The challenges surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict have become so mythologized in our collective mentality that the idea of actually implementing viable and widespread mutually beneficial peace agreements between these groups was often considered to either be impossible or well beyond our reach for the foreseeable future.
When last November I wrote: “When the Arabs Were Zionists (And May Be Again),“ the majority of feedback I received—save for the occasional diplomat or investigative journalist—politely commended me for my magnanimous tone while metaphorically patting me on the back for my insatiable (and supposedly unrealistic) optimism in the face of such seemingly insurmountable odds. Fast-forward nine months later to August 13th when the UAE and Israel formally announced their peace agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, to the world. On August 29th, the UAE formally decreed to end its boycott of Israel—which was established by law in 1972—officially allowing Israel to do business with the seven sheikdoms, and on August 31st, the first Israeli commercial flight crossed Saudi airspace and landed in Abu Dhabi amid great fanfare that included Israeli flags flying in the sky above the red welcome carpet on the tarmac.
Unlike Israel’s previous peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians, no land was traded in exchange for peace with the UAE, nor were any debts forgiven. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Abraham Accord as “peace through strength,” “peace for peace,” and stressing that “no one wants to make peace with a weak country; they want to make peace with a strong country.”
This historic move has been lauded as unprecedented and celebrated as a bridge to future peace deals. As these events continue to unfold in real time, questions surrounding whether this process can be trusted, its origins, how it was accomplished, and “why now?” arise. Not dissimilar from a game of chess, the necessary conditions of timing, strategy, and unique circumstances had to align to enable this new peace.
First, let us dispel the non-sequitor that Jews and Arabs will never make peace simply because of strained relations at different points in history. Jews have always been a minority facing varying levels of persecution in their respective dwelling places, but if Christian Europe—where many of its nations were instrumental in systemically murdering millions of Jews over millennia and as recently as the last century—is capable of generally having normal relations with Israel, then surely we can muster the intellectual objectivity to apply the same nuance to the Islamic world.
Although a strict peace between Jews and Arabs has historically been as complicated as it was rare, varying levels of cooperation did occur (both out of principle and out of pragmatism)—which were at times far preferable to the conditions found in Christian Europe. Sometimes these diplomatic efforts succeeded and many times they failed, but to gloss over or to discount them completely would be historically dishonest.
Though sometimes dismissed as greatly exaggerated, the idea of the Andalusian paradise is only a myth if you compare it to today’s standards. I am by no means denying the existence of Sharia law, particularly that of “dhimmitude,” which required non-Muslims to pay the jizya tax to the authorities in exchange for maintaining their unique identities—but we should note that both Jews and Muslims alike remember the 10th and 11th centuries of Andalusia as being Spain’s “Golden Age,” and that Jews enjoyed greater political power and involvement in society at large during that window of time than was considered usual in most places, and that whatever drawbacks came with Muslim rule in Spain, they were infinitely preferable to what came afterwards—the centuries of Catholic Spain’s systemic expulsion, mass murder, and inquisition of Jews and their descendants, which only officially ended in 1808 with Napoleon’s invasion.
Other periods of relatively peaceful Muslim-Jewish coexistence include parts of the 19th and 20th centuries when a series of reforms occurred in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, and the Ottoman States, some of which loosened the regulations of Sharia law. Certain regions merely provided greater protection for Jews while others modernized the status of non-Muslim citizens from dhimmis to actualized citizens with new civil rights and eventually full civil equality. This led to Jews taking a more active role in society, including a Jewish delegate representing Baghdad in the Ottoman parliament. Even as Zionism gained popularity, there were some Arab leaders like King Faisal of Iraq who sympathized with the movement, envisaging an Arab-Jewish alliance in the region.
Granted, the limited successes achieved in these historic scenarios were still accomplished on unequal footing, as the Jewish people were vulnerable minorities with limited bargaining power. Though still small in number, Israel today has come to the negotiation table from a place of independence and strength. The Abraham Accord is not an agreement between lords and serfs; it is comprised of equal players with shared goals.
A variety of factors have made Israel the attractive peace partner it is today. Far from being the newborn state comprised of impoverished refugees fighting for survival with out-dated weapons against an onslaught of Arab armies in 1948, Israel has become a regional giant—not just in relation to Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece, but also in its relationships with the Arab world. Already categorized internationally as a highly developed nation, the world watched as last year the Israeli economy surpassed key nations both in Europe and Asia, making their standard of living higher than many Western countries. The Arab States who make peace with Israel will share in this success.
They will also benefit economically from Israeli ports, which can transport merchandise coming from the Middle East by railroad via Saudi Arabia, bypassing what was traditionally a long (and sometimes precarious) sea journey, then directly exporting these goods to Europe. Additionally, access to Israeli tech, and Israeli military intelligence and prowess are significant factors, particularly in a neighbourhood as volatile as the Middle East.
The adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds true here. Israel is one of the few players in the region with the will and the capability to stand up to both Turkey and Iran. Turkey is trying to replace Saudi Arabia as leader of the Sunni world, while Iran is creating a general disturbance with its proxy wars, funding of terror, and general regional intimidation. Israel is defying both.
The Abraham Accord’s naysayers reject the plan because of their compromised allegiances and agendas. Turkey—which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood—has threatened to cut ties with any Arab nation that makes peace with Israel and has called the Emiratis “hypocritical,” despite having its own embassy in Israel. Iran and their proxies of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Jihad called for an “uprising” after the treaty became public, offering further proof for why the deal occurred in the first place. Yemen, a country wracked by civil war thanks to the Iranian-backed Houthis, whose slogan is: “Death to Israel, curse the Jews,” has predictably rejected the deal. Caught by surprise when the Abraham Accord was announced, the Palestinian leadership called it “a stab in the back,” and accused the UAE of “treason,” despite having refused to negotiate with Israel at all about the new proposed peace plan earlier this year. Commentators from the UAE fired back at Palestinians for their corrupt leadership and for burning the UAE flag. One Emirati social media user wrote, “I was against Israel, but today I’m not. Time has shown us who the real friend is and who is the enemy,” while Emirati security analyst Abudullah Al Mazroui wrote:
“If a group of citizens in the UAE or Saudi Arabia went out and burned the Palestinian flag or the photo of [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, would our governments remain silent? The citizens would be immediately brought to trial and receive heavy penalties. Why are our flags and images of our symbols being burned in front of the eyes of the Palestinian government, while it remains silent?”
It is clear that a notable shift in priorities has resulted in Arab leaders fast-tracking the Abraham Accord and vehemently opposing their critics.
Why the urgency for peace now?
The short answer is: November 3, 2020.
The Arab States do not want—and frankly cannot afford—a repeat of the Iran Deal (among other failed Middle East initiatives and interventions) coming from the White House. They do not view Joe Biden as merely a wildcard presidential candidate who may or may not be beneficial for the region. Rather, as a senior member of the Obama administration, they see Biden as an imminent threat—an extension of the dangerous policies that funnelled billions to Iran and allowed the Iranian regime the freedom to further develop its nuclear program without accountability, and to instigate and maintain proxy wars, causing tremendous regional instability across the entire Middle East. Even Saudi Arabia has felt progressively vulnerable to Iranian attack, with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen regularly bombing various Saudi targets, including Riyadh.
Other than Israel, the Arab States see Trump as being possibly the only thing standing between them and the looming threat of Iran (which is why all negotiations over the past several months were kept strictly confidential so that Iran couldn’t filibuster them). The problem was that Trump’s other attempts at dealing with international crises like Venezuela, Russia, China, and North Korea were failures, while his much talked about “Deal of the Century” was categorically rejected by the Palestinian Authority before its terms had even been released. The Arab States understand that Trump’s facilitation of these monumental Arab-Israeli peace agreements will be his first (and perhaps only) real foreign affairs achievement of his presidency, providing him with the ammunition he needs to win the fall election. Putting aside the economic benefits that peace will afford them—even putting aside the political and religious differences that have deferred peace until now—the Arab States of today are quite literally facing an existential crisis that they believe requires a dramatic and immediate intervention.
WAM, the Emirates News Agency, reported that the Abraham Accord provides “a roadmap toward launching joint cooperation, leading to bilateral relations by stimulating economic growth and promoting technological innovation.” What they didn’t address is that the only thing separating the UAE and neighbouring Oman from Iran is the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which is a mere 21 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point. Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz (as well as other water passages in the region). This location is ideal for Israel and the UAE to build intelligence and reconnaissance bases, which is why Iran is publicly making death threats against the leader of the UAE, saying he will die like Sadat of Egypt (who was assassinated after making peace with Israel). Both Israel and the UAE know that they have hit a reciprocal military strategic jackpot with this agreement.
Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, said, “There are several countries where there are possibilities [for peace]. I don’t want to say this specific country or not, but there are several countries and we hope that we see another breakthrough very, very, soon – in the weeks, and months ahead.” The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said their relationship with Israel will be a “warm peace,” also confirming that, “There are several Arab countries that are on this scale in different stages,” and that “The region does need a strategic breakthrough.”
Countries like Egypt—and even Lebanon, which has yet to make peace with Israel, but has expressed willingness to do so—have praised the Abraham Accord, while other nations are lining up to make peace with Israel. Bahrain has already chosen a building for a future Israeli embassy and has opened its airspace to Israel, while Oman publicly supported the UAE’s decision saying that they want a “comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” None of these developments could have occurred without Saudi Arabia’s support. Not only did the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir publicly affirm their commitment to peace, and permit the flights to and from Israel to use Saudi airspace, Jared Kushner said, “I do think it is an inevitability that Saudi Arabia and Israel will have fully normalized relations and they will be able to do a lot of great things together.” With Saudi Arabia being the ascendant force that it is—a Saudi-Israeli peace agreement will result in the majority of the Sunni world acquiescing to the Abraham Accord by default.
Though these new and currently developing peace deals were not reached with the Palestinians in mind—in fact, the Palestinian Authority was purposely excluded from a seat at the negotiation table—ironically, a widespread Arab-Israeli peace may be the necessary factor for Palestinian leadership (whether the current ones or a future reformed version) to finally cross the Rubicon for peace with Israel.
While a viable solution for the Palestinians has yet to be achieved, it seems that the trend of the Palestinian Authority dictating greater Arab policy toward Israel has come to an end. It is ironic that these Arab States, who arguably were—and are still—largely responsible for manufacturing much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place (which includes but is not limited to their funding of terror and denying Palestinian refugees citizenship), now see fit to make peace with Israel, and that these same Arab States—not the Americans—will likely be the ones to pressure the Palestinian leadership to become a reasonable peace partner with Israel. Though not beyond falsifiability, this may be the Occam’s razor solution to the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.
These unprecedented peace agreements, facilitated by Israel’s power and accelerated by Iran’s aggression, may serve as the catalyst for the strongest Arab-Jewish coalition to date. This development alongside ongoing political and cultural reforms may usher in a new era of the Middle Eastern renaissance that so many of us have been anticipating and aspiring to for so long.