Israel's Peace With Some Arab Neighbors?

Intriguing developments with the UAE and Bahrain.

The Jewish state’s dream of warm peace with its Arab neighbors has eluded it for more than 72 years. In September 2020, President Donald Trump helped engineer the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. The very treaty signing on the White House lawn projected human warmth, and signaled a warm peace. Subsequently, Sudan and Morocco joined the normalization of relations with Israel.

It is true that peace, as opposed to war, came much earlier than September 2020. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. These peace treaties, however, were essentially between governments, coldly exchanging territory for peace. Israel gave up the entire Sinai Peninsula; it received a cold peace in return. The late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak avoided visiting Israel. In his 30-year reign as Egypt’s dictator, he visited Israel only once, and only for three hours, to attend the funeral of the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He did not encourage Israeli-Egyptian trade or tourism. 

Although Mubarak fulfilled the security commitments under the Camp David Accords, he deliberately perpetuated the cold peace. Mubarak was motivated by the desire to reduce Egypt’s massive military burden, and cement Egypt’s relationship with the US. He also sought to return Egypt to the bosom of the Arab world that expelled Egypt from the Arab League and leadership in the Arab world following Anwar Sadat’s Camp David Peace Accords with Israel. Israelis were not welcomed in Cairo, and the majority of the Egyptian population has been hostile to Israel and peace. The Egyptian media in particular has displayed frequent bursts of anti-Semitism. Israel’s consolation was that it didn’t have to allocate burdensome resources in manpower and treasure.

King Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, unlike Mubarak, was well disposed toward peace with Israel. The strong presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and the majority Palestinian population in the country, placed Hussein in an odd position. As part of the peace treaty with Jordan, Israel recognized Jordan’s sovereignty over the Naharayim/Baqura area including the Peace Island, and the Tzofar/Al Ghamr area. Once again, Israelis rushed to visit Jordan, especially the majestic Petra, while Jordan sent workers to earn money in Israel (mostly in Eilat).

The passing of King Hussein brought to power his son Abdullah II, whose mother was English. It compelled Abdullah to display a lukewarm attitude toward Israel, and oftentimes to be critical of Israel and supportive of the West Bank Palestinians. Ironically, Israel’s military prowess safeguards Jordan’s monarchy’s survival.

In Egypt, Mubarak’s departure in February 2011 (as a result of the so-called Arab Spring) brought to power Mohammad Morsi in June 2012, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an ally of Hamas in Gaza. He was deposed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected President in May 2014. According to Haisam Hassanein, an Associate Fellow at the Washington Institute, “Despite broadening official cooperation between Egypt and Israel, he (al-Sisi) is increasingly  embracing the old approach of telling Egyptians that Israel is the enemy.” This tendency of vilifying Israel domestically, and allowing the Egyptian media to demonize Israel, is contrasted by increased cooperation between Egypt and Israel on combating terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and handling Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In short, there has been no people-to-people relationship between Egyptians and Israelis.

Until September 2020, the relationship between the Emiratis and Israel was concealed. Now, the open and warm interaction between Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Israelis is exceptional. Data shows that trade between the UAE and Israel jumped from $51 million in the seven months of 2020, to $614 million over the same period in 2021. According to figures cited by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, trade between Israel and Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa has dramatically accelerated in 2021, following normalization, and grew in the first seven months of 2021 by 234%.

On September 13, 2021, UAE Economy Minister Abdulla Bin Touq said that the UAE was projecting to grow economic ties with Israel to the tune of $1 trillion over the next decade. He pointed out that since normalization the UAE has signed over 60 Memorandums of Understanding with Israel, and is expecting an influx of trade over the next couple of years, primarily in defense, energy, and food security. He added,
"We have $500 to $700 million dollars in bilateral trade happening, we have funds of billions of dollars that have been announced jointly between the two countries. We are moving into so many areas of economic opportunities."

Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company is inking a $1billion purchase of 22 percent stake in Israel’s Delek Drilling’s East Mediterranean Tamar natural gas field. It will thus become the largest deal between the UAE and Israel. Turkey’s TRT World reported that, “Both countries have had high-level trade delegations explore opportunities for investment in technology, aviation, education, telecom, and tourism over the past year.” And, in March 2021, the UAE announced a $12 billion investment fund for strategic sectors in Israel, including energy manufacturing, water, space, healthcare, and agri-tech. In addition, Emirati and Israeli ministers pledged military and defense cooperation.

The relationship between Israel and the UAE isn’t limited to trade, tourism, and defense (Iran being a common threat to both countries as well as to Bahrain). There have been ongoing cultural exchanges. The Emirati and Bahraini governments are cultivating and supporting their growing Jewish communities. The Israeli pavilion in the Dubai Expo is a major attraction, and getting lots of Emirati visitors.

In an opinion piece by Dr. Ali al-Nuaimi, Chairman of the Defense Affairs, Interior, and Foreign Relations Committee of the UAE Federal National Council, in Israel’s Ynet-News, writes: “Normalization agreements are a bridge to a future where we find common solutions, not divisive wars, and it is time to take the narrative beyond the headlines in order to bring peace not only to the signatories, but to the entire region.” Dr. al-Nuaimi who brought with him a delegation of UAE parliamentarians as guests of the Knesset, added, “I am excited to meet my fellow parliamentarians in the Knesset and build on the key role we have in regional and global diplomacy, far beyond the limitations of national borders and internal politics. True diplomacy is found in people-to-people interactions…”  

On February 3, 2022, Israel and Bahrain signed a security cooperation agreement, the first between Israel and a Gulf state. Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed on behalf of Israel in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. He also held talks with King Hamed bin Isa al-Khalifa. Again, as with the UAE, cultural and inter-personal ties are very much part of the normalization with Bahrain. King Hamed Global Center is promoting religious freedom, interfaith dialogue, and peaceful co-existence, as it works with Israeli institutions. Bahrain has a small and historic Jewish community, and its former ambassador to the US, Houda Nonoo, is Jewish.

The Bahraini foreign Minister and the Undersecretary for International Relations visited Israel. The latter’s four-day visit included visiting civil society organizations, universities and research institutes, as well as joining Israel’s Foreign Ministry director-general in scuba diving. Reuters reported that Israel expects $220 million in non-defense trade with Bahrain in 2021.

Unlike Egypt and Jordan, whose wars with Israel created bad blood and mistrust on both sides, the UAE and Bahrain have never engaged in military action against Israel. Hence interpersonal relations are more natural. For Israel, that just might mean - on these realms - the kind of peace Israelis have prayed for. Time will tell.

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