Arab nations are lining up to normalize relations with Israel. Here’s what awaits the Jewish state down the road.
This fall, the Abraham Accords broke years of Arab consensus that there should be no relations with Israel until it makes peace with the Palestinians.
Brokered by outgoing President Donald Trump and signed at the White House, the Accords have included three Arab nations to date. Following the lead of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan have also agreed to formally normalize ties with the Jewish state. More agreements seem likely to follow.
American Jews have celebrated the Accords as a sign of thawing tensions and a potential roadmap toward peace. And delegates from the Arab world have made overtures to the American Jewish community.
During the recent “virtual dinner” for the Southfield-based Yeshiva Beth Yehudah day school, Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., said that, soon, “students in your school are going to be able to go talk to Israelis and Emiratis either in Israel or the UAE.”
The Accords were hailed as “glorious” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but dubbed “a stab in the back” by various Palestinian officials.
The complexities of the agreements, and the politics behind them, have left Jews the world over with many questions. Here, we try to answer some of them.
In One Word: Iran
For many Arab nations, aligning themselves with Israel unifies them around a common enemy: Iran.
Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East didn’t happen in a void. Emirati Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed fears Iran, which he sees as a clear and immediate threat to the UAE in particular — and to Sunni Islam in general.
He’s not alone. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — both Sunni Muslim-led states — are bitter rivals of Shiite-majority Iran. More than 60% of Bahrainis are Shiites, who are at best seen as a subversive population and at worst an Iranian fifth column.
When former President Barack Obama started talking about a new, democratic and liberal Middle East in light of the Arab Spring uprisings, relations between the Gulf states and the U.S. reached an unprecedented low.
Obama supported protesters against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally of the U.S., thus sending a clear message to Gulf leaders that if there were any uprisings erupting in their territories, American support for them would no longer be a given.
Eventually, the biggest blow to the Gulf came in the form of the nuclear deal with Iran, signed despite harsh criticism from the Gulf states and Israel alike — warming the not-so-secret alliance between the latter sides even further.
Paradoxically then, by working toward a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama’s policy — praised by many but deemed destructive by Israel and the Gulf states — led to the most dramatic progress in Israeli-Gulf relations, including with powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
“This is because Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf states, has understood very well that the only country with the experience, intentions and capabilities to act against Iran was Israel, not the U.S.,” says Dr. Michal Yaari, an Israeli expert on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States at Tel Aviv University.
It was no surprise then, that Israel was no longer the only regional player fearing Iran’s increasing might, with Gulf states — including the Saudis — gradually neglecting the ideological goal of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians for a more practical path against a common enemy.
The specter of Iran had tremendous importance to the Abraham Accords. But there were also other, no less unsettling powers at play.
The Middle East has shifted. “Iran has significantly increased its threats on Saudi Arabia’s security, mainly through its military support for the Houthis in Yemen,” according to Yaari.
“We want to thank [the Saudis] for the assistance they’ve had in the success of the Abraham Accords so far,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, referring partially to Riyadh’s announcement that its skies would be open to any country’s civilian plane flying to or from the UAE.
“We hope Saudi Arabia will consider normalizing its relationships [with Israel] as well,” Pompeo added.
Since the murder of Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has become persona non grata among Americans — who were already critical of Saudi Arabia due to its notorious human rights record.
Congress imposed a ban on arms sales to the kingdom in light of Khashoggi’s assassination — a decision later circumvented by Trump.
Additionally, both bin Zayed and Netanyahu were trying to hand Trump one final achievement ahead of what proved to be one of America’s most divisive elections in recent history.
For Trump’s Jewish supporters, there weren’t many better ways to do so than a historic peace deal between the Jewish state and a thriving Arab nation — a scenario deemed practically impossible merely a few decades ago. Israel currently maintains a “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan, without significant tourism or business ties.
A Biden presidency, on the other hand, was nothing Israel or Saudi Arabia were particularly enthusiastic about, despite Netanyahu having praised the president-elect as “a great friend of Israel” with whom he has had “a long and warm personal relationship.”
This stems partially from fears that Biden may seek to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a prospect Israel’s former envoy to Washington Michael Oren said had a “very high” likelihood — much to Israel and Saudi Arabia’s dismay.
The Accords evidently reflect a mobilizing Middle East, in which shared concerns over Iran or Turkey, combined with new business opportunities, have enabled U.S. allies to close ranks on their mutual rivals.
These issues have overshadowed what used to be the region’s foremost concern: Palestinians. Under Netanyahu, Israel has moved further and further away from any realistic peace agreement, as West Bank settlements continue largely unabated and actions like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have exacerbated tensions among Palestinian leadership.
Arab nations have signaled they, too, believe negotiations with Palestinians have hit something of a dead end, and that there is more to gain by casting them aside.
Saudi leadership realized that it was standing at a critical crossroads. If it continued to support the Palestinians and as a result didn’t advance its own relations with Israel, it would jeopardize its security interests and leave itself exposed to the Iranian threat.
The normalization deals deliver a message all-too-familiar to Palestinians: You’re on your own.
At present, it doesn’t seem like Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will resume, Yaari predicts, “due to both Israeli and Palestinian leadership.” It is not inconceivable, however, that “when Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas] is replaced, and perhaps Netanyahu as well, there will be a breakthrough.”
Trump announced in late October that Sudan would start normalizing ties with Israel after pledging that the African country would be removed from the terror list, as it agreed to put $335 million in an escrow account for compensating American victims of terror attacks.
The importance of the Israel-Sudan normalization stems, in part, from the expansion from the Middle East outward to Africa, as well as the unique momentum, proving that the UAE wasn’t an isolated case, but a cornerstone potentially marking the beginning of a trend.
Predictably, the agreement was accepted with mixed emotions in the Arab world. But even in Israel and the U.S. the festive atmosphere was overshadowed by growing doubts — primarily following the White House notification to Congress late October that it intends to sell 50 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, thus jeopardizing Israel’s military edge.
“The idea that we’re giving the exact same fighter jet to an Arab neighbor just makes me nervous,” said Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is Jewish and previously worked at the Pentagon. “I support normalization, but not at the expense of Israeli’s strategic national security.”
But Israeli security sources later confirmed to local media that they were attempting to advance the purchase of F-22 Raptor jets — currently the world’s most advanced fighter plane — from the U.S., so that the Israeli Air Force would preserve its superiority in the region despite the deal.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said implementing further normalization deals could depend on the next U.S. president displaying continued “resolve” against Iran, naming Qatar, Morocco and Niger as some of the potential next countries “on the agenda.”
Behind closed doors, some Israeli security officials are allowing themselves to ponder the possibility of normalizing relations with other Arab countries, like Oman, or — perhaps, one day — even Saudi Arabia.
Critics point out that cozying up to Saudi Arabia means getting in bed with one of the worst human rights abusers in the world. However, for such unprecedented normalization deal to take place, Israeli officials agree that a few crowns still need to change heads. For now, the near future for Israeli nationals looks more like an all-inclusive holiday in Dubai.
Dana Regev is an Israeli-born journalist who reports on global affairs for Deutsche Welle in Germany and is a contributor to the Jewish News.