Israel, the UAE and Bahrain: A different kind of peace

Prof. Elie Podeh November 2020

In the weeks since the historic August 13 declaration of diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, followed by a declaration of diplomatic ties with Bahrain, it has become apparent that the peace with these Gulf states will be entirely different from the peace with Egypt and Jordan. Even before the ink had dried on the formal agreements, businessmen from the three states were establishing joint councils, banks and medical technology companies were drawing up cooperation agreements, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem signed an artificial intelligence knowledge exchange agreement with Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, and more. By a rough estimate, the number of zoom meetings among businessmen and academics from the three countries in the past month exceeds the number of meetings between Israelis, Egyptians and Jordanians in many years. What makes Israel’s emerging peace with the Emirates and Bahrain different from the cold peace with Jordan and Egypt?

At least four reasons explain the difference.

The first, obviously, is the absence of a conflict between the states and the fact that they have never been enemies. Wars and violence – like between Israel, Egypt and Jordan – are seared into the collective memory of nations and the personal memories of their citizens. Nations and people do overcome painful memories – France and Germany even became allies – but such a change requires persistent state involvement in a reconciliation process, which neither Egypt nor Jordan have undertaken. Second, In Jordan and Egypt, anti-normalizations elements are powerful, particularly within trade unions which are controlled by religious or secular elements. On the other hand, the Gulf States do not have trade unions and most of their Palestinian residents are migrant workers. The situation is more problematic for Jordan, where half of its population (some say 70%) is Palestinian.

Third, the peace with Jordan and Egypt was built mostly from the top-down, whereas the peace with the Gulf states is being forged also from bottom-up. In other words, Israel’s ties with Egypt and Jordan were built by government institutions, particularly through the Defense Ministry and the Mossad. While military, security and intelligence ties with Egypt and Jordan in recent years are warmer in light of shared interests and mutual enemies, Israeli efforts to forge economic and trade ties with Jordanian and Egyptian businessmen and industrialists have yielded only limited success. Obstacles placed by governments, as well as boycotts of the trading unions have eroded cooperation significantly and made it illegitimate. On the other hand, hundreds of Israeli companies have been operating quietly in the Gulf over the past two decades under (a known) foreign cover, without government opposition on either side. The long-term diplomatic and economic infrastructure built in the Gulf has created trust from below that converged with the trust transmitted from above. And finally, the Emirates and Bahrain have for years branded themselves as peace-loving states, promoting inter-faith tolerance. In 2016, the ruler of the UAE created a new post of state minister for tolerance, whereas the King of Bahrain built a global center for peaceful co-existence, with American Rabbi Marc Schneier serving as his advisor, and has conducted other varied inter-faith activities. Jordan’s royal family also has a history of religious tolerance, but it has not trickled down to society.

A warmer peace with the UAE may benefit Israel in several ways: First, the many voices from the Gulf advocating normalization with Israel could sway opponents in other Arab states. In other words, the Emirati and Bahraini moves could set off a chain reaction, even if not in the immediate future. This reaction could take place on a national level, but also, and perhaps more importantly, on the level of business companies and individuals who will view it as granting a green light for open ties with Israel. Second, the peace with the UAE and Bahrain, and now with Sudan, has strengthened the legitimacy of ties with Israel not only behind the scenes. For the first time, the question of establishing formal relations with Israel has become public. Peace with Egypt and Jordan has not generated such a heated debate and, no less important, this debate has not been dominated by the nay-sayers.

Third, the Israeli and Emirati peace could be of great significance in changing Israel’s image in the Muslim and Arab worlds. The image of the Jews and Israelis as reflected in Egyptian and Jordanian media and school textbooks is largely negative even after decades of peace. In the Gulf media harsh criticism is voiced with regard to the negative attitude to Israel in the Arab media, which has to be changed. Such a change may penetrate other media outlets in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

We should remember that the peace with Egypt and Jordan was initially characterized by a sense of euphoria and prompted the signing of many normalization agreements, most of which had not been implemented. Moreover, the follow-up in the civilian sphere was disappointing. The signs thus far suggest that the ties with the UAE and Bahrain will produce another kind of peace. Peace which is not based only on the existence of mutual enemies but on the potential of cooperation in many civilian fields, such as agriculture, medicine, energy, environment, etc. No less important is the fact that both the UAE and Bahrain look beyond the mutual interests, attempting to recognize the Other and its traumas. The fact that the first meeting of the Emirati and Israel Foreign Ministers took place in Berlin and included a visit to the Museum and Memorial of the Holocaust (Shoah) is a case in point.

However, this peace too, could fall prey to unexpected events in the Middle East and it must therefore be nurtured with great forethought. The greatest challenge might be posed by the Palestinian issue. For the time being, the UAE succeeded in postponing a possible Israeli annexation in the West Bank, but it is not unconceivable that Israeli facts on the ground might determine the future of the contested area. Therefore, to secure the Israeli-UAE-Bahrain peace, it is necessary to find a solution to the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps a modified version of the Arab Peace Initiative, this time coordinated with Israel, may be a possible track to follow.

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