The Netanyahu government took pride in achieving “peace for peace”, but the Gulf principalities are once again moving closer to Iran. Bahrain appears the only Gulf State still adhering to the dream of a Sunni alliance against the Iranian threat that appeared to be coming true a year ago. Most Gulf state residents are critical of the Abraham Accords, insists an Emirati human rights activist
The Abraham Accords Institute for Peace, co-founded by Trump Administration envoys Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, held a festive Washington event on Sept. 14 to mark the first anniversary of the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. In addition to former Trump Administration officials such as Rob Greenway, a top White House official was also in attendance. But although President Joe Biden has adopted the agreements in full, relations between Israel, the Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are clearly not high on his administration’s priorities.
A year since the signing of the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the UAE, the sides have achieved what they set out to do. The UAE successfully thwarted Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank, and Israel has peace and/or normalization agreements with four Arab and/or Muslim states. The Israeli public, it seems, preferred the peace deals to annexation, which they feared would prompt renewed violence in the West Bank and international boycotts.
While additional Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have yet to join the normalization camp (prospects were low to begin with), relations with Abu Dhabi, Manama and Rabat have been strengthened significantly over the past year. The Arab ambassadors representing these states have already taken up their posts in Tel Aviv, while Israel’s ambassadors are working energetically in the three Arab capitals.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Israelis have visited Dubai this year and the number could well have been in the hundreds of thousands had it not been for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Dozens of agreements have also been signed between research institutes, hospitals, and commercial and government companies. Jewish life appears to be flourishing in the Gulf, school curricula are changing to reflect the peace with Israel, and Israelis feel sufficiently comfortable to buy real estate, settle in Dubai with residency status and conduct business from the heart of the Gulf.
The past year provides us with an opportunity to examine the two assumptions underpinning the Abraham Accords. The first was that the agreements would revamp the security architecture in the region in Israel’s favor (the alliance with moderate Sunni states against Iran), and the second was that the agreements were not being linked in any way to the Palestinian issue (“peace in return for peace”). Is this also the mindset in Abu Dhabi, Manama and Rabat?
Iran the enemy, Iran the neighbor
When the first agreements were signed with the UAE and Bahrain, many in Israel imagined that the age-old dream of an alliance with moderate Sunni states against Iran and its proxies was finally coming true. Iran’s aggressive policies over three decades had alarmed many Arab countries and made them examine their relationship with Israel “with fresh eyes,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs said at the time.
Israel and the UAE have long cooperated clandestinely on intelligence information. The cooperation, which has intensified since the agreement, explains why the Israeli government (for the most part) did not protest the US sale of state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. But in hindsight, the climate in the region appears to be shifting and the blocs that seemed to be consolidating in the summer of 2020 have taken on a different shape.
Since early 2021, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been conducting more or less public contacts with Iran. In early August, delegations from both countries participated in the inauguration ceremony of President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran – notwithstanding the attacks by pro-Iranian forces on Saudi territory over the past year and Iranian-sponsored attacks on Emirati and Israeli tankers in the Gulf.
During his swearing-in ceremony, Raisi referred to relations with the Saudis, saying there was no impediment to improved relations between the two states. The divide between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran obviously remains very deep, but they will nonetheless soon begin direct talks attesting to their willingness to improve relations.
While Israel perceives Iran as evil incarnate determined to destroy the Jewish State, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also view it as a neighbor, albeit aggressive and violent, but still a neighbor with which a status quo is a wise goal.
The states of the region were well aware of the increasing US desire expressed by three US administrations to pull out of the region, and they began preparing for the inevitable. On the one hand, they regard ties with Israel, which is also perceived as a regional power, as important; on the other hand, they feel the need to contain Iran and ease tensions with it.
How will this new state of play affect the vision of a moderate Sunni alliance with Israel against Iran? That is unclear. Israel, still blinded by the bright lights of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Manama, does not seem to be engaging in any in-depth discussion of the implications of these countries’ gradual rapprochement with Iran and Turkey.
Bahrain, perhaps the most vulnerable to Iranian influence among the Gulf States, absented itself from Raisi’s inauguration. Its large Shiite population, physical proximity to Iran and the realization that in the absence of strong, effective friends Iranian attempts to destabilize it will continue, affect its willingness to continue on the course of rapprochement with Israel.
“Israel has become a friend. Diplomatic ties and economic cooperation have signaled the start of a Middle East in which the states embrace each other and also forge alliances against the region’s enemies, especially Iraq. Over the past 42 years, Iran has threatened many states in the region, funded terrorist organizations and supported armed militias in order to destabilize the region and ensure the ayatollahs’ regime remains in power and realizes Khomeini’s dream of exporting radical Shiite ideologies,” Bahraini correspondent Ahdeya Ahmed al-Sayed told Zman Yisrael.
Bahraini Undersecretary for Political Affairs, Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed bin Abdulla Al Khalifa has visited Israel three times over the past year. On his most recent visit (in August) he was even photographed with senior IDF officers and issued harsh criticism of the emerging US-Iran nuclear agreement. “Iran’s fingerprints are clearly visible on all the crises in the Middle East. Sadly, the agreement (with the powers) did not deal with Iran’s aggressive behavior and its ballistic missile program,” he said.
This was indisputably a very important statement reflecting the fact that Bahrain is probably Israel’s keenest partner in the struggle against regional Iranian hegemony and the renewed nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran. However, it is unclear how this alliance enhances the security of either country. In terms of security it is also difficult to compare between all the above agreements and the Israeli peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan – two states that clashed with Israel in several bitter wars and currently maintain peaceful borders with it.
The Palestinian issue is going nowhere
“The blessings of the peace we make today will be enormous. First, because this peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all. Second, because the great economic benefits of our partnership will be felt throughout our region, and they will reach every one of our citizens. And third, because this is not only a peace between leaders, it’s a peace between peoples—Israelis, Emiratis and Bahrainis are already embracing one another. We are eager to invest in a future of partnership, prosperity and peace.” From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s September 15 speech at the Abraham Accords signing ceremony.
The determination of the Emirates and Bahrain, along with agreement by Morocco and Sudan to sign normalization and peace agreements with Israel without significant progress in the Palestinian arena signaled a new era in Israel’s relations with the Middle East, or did it? Egypt, too, signed a peace agreement with Israel without substantive progress with the Palestinians, and the peace agreement has survived despite strenuous objections by the Egyptian elite and other social strata.
The Abraham Accords and the agreement with Morocco survived the most recent military operation in Gaza (May 2021), and the architects of the normalization patted themselves on the back. Nonetheless, it was a shock to Israel’s new partners that affected the attitude toward the agreements with Israel in all four states.
While the Israelis see mostly the broad smiles of the Emiratis studying Hebrew and praising Israeli innovation, Shaima Al-Balushi, an Emirati feminist and human rights activist, knows many Emiratis who oppose the continued occupation, support the Palestinians and have grave reservations about the agreements.
“It is very important to understand Emirati culture, a culture of hospitality that welcomes guests with a smile. Israelis visiting us will not encounter hostility. Most things are said behind closed doors and among friends and groups that trust each other. We grew up in a very pro-Palestinian environment. Our teachers were Palestinian, many Palestinians live here and the first restaurants to open were Indian or Palestinian. So what Israelis see on social media, the voices expressing full support for the agreements – is a minority that also comes in for significant criticism on the part of the majority. In fact, the majority accepts the agreements because they understand their strategic importance for our country, but on the other hand we still adhere to the Palestinian issue,” Al-Baloushi told Zman Yisrael.
“The critical voices in the Gulf dub the bloggers who pose with an Israeli flag or praise Benjamin Netanyahu while attacking the Palestinians on social media the ‘Arab Zionists’. These so-called Arab-Zionists not only celebrate the agreements, they also imbue them with a romantic dimension. They gaslight the occupation and Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, hurt the Palestinians and demean their struggle. As far as they’re concerned, one must come at the expense of the other. They highlight their Zionist sentiments even though they are Arabs and not Jews,” Al-Balushi added.
In fact, all those I spoke with in the Gulf and Morocco insisted on placing the Palestinian issue center stage even when asked about other matters. They hinted or said outright that the majority in their country had not change its mind about the Palestinian issue. During the operation in Gaza, increasing opposition was voiced in Bahrain and the UAE to the Abraham Accords, and several pro-Palestinian protests were held in Morocco.
When I spoke with Sheikh Abdul-Aziz Mubarak Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s former ambassador in London on the day the Bahraini ambassador arrived in Israel, he expressed hope that close cooperation between our countries would advance a solution to the Palestinian problem. “The arrival of the Bahraini ambassador points to a new chapter in Israel-Bahrain relations,” he said. “This is happening a year after the signing of the Abraham Accords when it is already clear that we are sincerely interested in cooperation to strengthen the interests of both states. Not only will we try to help each other fight terrorism and seek new ways to ensure sustainable development, we will also make efforts to find an agreed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Al Khalifa told Zman Yisrael. “Obviously, Israel must work to include the Palestinians in diplomatic and economic initiatives with its new regional partners and reduce tensions in places like Sheikh Jarrah because these could lead to unnecessary repercussions harmful to the existing bridges. It is vital that Israel defend and protect the areas holy to Muslims such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque and limit police intervention at the holy sites.”
“I heard from my sources that what happened at the mosque in May angered many in the governments of Israel’s new regional partners,” added Shama Mishtali, an expert on Jewish-Muslim relations and founder of the Moors and Saints social startup operating from Dubai.
“The normalization with the Gulf states and other Arab states has to include the Palestinians,” says Eitan Charnoff, founder of Potomac Strategy who visits Dubai often. Charnoff, who has been active in the Gulf for years, is convinced that Israel has everything to gain by integrating the Palestinians and Arab Israelis into the normalization agenda. “Bilateral normalization that fails to take into account the Palestinians and Palestinian honor, as well as social-economic problems, will be fragile and constantly challenged by the geopolitical and social dynamics of the conflict. Increasing Palestinian economic opportunities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank through cooperation projects made possible by the new peace agreements could help prevent violence. It is imperative to de-escalate to the extent possible in places that are not central to security needs, such as Sheikh Jarrah because this tension has dangerous and unnecessary repercussions.”
Shaima Al-Balushi also believes integrating the Palestinians and pro-peace leftist Israelis into the dynamics of the Abraham Accords could benefit relations. “Most of those active in the Gulf are right wing, and there are many sensitivities of which they are not even aware, such as the issues of Jerusalem and of the occupation. It is important that the Palestinians, the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and Israelis who support peace come so that we see there are other voices in Israel, too.”
As expected, Israeli business people have stormed Dubai, and some also Bahrain and Morocco, in search of new opportunities. Even if one believes that money is money and business is business, every country and society has a unique style and habits that must be considered. “Our new allies expect tangible results and commitment on the part of the Israeli government regarding long-term partnership. Private and public stakeholders, actors interested in building bridges, must first and foremost work to forge ties and relationships with their regional partners before presenting long-term grandiose projects. We need to focus on building significant relationships and on short-term achievements, which send a clear message about our shared vision of prosperity,” says Charnoff.
Al-Balushi advises Israelis to be patient and relate to the Gulf States as if they were dealing with Europe. “Israelis like to finalize things at the last minute, whereas we prefer to plan meticulously our meetings and moves. The Israelis must also understand that the Emiratis are still sensitive on many issues, whether another military clash or the Jerusalem issue. This cannot be ignored.”
Shama Al-Mishtali, a Moroccan who divides her time between the US and Dubai, stresses the need to integrate Palestinians and Israelis of Mizrachi origin in the normalization process with Arab states. “In a country most of whose citizens are Mizrachi or Sephardi and over 21% of the population are Arab, better ways must be found to mobilize the values of the Middle East and create a new brand that advances Judaism and Arabism as joined and intertwined. Israel must also work on the educational level to advance understanding of the Muslim world and the shared regional Jewish-Muslim history, as well as deepening the cultural understanding of the countries with which agreements have been signed. The UAE and Morocco have already taken serious steps to change their national curricula in order to include Jewish history, making normalization a national project. Israel’s education ministry should consider an initiative to advance pluralism and deeper understanding of the Muslim world by Israeli society and to teach Israelis to appreciate and advance stability and tolerance.”
Nonetheless, the Middle East is still the same Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not disappeared, either. One thing is certain: The Abraham Accords and the agreement with Morocco open a window for many opportunities both in the fields of diplomacy and economy and additional fields.
In order to do better in the coming years, Israel must analyze the past year’s successes and shortcomings. With the ink on the agreements barely dry, it is the time to work resolutely. The new alliances will not necessarily change the complex Israeli security reality nor reduce the challenges it faces, but if Israel acts wisely, it could also benefit greatly from these agreements.
Policymakers must realize that every crisis with the Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem, is harmful to Israel’s public image and will throw cold water on the agreements, even if they remain stable. Only public cooperation in these states will ensure a truly warm peace with the Gulf principalities and Morocco. It is too soon to tell whether Israel has chosen the right path.