners, there have been few divisions on the Palestinian question, just a one-off criticism of the United Arab Emirates in May 2021 over Israeli plans to deport Palestinian families to East Jerusalem, which much of the international community opposed. And then there is Western Sahara, where the United States under Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed region in return for Morocco agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. The Biden administration did not cancel Trump’s gift to Morocco, which made the Sahrawi people the orphans of normalization.

“We share the view of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” Benjamin said, the latter including Iran, its proxies, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.

For many Israeli scholars in the Middle East, hitherto forced to study their subjects mostly remotely, normalization has been more than a breath of fresh air. “An international subsystem in which a component is deemed illegitimate was an obstacle to normal interactions and was not a healthy situation,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Tel Aviv.

In Morocco, the feeling is similar among a growing number of people. The two countries have long had clandestine relations. And they also have cultural and historical affinities; Morocco was a refuge and new home for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century.

“People are happy [the relationship] come out of the closet. Relations will develop,” said Moroccan sociologist Mohamed Chtatou, who teaches at the International University of Rabat. A specialist in Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco, where followers of each religion worship the same saints, Chtatou hopes that normalization will allow him to become a visiting professor at an Israeli university. Most Israeli universities have cooperation agreements with their Moroccan counterparts, Benjamin said.

In Dubai, former Emirati MP Ahmed Obaid al-Mansoori drew inspiration from normalization to open the first substantial Holocaust exhibit in the Arab world. “I decided that we should have not only political peace, but compassion for each other and cultural exchange,” he said. “There is no such thing as the Holocaust in terms of the scale of the crime against humanity and a religion,” he added, bucking a strong tendency to minimize or deny the Holocaust in the Arab world.

Israel’s fastest growing relationship is with Abu Dhabi, which Amir Hayek, Israel’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, has hailed as an “open and tolerant” society that shares Israeli values. The UAE, for its part, has returned the favor by promoting a positive attitude towards Israel; a new textbook includes a story about a boy named Yossi from Tel Aviv who moves to the United Arab Emirates with his family. Despite COVID-19, 300,000 Israelis visited the United Arab Emirates last year, although tourism in the other direction has yet to develop.

Bilateral trade, including that of diamonds, reached more than $1 billion last year, Hayek said, and the two sides needed to complete negotiations on a free trade Agreement by March. Hayek added that there is potential for cooperation in food security, agri-tech, healthcare and other areas. Meanwhile, Israeli companies see the UAE not just as a full-fledged partner, but as a springboard to enter other Persian Gulf markets. In May, Israeli financial services company Rapyd is expected to open an office in the United Arab Emirates that will employ Israelis alongside expatriates, including some from countries that do not have official relations with Israel.

Israel is also happy with the turn things are taking with Morocco. In November 2021, Morocco became the first Arab state to openly sign a defense memorandum of understanding with Israel during a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. For Morocco, Israel leans against Algeria, with which it disagrees, and against any manifestation of persistent resistance to its control of Western Sahara.

But this relationship is not only about weapons and geopolitics. With Morocco teeming with historic Jewish sites – many of which have been renovated by the government in recent years – and more than a million Israelis tracing their roots to Morocco, the potential for tourism and cultural exchange is vast. Two airlines are already flying direct, artists have flown back and forth, and the national libraries of both countries have signed a cooperation agreement.

Normalization with Bahrain is progressing more slowly than with its close ally the United Arab Emirates, but Israel wants to give it a boost because of its strategic framework and close ties with Saudi Arabia. The two countries have concluded 12 economic agreements covering aviation, banking, technology and water. In a sign of Israel’s support for the kingdom against Iran, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Bahrain in September 2021 and made remarks aboard a US Fifth Fleet ship docked at his quarters general.

Although normalization has made Israel stronger abroad, it is also taking strategic steps closer to home to permanently govern the occupied West Bank, said Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement growth for Peace Now. A new network of roads and highways being built is transforming relatively remote settlements into places easily accessible from Israel’s main cities, paving the way for a rise in the settler population of hundreds of thousands, it said. she declared.

Human rights abuses by Israelis are also rising as Palestinian home demolitions reach their highest level in five years and an upsurge in settler violence remains largely unchecked by the government and Israel Defense Forces , rights groups said.

“These peace agreements come as Israel continues its occupation, killing Palestinians and demolishing their homes,” said Samiha Hureini, a young leader from the West Bank village of at-Tuwani. “Things are only getting worse. This is why we refuse any standardization. It is a betrayal on the part of these Arab countries.