About four years ago, for a conference, I spent a few days in one of the Gulf states not yet at peace with ours and was struck, every time I introduced myself as being from Israel, by the warmth with which this information was received.
At one particularly surreal moment, I was looking out across the waters of the Gulf and trying to figure out, with the help of my cellphone, where I was standing relative to Israel, Iran and everywhere else, when two tall local men in flowing white walked up to ask if they could help. Sure, I said.
I told them where I was from, and they smiled broadly, expressed their pleasure at meeting me, and said they hoped one day to visit Jerusalem. I explained my geographical ignorance, and they cheerfully oriented me — pointing fingers in the general direction of, first, my distant home, and then, the rather closer enemy committed to my destruction.
It was always widely believed in Israel that much of the Arab world, and certainly many in the Gulf, were fairly indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians, and, at worst, not particularly ill-willed toward Israel. My trip in 2016 anecdotally indicated the same, though I stress it was a brief visit, I was speaking with local citizens as opposed to foreign workers, and I know other Israelis have had less pleasant interactions. It was also widely believed in Israel that much of the Arab world, including the Gulf, would nonetheless not overtly partner with Israel, much less fully normalize relations with Israel, so long as the Israel-Palestinian conflict went unresolved. And so it proved. Until Thursday.
The UAE-Israel deal has not yet even formally been consummated, but we have already entered the honeymoon period. After endless domestic political deadlock, and months of a pandemic and a collapsing economy, Israeli media is understandably delighted to be reporting some good news, and the coverage is downright giddy — thanks, in great part, to interviewees in the UAE itself mirroring the Israeli delight.
On Saturday night, courtesy of Channel 12, for example, we met ex-pat Israeli businessman Yoni in Dubai, hailing this “amazing” peace deal; his UAE pal Hamdan, who informed us, in Hebrew, that “I started learning Hebrew a while back”; a blogger sending cheerful “mazal tov” wishes to us all; and a hotel reservations clerk “excited about the peace with Israel” and “happy to give you a 40% discount from the room rate.”
On Sunday night, courtesy of Channel 13, real estate tycoon Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor beamed out of the screen to hail the “great” deal done by the leaders of our two countries, and to vouchsafe that he is working with Israir to set up the direct flights promised in Thursday’s joint statement on the “full normalization” of relations.
And there’s meat underpinning the merriment: As of Sunday afternoon, the phone lines between our two countries are open, our foreign ministers have been speaking, and Israeli websites — including this one — are now accessible even to Emiratis who don’t rely on VPNs.
Both of our prior peace treaties also started well enough, but both were mutilated by deadly acts of violence against Israelis (at Ras Burka in the Egyptian Sinai in 1985, and Naharayim on the Jordan border in 1997), and gradually reduced to pragmatic interaction rather than genuine people-to-people warmth. The word from the UAE, including from members of the Jewish community, by contrast, is that Israelis need have no fear for their security and will be welcomed.
Alex Peterfreund, a co-founder and cantor of the Dubai Jewish community, in a television interview on Sunday, indeed, hinted at quite different concerns. Doing his best to be diplomatic, he noted that the Emiratis are “very polite” people and that Israeli visitors — when the direct flights are up and running, and (COVID-19 permitting) they are free to enjoy the UAE’s extraordinary tourism facilities — should try to “act as ambassadors.” (What on earth could he be worried about?)
Honeymoon giddiness aside, this partnership holds potential for lasting, genuine change.
The UAE is our first peace partner with whom we do not have a bloody history. Our ties are not being established over shared memories of war and loss. The forging of our alliance is less emotionally dramatic, less fraught, less militarily important. In short, more normal. The union might just last. And there may yet be further weddings.
Early signs are that the diplomatic bombshell is not remaking Israeli politics. Snap opinion polls Sunday night showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party either halting its recent slide, or rising slightly, but nothing more dramatic than that. Tantalizing though peace with the UAE may be, a fifth of the country is unemployed, and few people are flying anywhere amid the pandemic. Netanyahu was and remains the politician favored more than any other as prime minister, but his Yamina right-wing rival Naftali Bennett is faring well largely on the basis of his criticism from the opposition of the handling of the pandemic. The anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, demanding his resignation for alleged corruption, are maintaining their protests.
Yet Netanyahu has now placed himself closer to the center of the Israeli consensus, and seems certain to enjoy the benefits as time passes.
He insists daily that his plan to annex the 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the Trump peace plan remains “on the table,” and that he remains committed to applying sovereignty in full coordination with the US. Nothing has changed, he repeats.
Except that everything has changed.
The Trump administration proved unwilling to subvert its own plan by approving unilateral Israeli annexation. And Netanyahu chose one diplomatic breakthrough, and the prospect of others to come, over his own promises to a goodly part of his electoral base. Pushed aside for now, whereas they have for years been punching far above their demographic weight, most of the settler leaders are fuming and threatening, while the center and center left are cheering through clenched teeth. Netanyahu’s corruption trial hasn’t gone away, but the likelihood of a credible political challenge, hugely reduced in any case when Benny Gantz partnered up with him, has now receded still further.
More importantly, on the international stage, this agreement is wonderful news for Israel.
It’s now not only the Trump administration and the right-dominated Israeli government that is warning the Palestinians that their intransigence is self-defeating but also, as of Thursday, a goodly chunk of the Arab world as well.
Only the UAE has so far made its peace with Israel and encouraged the Palestinians to get working on doing the same. But the UAE is being either applauded for its actions or at least defended by much of the Arab world against the bitter recriminations and cries of betrayal from President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, and the dark threats from Tehran and Ankara.
The agreement has the crucial potential, moreover, to bolster bipartisan support for Israel in the United States. Joe Biden had indicated that he would not be moving the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv if elected, but that he would stand opposed to unilateral Israeli annexation in the West Bank. Rather than finding himself at odds with Netanyahu on taking office, a president Biden would now inherit a peace framework accepted by Israel, endorsed to some extent by part of the Arab world, and open to the Palestinians, whom he would doubtless encourage to re-engage.
If they do so, whether under Trump or Biden, the framework on the table remains open to them. Israel has not preemptively grabbed its annexation spoils. The Trump administration has made plain that the terms of the deal are not set in stone; Biden would doubtless do the same.
If the PA stays away, and deepens its nascent alliance with Hamas, things could get very ugly on the ground, including for Israel. Placing itself starkly with the Iranians, the PA would alienate some regional and international supporters, and could face rising internal dissent.
‘A new method of doing things’
A complex process led to Thursday’s extraordinary diplomatic bombshell. In the mix was the Gulf’s shared concern with Israel at the ongoing strengthening of Iran, and the awareness that Israel simply cannot and will not allow itself to be cowed by an Islamist regime aiming for our demise and bent on achieving nuclear weapon capability. Somewhere in the mix, too, was that indifference to the Palestinians, or at least impatience with them, and ultimately a decision no longer to be constricted by the Palestinian conflict in their dealings with Israel.
In a brief interview on Channel 12 on Saturday night, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash summed up the shift like this: “Clearly, 70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere. I think we need to shift to a new method of doing things. And that method simply is: We can disagree with you in political issues, but we can work with you [on] nonpolitical issues.”
That’s a statement at once banal and earth-shattering, a statement hitherto almost unthinkable in the context of Israel and the Arab world. It changes nothing about the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it potentially remakes the regional, and even the global context, in which that conflict is viewed and handled.
An influential Arab country basically held up its hand and said, yes, we know the Palestinians still don’t have a state. They should have. They should negotiate with the Israelis. But we’re not waiting for that. We’ve not been at war with Israel. We don’t have bloody debts to settle, or territory that we want back from Israel. We’re making peace with Israel. Right now.
Why? Because “70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere.”
To which we Israelis say, and can now be heard and read online in the UAE saying: Shalom, Abu Dhabi!