Even if one ignores some of the exaggerated claims surrounding the ceremony on the White House lawn heralding the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, there is no doubt that the event marks a watershed in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in taking a significant step to end Israel’s regional isolation, which was always a major aim of the Zionist enterprise.
The agreements, dubbed the Abraham Accords, make the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain only the third and fourth Arab states to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, following the example of Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
The breakthrough marks the end of the broad Arab consensus centered on the Saudi-lead Arab Peace Initiative, first adopted by the Arab League in 2002, which called for normalization with Israel only after the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinian veto on Arab states pursuing relations with Israel has effectively ended.
The two Gulf states and Israel will exchange ambassadors as soon as is possible, and a whole host of bilateral cooperation agreements are in the pipeline.
Marc Zell, the head of Republicans Overseas Israel, who was in Dubai the day after the signing ceremony, said the atmosphere was incredible.
“I’ve never encountered anything like this and I’ve traveled a lot through the Arab Middle East. Everybody I’ve met, from ordinary people to high government officials and business leaders are really psyched. I deliberately walked around here with a kippah on my head and I’ve had absolutely no negative reaction. It’s really quite extraordinary. I hope it’s a portent of things to come and if it is we’re in for a very bright future.” He says Emiratis are eager to visit Israel.
“Everybody says they can’t wait to come over and they want to know when direct flights will begin. They’ve never met Jews or Israelis before, and they are hungry to learn about us, to see Jerusalem and the night life in Tel Aviv.” Just before the September 15 signing ceremony, during a meeting with Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump indicated that “five or six more Arab states” would also establish relations with Israel, a number he later raised to seven to nine, but declined to name the countries. He said he expected Saudi Arabia to also establish ties, adding it would come “at the right time.” Trump was naturally keen to play up the diplomatic achievement with the November election only weeks away. However, despite the rhetoric, there was little indication that other Arab states were about join the “circle of peace,” although both Oman and Sudan were mentioned as possibilities for those next in line.
Saudi Arabia remains the key regional player, and it is doubtful that the UAE, and certainly Bahrain, would have agreed to normalization without the blessing of Riyadh. But the Saudis have indicated that they are still not ready to take such a step themselves at this juncture.
“After decades of division and conflict we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump told the crowd of hundreds gathered on the White House lawn. “We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history,” he added.
Netanyahu also spoke of the historic significance of the breakthrough with Abu Dhabi and Manama.
“This day is a pivot of history; it heralds a new dawn of peace,” he said. “This is a not a peace between leaders, but a peace among peoples. This peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately, it can end the Arab-Israel conflict once and for all.” Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, thanked Israel for “halting the annexation of Palestinian territories,” in a reference to the plan to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank as part of the US Middle East peace plan. “Today, we are already witnessing a change in the heart of the Middle East – a change that will send hope around the world,” Al Nahyan said.
Bahrani Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani said his country would stand with the Palestinians.
“Today is a truly historic occasion,” he said. “A moment for hope and opportunity. Today’s agreement is an important first step and it’s now incumbent upon us to follow up with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.” Israel and the UAE pledged in the agreement to continue efforts to achieve a comprehensive and realistic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there was no mention of the two-state solution.
A stark reminder that the Palestinian issue hasn’t gone away came in the middle of the ceremony, when rockets were launched from Gaza at Ashdod, followed by further salvos at Gaza border communities the following morning.
The Palestinian leadership remains firm in its opposition to normalization of ties with Israel prior to solving the conflict.
“Peace, security and stability will not be achieved in the region until the Israeli occupation ends,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement after the White House ceremony.
The grandiose “Deal of the Century” remains stillborn, and instead we are left with the Abraham Accords – without doubt a significant diplomatic breakthrough but an achievement that falls to deliver an allusive Middle East peace. Some analysts believe that Abu Dhabi and Manama can now act as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians, but such a scenario will likely have to wait until the aging Abbas is replace by a more pragmatic Palestinian leader.
For Netanyahu, the Abraham Accords mark his most significant diplomatic achievement, and is likely to be remembered as his historical legacy. But for most Israelis, the event will be remembered as a temporary, albeit welcome, distraction as the country grapples with its most serious health and economic crisis ever.
The Israeli delegation arrived home just before the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as Israel entered its second coronavirus lockdown. With the highest infection rates in the world and hospitals facing the real prospect of being overwhelmed, the prime minister doesn’t have the luxury of basking in his diplomatic achievement.
Confined to home over the entire period of the High Holy Days s and with unprecedented unemployment, the glittering towers of Dubai and Manama seem a million miles away for the average Israeli.