Following four years of seismic shifts in American-Israeli relations, we are witnessing the imminence of a Biden-Harris administration taking power. It is unlikely to push for any radical shift in the American posture towards Israel even if it repairs the American relationship with the Palestinians. Before we ever tackle the bull in the China shop, Iran, look at the current dramatic and radical shift in the political and economic landscape in the Middle East.
Over fifty-three years ago, Israel fought the Six Day War against three Arab states. Israel made peace, a cold peace but peace nevertheless, first with Egypt and then fifteen years later in 1994 with Jordan. The latter pact was known formally as the “Treaty of Peace Between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” or the Wadi Araba Treaty. Following the signing ceremony on 26 October 1994, the two countries established mutual diplomatic relations. But neither the peace with Egypt nor that with Jordan developed into a warm peace even though many disputes over water and borders were worked out and cooperation on tourism and trade was initiated.
In the twenty-five years after no similar breakthroughs, while the focus had shifted entirely to the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, apparently suddenly in 2020 Israel entered into a flurry of agreements, first with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), then with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. More agreements seem to be on the horizon, such as with Oman. There has also been serious cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel that has not yet concluded in a peace or normalization agreement.
Just four years earlier, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Brookings Institute’s Saban Center on 4 December 2016, predicted the opposite. It is worth quoting at length. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world, I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no. I can tell you that, reaffirmed even in the last week as I have talked to leaders of the Arab community. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
Well it wasn’t a hard reality. It was not a reality at all. At the very same time that Kerry was giving that speech, Israel was already “working out some things with the Arab world.” Kerry had predicted that would never happen, let alone the possible dream of a separate peace, until the relations with the Palestinians were resolved. The conventional belief, not only for Kerry, but in the State Department, was that Israel had to deal first with the grievances of the Palestinians, which would require U.S. strong pressure and even intervention.
Only it required neither, except that the U.S. had served, not as a conciliator, not as a mediator, not as an arbiter, but as a facilitator. In 2014, an unnamed American official set up a meeting in Dubai between Itzhak Ayalon (not to be confused with the father of Ami Ayalon of Shin Bet fame). Itzhak Ayalon even entered the UAE with an Israeli passport, but through a VIP airport entry point. He was there as an agricultural expert to teach a group of Arab farmers how to grow vegetables in greenhouses using Israeli technology and expertise. There were restrictions. He could not speak Hebrew. He could not phone Israel while he was there. But he was not required to deny he was Israeli. And the advice could (and did) include the import of Israeli materials and equipment, though via Jordan and in unmarked cases.
Over the next five years, the transactional relationships between the UAE and Israel began to creep out of the closet. How could they stay confined when there were so many Israelis in Dubai! By 2018, the mutual arrangements of Israel and the UAE over diamonds was a matter of public record. In 2019, so was their cooperation on artificial intelligence (AI) when an Israeli delegation went to Dubai. However, the political lift off really came in 2017 when President Donald Trump traveled to Saudi Arabia as his first trip abroad to address 50 Arab nations and then went onto Israel to discuss the possibilities of peace between Israel and the Gulf states.
On 13 August 2020, UAE’s Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zay Al Nahyan signed a joint statement called the Abraham Accords, more formally the “Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization Between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel.” The short document was just a symbolic statement of intentions. As other countries came on board, the much fuller treaties signed on the White House lawn on 15 September 2020 were referred to collectively as the Abraham Accords. (https://lb.usembassy.gov/abraham-accords-peace-agreement/#:~:text=Pursuant%20to%20Article%205%20of%20the%20Treaty%20of,which%20they%20have%20agreed%20to%20the%20following%20provisions)
The initial UAE-Israeli agreements only had seven short core paragraphs whereas the agreement signed a month later at the White House had 14 pages plus appendices The original agreement provided that the initial one would soon be followed by bilateral agreements on “investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, the establishment of reciprocal embassies, and other areas of mutual benefit.” The second great surprise was how quickly these were concluded and transformed into practices. On 31 August, Jared Kushner and a U.S.-Israeli delegation flew on the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE. Currently, there are four flights a day and plans are underway for 16 flights per day.
There were two sets of caveats to the agreement not formally part of the agreement itself. In the first set, Israel agreed to honour Trump’s proposed deal and suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the West Bank in that deal to be assigned to Israel, allow all Muslims to visit the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and build new diplomatic ties with other Arab and Muslim nations, assisted by the UAE and the US.
In the second caveat, the U.S. agreed to the sale of unarmed drones but, most importantly, 50 stealth-capable Lockheed Martin Joint Strike F-35s with their high-end sensors and data-collection tools for a triple threat: airstrikes, intelligence gathering and air-to-air combat. They would be modified so that Israel would maintain its military edge. Israel agreed not to oppose the deal. Paul Rand allied with many Senate Democrats tried to stop the deal in a Senate vote on 9 December but failed.
Many subsidiary agreements were signed. For example, at the beginning of this past week, the two countries, at least the export credit agencies of Israel and the UAE, signed an agreement of cooperation to boost economic relations and trade between the two countries. The Israel Foreign Trade Risks Insurance Corporation (ASHR’A) signed the agreement with its UAE counterpart, Etihad Credit Insurance, to work jointly “supporting increased exports, trade, and investment.”
The conventional wisdom that the Palestinians could block further peace deals with Arab states had been exploded. Further, while the Palestinians sought self-determination, the most that Israel and the US under Trump would grant them was autonomy, as if that was sufficient for their dignity. Instead, interests in regional stability and prosperity trumped Palestinian concerns. While the Palestinians denounced this and subsequent agreements as betrayals, Abbas shortly after reversed his position and agreed to re-enter negotiations with Israel without preconditions. However, the “progressive” Palestinian opposition to both the PA and Israel continued to denounce the treaty as a betrayal. Their leverage had been removed and they had gained only a very temporary reprieve from formal annexation as creeping annexation proceeded apace.
JStreet, which had previously insisted that negotiations with the Palestinians were the first priority and had run a similar but less absolutist line to John Kerry, also reversed positions and welcomed the agreement as “just the latest evidence that dialogue and diplomacy, rather than unilateral action and belligerence, are the route to long-term security.”
The Israel-Bahrain agreement quickly followed. Though it had slightly different wording, it followed the same thrust as the agreement with the UAE. Further, it had a longer underground timeline since, back in 2005, Bahrain had agreed to drop its boycott of Israel in exchange for a free trade agreement with the US. By 2017, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain even gave a talk to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angles where he denounced the Arab boycott and announced that his subjects were free to visit Israel.
Along with their growing cooperation in trying to limit both Iran’s nuclear and conventional military operations, these steps set the ground for their diplomats meeting at the security conference in Warsaw in February of 2019. Then diplomats met in a follow up session in the US in July. Dana Benvenisti from the Israeli foreign office was invited to join a working group on maritime and aviation security in Manama, Bahrain in October 2019. Less than a year later, the country signed onto the Abraham Accords.
Two other agreements have since followed, neither having anything to do with reinforcing common security interests and cooperation in opposing Iran. The Israeli agreement with Sudan followed next, only this time with the quid pro quo being the rescinding of Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terror. The announcement came after the normalization agreement and it was connected in the publicity to the “historic democratic transition.” But few doubt the connection between the normalization and the withdrawal of terror sponsorship status, a designation that goes back to 1993 and the support of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (who was overthrown in 2018) and a base of operations for Hamas, al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, as well as Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal.
There was another more explicit condition to the removal from the list of state sponsors of terror. The government of Sudan agreed to pay $335 million into an escrow account to settle claims by victims of the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen’s coast in 2000. The 9/11 families have opposed the concession of excluding Sudan from suits by the victims’ families it represents.
In the last few weeks, the agreement between Israel and Morocco followed. Unlike the other three countries, these two have openly shared policies and activities with one another for decades – in intelligence, military, political and even cultural areas. Many Israelis trace their roots back to Morocco. Though the deal was hailed as a “peace for peace,” it was really just normalization since Israel had never fought a war against any of these countries. But here again there was a quid pro quo, even though formally there were no strings or price tags attached. The United States signed a $1 billion advanced arms agreement with Morocco and became the only country in the world to recognize Morocco’s unilateral annexation of Western Sahara.
The signed agreement with Israel was met with street protests in the capital. Moroccan police in riot gear dispersed a group of activists demonstrating outside the parliament building in the capital, Rabat, to show solidarity with the Palestinians and reject the normalization of ties with Israel. But those protests proved to be the exception. On Monday, Arabs from the UAE and Bahrain lit Chanukah candles at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, did those candles light a new path or offer a fuse to explode the frustrations of Palestinians while they emboldened the Right in Israel to expand settlements and continue with creeping annexation since there was no longer a price to be paid? Or, whatever price was paid, it was paid by the Americans.
Canadians paid nothing and benefited enormously. In an historic and actually exhilarating event chaired by Shimon Koffler Fogel organized on Monday by the Canadian Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) entitled “Light Across the Middle East: A Celebration of the Abraham Accords,” a ceremony simultaneously lighting Chanukah candles in the UAE, Bahrain, Israel and Ottawa was held. Speakers spoke about the impact of the Accords, not only on the parties, but on Canada’s traditional role in foreign affairs as a middle power and a peace broker. The events fit Canada’s self-image.
H.E. Marcy Grossman spoke first. She is Jewish and spoke from the UAE where she serves as a Canadian ambassador. She is also a founding member of the Jewish Council of the Emirates. She thought the celebration was fitting for it signalled a real warm peace and a paradigm shift from the previous three No’s – no recognition, no negotiations, no peace – to three very definite Yes’s.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who is a member of the Knesset for the Blue and White Party, also spoke. I cannot recall when I saw her last, but whenever I do see her, I remember taking care of her as a baby when her father, Irwin Cotler, was running for president of what was then called the Canadian Jewish Congress in Montreal. I was supposed to be his campaign manager, But I quickly learned that I would be more useful – and enjoy it much more – to babysit Michal. For her, the ceremony was a recognition of the right of Israel to exist as a democratic Jewish state as the shared values of freedom, equality and justice were upheld. After all, Bahrain had explicitly endorsed the IHRA definition of antisemitism that explicitly identified the demonization of Israel as antisemitic. For her, tolerance and co-existence were the way forward.
H.E. Houda Nonoo spoke next. She is the former Bahrain ambassador to the US (with accreditation to Canada). She too is Jewish – yes, a Jewish ambassador from an Arab state, the first one posted abroad by any Arab state. Her presence, her role and participation said more than all the words uttered at the event.
Rabbi Yehuda Sarna from Jerusalem hailed the result as a consequence of diplomatic genius built on shared interests, but nor just interests, for it was not just a compact but also a covenant, a promise for the future, a people-to-people document. He also noted that it was the first international diplomatic event in which he participated where the women outnumbered the men and signalled the importance of women in forging real peace.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh and Yehuda Sarna both noted the symbolism of the title of the accords, named after the father of both peoples. They along with Marcy Grossman pointed to the Abrahamic House announced in September 2019 and already under construction on Saadiyat Island in Dubai that would include a mosque, a synagogue and a church. The project was initiated following the pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi. Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar from Egypt signed a declaration establishing an Interfaith Higher Committee of Human Fraternity.
I do believe we live in historic times. Michal announced that, henceforth, legislation had been passed making Arabic a compulsory subject in Israeli schools. Progressive cynicism was being superseded by coexistence, cooperation and mutual understanding. As Marcy Grossman said, Canada would now have a unique opportunity to develop strong ties with the region while serving as a witness, influence and honest broker to enhance these values. After all, there were already 40,000 Canadians in the UAE and many are Jews. They could show that economic interests and political ideals can be wed.