Home inFocus Israel: Flourishing Under Fire (Summer 2021) The Sand Curtain Has Fallen

The Sand Curtain Has Fallen

David M. Weinberg Summer 2021
President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Photo: White House / Shealah Craighead)

The Sand Curtain, like the Iron Curtain 30 years ago, has fallen. Israel and its “Abrahamic” partners are enjoying a lightning-fast peace bonanza. But some Westerners have difficulty rejoicing in the breakthrough. The Left assiduously seeks to poke holes in the Abraham Accords, and makes sourpuss faces whenever advances in Gulf-Israel ties are mentioned. The good news is that the accords easily survived the recent Hamas-Israel conflict. How a renewed JCPOA accord will affect ties remains an open and troubling question.

Falling in Love

The speed with which Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have taken off (and with Morocco and Sudan to a degree as well), and the genuine warmth experienced by every Israeli business delegation and tourist group to have visited these countries, is astounding. It is a speed of light peace bonanza, a whirlwind of almost Biblical proportions.

Venture capitalists from Tel Aviv and Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Manama are scouting out joint investment opportunities in cybersecurity, fintech, aggrotech, food security, educational technology, and healthcare. Bilateral business chambers have been established, including a Jewish-Muslim women’s business council and a youth council. One Emirati investment house executive enthused to The New York Times, “It’s like falling in love!”

Trade between Israel and the UAE already has exceeded $354 million. According to the Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Thani bin Ahmed Al-Zayoudi, the two countries have signed approximately 25 agreements in more than 15 sectors. Academics from the Emirates and Israel are participating in each other’s conferences. Israel’s two main strategic think tanks, INSS and JISS, each have signed research partnerships with leading Emirati institutes. 

Tourist packages for Israelis and for Jews everywhere to the Gulf are sprouting like mushrooms, and Gulf tourists to Israel are coming soon too. Three Emirati and three Israeli airlines are operating or planning daily flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (slowed only by lingering effects of the COVID-19 crisis), as is Bahrain’s Gulf Air. Emirati Airlines times its flights from Ben-Gurion Airport to connect with Emirates flights from the Gulf to the Far East, giving Israelis new routes to China, Japan, Thailand and more.

Hundreds of Israelis in kippas and Emiratis in long white robes and kanduras gathered in early June at a Global Investment Forum in Dubai, co-sponsored by The Jerusalem Post and The Khaleej Times. This, despite the fierce mini war that Israel had just fought with Hamas in Gaza and with Palestinian radicals in Jerusalem.

These are the beginnings of real people-to-people engagement; something that Israel has never enjoyed with the publics in Egypt or Jordan. It can be said that the “Sand Curtain” between Israel and the Arab world has fallen, like the fall of the Iron Curtain between the democratic and communist worlds 30 years ago.

It is important to note that the Emirati and Bahraini pursuit of peace with Israel is genuine. It is backed by a discourse of religious moderation and broadmindedness that is deep and admirable; a discourse of reconciliation brought to the fore by the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords.

By explicitly referencing the Abrahamic common heritage of Moslems and Jews in the foundational document of the normalization process (and deliberately naming it the Abraham Accords), the treaty implicitly acknowledges that Jews are a Biblical people indigenous to the Land of Israel. This is a revolution; it is no less than a blunt rejection of the ongoing Palestinian campaign to deny and criminalize the Jewish People’s historic rights in Israel.

It goes even deeper. The Emiratis and Bahrainis want to redefine the self-identity and global image of Arab Muslims in a way that blends enlightenment with tradition. Affiliating with Israel fits perfectly into this agenda, aside from the security and economic benefits that will spin off from partnership with Israel.

Indeed, these Gulf Arabs see themselves as people and nations that successfully blend ancient tradition, culture and ethnic identity with modern progress and ambition. That is exactly how they view Israel as well.

The core problem in the Middle East, Emiratis and Bahrainis have told me, is that religious hatred has become the main political currency, a volatile and hypocritically exploited currency. Iran invests heavily in religious hatred; hatred of Israel, of America and the West, and of other Muslims who do not hew to the radical Shiite line. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) relies on religious hatred to mobilize young men to its ranks. So do Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda. 

The Emiratis see themselves and other Sunni Arabs as “victims of decades of media brainwashing” in support of “narrow agendas” (meaning, radical Islamic agendas) and “immature thinking” (meaning, Palestinian thinking). These deleterious discourses always need an “enemy” to hate. 

Dr. Ali Al Nuami, chairman of the Defense Affairs, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federal National Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, says, “The Abraham Accords are meant to increase tolerance and respect. We in the UAE believe that terrorism and extremism are not a threat to a single nation or to a single region; they are a threat to the whole world.”

In short, the Abraham Accords are meant “to take religious hatred out of the equation,” and move Israel-Arab ties to the level of normal state-to-state relations, hopefully setting an example for other Arab countries in the region. “Hatred is not from God. It does not flow from logic. And hatred is not the future,” a very senior Emirati who is close to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed told me.

The Emiratis are talking about offering their school curriculums on religious and ethnic tolerance, and the value of scientific and critical humanistic thinking, to Arab schools across the Middle East. They may launch an Emirati distance-learning program with high school and college courses available to Arab and Muslim students – from Morocco to Iran. Over time, this educational export product could have a real moderating impact.

Sourpuss Reactions

Unfortunately, some around the world remain begrudging in their embrace of these blessed developments. 

For the extreme left, it is hard to swallow the fact that Israel is demonstrably a force for good, knowledge, prosperity, and stability in the Middle East. After all, that is the reason the UAE and Bahrain are collaborating with Israel.

Second, the left has been reluctant to credit Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu for the Accords (or anything else), even when the result obviously is so beneficial.

Third, the left and center-left, including the Biden administration, wishes to reinstate the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran; a deal to which Israel and its Gulf partners were, and remain, adamantly opposed. In fact, creation of a common front against the nuclear and hegemonic designs of Iran is the main motive underlying Israel-Gulf relations. 

The Abraham Accords get in the way of the American rush to reconcile with Iran. Expansion of the “Abrahamic circle of peace” to other countries (say, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Kuwait, and Oman) certainly would anger the Iranians. As a result, it seems that the Biden administration is not prioritizing enlargement of the Accords. In fact, the Biden administration will not even use the term “Abraham Accords,” but rather, “normalization agreements.” 

Fourth, some are uncomfortable with the renewed “religious” discourse about Biblical patrimony and rights, as described above. To leftist ears, this smacks of Evangelical Christian and right-wing Orthodox Jewish standpoints. The only type of “rights” they are comfortable with are the liberal, politically-correct, intersectional kind – in which Palestinian rights are paramount.

Fifth, it seriously upsets progressives that the Abraham Accords sideline the Palestinians and their claims. It is no longer possible to argue that the Palestinian struggle is the “crux” of Middle East conflict. Sunni states partnering with Israel even question whether there is an “urgent need” or sufficient justification for the Palestinians to gain a state of their own. 

For the five reasons listed above, left-of-center leaders have been assiduously poking holes in the Abraham Accords and making sourpuss faces whenever the speed of light advances in Gulf-Israel ties are mentioned.

Some American officials prefer to signal disdain for the Abraham Accords, at least indirectly. One way of doing this is giving a cold shoulder to U.S. and Israeli allies in the region, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, because of their human rights abuses. The Biden administration even dangerously has spoken of “reassessing” U.S. ties to Riyadh. It pulled U.S. support for the Saudi war on the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen (a terrible strategic mistake). For a while, it held-up the F-35 sale to the Emirates.

Strategic Realities

Instead of acting to taint the Abraham Accords ecosystem, the left ought to be strengthening the Accords, because they strengthen America and its true regional allies, while weakening Russian, Turkish, and Iranian interests. At the very least, the administration should make good on its explicit promise of “full coordination” with Israel and the Saudis regarding the JCPOA talks.

In the Palestinian arena, the Biden administration should be working to build on Abraham Accord dynamics too. 

Instead of letting the Palestinian Authority get away with violence (including issuing a fatwa banning Emirati Muslims from visiting or praying on the Temple Mount!), and instead of Washington “working to significantly support urgent humanitarian reconstruction assistance in Gaza” (something that almost assuredly will strengthen Hamas) – the Biden administration should be pressing the PA to welcome the role that the UAE and Bahrain can play in an expanded peace process. 

Gulf colleagues can help PA president-for-life Mahmoud Abbas dial-down his expectations and understand that there will be no reverting to stale and unworkable formulas based on maximalist Palestinian demands and minimalist regard for Israeli security needs and national-historic claims. This refers to discredited formulas involving the uprooting of settlements, Israeli withdrawals from most of Judea and Samaria, and division of Jerusalem. 

These are dead proposals – no matter how fiercely Abbas attacks Israel in international forums or how impolitely President Biden presses Israel. They are dead proposals under whatever new – non-Netanyahu – government is formed in Jerusalem, too.

Stress Test

In this context it is worth noting that the Abraham Accords passed their first stress test during the recent Israeli-Palestinian dust-up in Gaza and Jerusalem. While Gulf and Moroccan leaders issued harsh condemnations of Israel for its tough police response to the Arab riots on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, no Abraham Accords country did more than protest verbally. 

None withdrew their ambassadors from Israel, and none slowed the pace of developing economic ties. Compare this with the Second Intifada in 2000, when Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, and Qatar dissolved their less-than-full diplomatic ties with Israel.

Most notable of all, neither the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, or Morocco truly criticized Israel for striking hard at Hamas in Gaza. In fact, they probably cheered this, quietly. Their mild press releases about the fighting resembled standard State Department calls for de-escalation and “restraint.” Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed even doubled down on the Abraham Accords, citing the conflagration as a “somber reminder of the urgent need for peaceful dialogue.” 

In sum, none of these Arab countries added to the diplomatic pressure on Israel in any substantive way.

The real shadow hanging over the future of Abraham Accord-type peace treaties in the region comes from the incipient reconciliation between Washington and Tehran in the form of a renewed nuclear deal.

On the one hand, if Washington goes soft on Iran’s nuclear program and dials back its commitment to countering Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, it seems logical that Gulf countries will seek to further strengthen their security and diplomatic ties with Israel. Israel will remain actively engaged in a long-term shadow war, and in an increasingly public war against Iran’s designs. And Israel quietly but determinedly will help protect its Gulf allies from Iranian machinations too.

On the other hand, if the U.S. takes itself out of the frontline against Iran, it is perhaps possible that Gulf countries will make the reluctant decision to ally with Iran; or at the very least, to hedge their bets by minimizing open ties to Israel and their full alignment with the United States.

To a certain extent, this process may already be underway. For the first time in many years, the Saudis and Emiratis recently held direct and public talks with Iranian leaders. This could be a signal that Gulf leaders realize Washington will no longer lead a counter-Iran coalition and that allying openly with Israel may no longer be overwhelmingly beneficial.

Then there is the question of Israeli leadership. Netanyahu personally played a key role in cultivating relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, as well as unofficial ties with Saudi Arabia. The leaders of those countries knew Netanyahu well enough to talk to him about key defense and intelligence issues. They knew that his commitment to aggressively countering Iran was absolute. Will the same level of trust pertain to an Israeli government led by a coalition of Naftali Bennett, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz? 

Lapid has made statements supporting the JCPOA; Gantz has demurred from some of Netanyahu’s recent tough comments about countering Iran should the U.S. decide to back away; and it is unclear whether Bennett will make Abraham Accord partnerships a priority (of course, he should), and whether he can quickly gain the trust of Gulf leaders.

The Israel envoy to the UAE, Ambassador Eitan Naeh, says that it does not matter who is prime minister, foreign minister or defense minister of Israel: “UAE-Israel ties will continue to grow because both countries have essential interests in doing so.” “Essential interests” is certainly true. But the level of cultivation, and whether there will be opportunities to bring more countries into the Abraham Accords given the new governments in Washington and Jerusalem – remains to be seen.

David M. Weinberg is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, and a diplomatic and defense columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom newspapers. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.