Israel and Saudi Arabia could be moving toward closer ties, as the two-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords approaches. This is an important development because it shows that the legacy and fruit of the accords are continuing to grow.
However, at the same time, there are many challenges in the region. Iran and its proxies are on the march, holding countries hostage, such as Lebanon. That means Israel can’t even come up with a maritime boundary with its northern neighbor, even with the US backing the mediation. Israel’s coalition government chaos and tensions with the Palestinians also threaten to do some harm to Israel-Arab relations.
In early July 2020, during the pandemic, the first hints of Israel-Gulf ties began to show themselves. These hints had been around for a while, as commentators and experts noted that Israel, the UAE and Bahrain had shared interests. There was also talk of how Israel and Saudi Arabia shared some views in the region.
This historic move by the Gulf was part of a multi-decade process. Israel had some relations with Gulf countries in the 1990s. In addition, Saudi Arabia floated a peace proposal in the early 2000s. However, it stipulated that the Jewish state would have to withdraw from the West Bank in order to achieve peace.
What changed was that movement toward peace became possible due to the Trump administration’s push for a peace deal, and the UAE and Bahrain deciding to move forward. Bahrain would have been the first to make peace, but the small country needed backing. The UAE had an independent foreign policy and was able to move the ball to the peace end zone.
Another context of this was the fact that Israel hadn’t achieved new peace deals since the 1990s. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was a move toward peace by Egypt and then Jordan. In addition, there was similar movement by Tunisia, Morocco and some other states.
The end of the Cold War took the wind out of the sails of anti-Israel states – and Iran had not yet expanded its power in the region. But the rise of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and extremism in the region put some peace ideals on hold. In addition, the Second Intifada and the inability of Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace deal put other deals on hold.
US officials such as then-secretary of state John Kerry wanted to hold out the chance for peace by pressuring the Gulf to pressure Israel to make peace with Ramallah first. But the Obama administration failed, and the Trump administration was willing to rewrite the rules. What slowed down its work was the Netanyahu administration and its endless elections, which began with the political chaos in late 2018.
BY 2020, despite the antics of the Netanyahu administration, the Abraham Accords came to fruition. Foreshadowing began with an op-ed by the UAE’s ambassador to Washington in an Israeli newspaper and cooperation regarding COVID, as well as humanitarian flights. This was symbolic.
For instance, an agreement was reached in July 2020 by the Abu Dhabi-based Group 42 with Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to develop breakthrough technology solutions for COVID-19. “Israel Aerospace Industries entered a historic collaboration agreement with Group 42, a company based in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE,” a statement noted. “The collaboration between the two companies will cover research and development of solutions that may help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The agreement was signed between IAI’s ELTA Group via a videoconference call between Israel and the Emirates. In the call, representatives of both companies discussed ways to leverage AI and other innovative technologies, including lasers and sensors, to develop COVID-19-focused systems. The solutions, as well as the joint medical and technological initiatives, are meant not only to help the populations of both countries but also to aid in the global battle against the COVID-19 pandemic and improve the healthcare situation of the entire region.”
Yoav Turgeman, IAI VP and CEO of ELTA, said that “IAI is excited to sign the collaboration agreement with our Abu Dhabi partners.”
Two years later Israel and the UAE signed a free trade agreement. This could be huge, eventually covering billions in trade.
Dorian Barak, co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, praised the new trade deal. “UAE-Israel trade will exceed $2 billion in 2022, rising to around $5b. in five years, bolstered by collaboration in renewables, consumer goods, tourism and the life sciences sectors,” he said. “Additionally, Dubai is fast becoming a hub for Israeli companies that look to South Asia, the Middle East and the Far East as markets for their goods and services. Nearly 1,000 Israeli companies will be working in and through the UAE by year’s end. It’s unprecedented.”
IN THE last two years there have been many milestones in the aftermath of the accords. These include trade and defense deals, inter-religious and interfaith coexistence initiatives, the symbolic celebration of Jewish holidays in the Gulf and the blooming of new Gulf Jewish communities. In addition, there is a lot of talk about how green technology and food security are important for the region, and how Israel and the UAE can partner on initiatives. With the Ukraine crisis unfolding, the supply chain crisis continuing in the aftermath of COVID and fears about food security, there is a plethora of issues that Israel and its Gulf peace partners can now work on.
The real benefit
But the real benefit of the peace deals has been the renewal of Israel’s ties with Egypt and Jordan. Talks with Cairo and Amman have enabled these ties to come into the open after many years where relations with Jordan were tense and cold. In fact, more than two decades after the Jordan-Israel peace deal of the 1990s, there was real concern that things were going in the wrong direction. The Abraham Accords look to have improved ties with Amman, even though issues in Jerusalem continue to stymie real friendship. With Egypt, on the other hand, there is much closer cooperation with the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Further afield, Israel-Morocco ties have also grown by leaps and bounds. Israel-Sudan ties have also increased, but there is concern in Khartoum that Israel is not cementing these relations. Sudan also has political troubles in its attempted transition from a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to democracy.
However, the role of Saudi Arabia in Sudan and also in Egypt has important ramifications for Israel ties. Riyadh backs these countries having closer ties to the Jewish state.
Toward that end, the Saudis appear to be doing more outreach as well. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 6 that Saudi Arabia was moving toward eventual ties with Israel. This comes as US President Joe Biden appears to have postponed a trip to the two Middle East countries. Riyadh is trying to balance closer ties to Israel against reducing tensions with Iran and the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.
Another aside to this is that Jordan and Egypt are working more closely with Iraq. In turn, the UAE is working more closely with Syria. Syria and Iraq are enemies of Israel, at least according to their government propaganda. The Syrian regime is weak these days, so Iran can use Syria to move weapons to Hezbollah. Iraq has even passed a new law instituting the death penalty for anyone who suggests normalization with Israel. A conference last year that suggested peace with Israel became very controversial in Iraq.
In addition, Iran has attacked Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan autonomous region, claiming to be targeting the “Mossad.” This comes amid new Iran-Israel tensions, as the Islamic Republic accuses Israel of an assassination in Tehran and reports that a drone targeted Iran’s Parchin military complex. Iran has vowed revenge and may even target Israelis in Turkey.
Ankara, meanwhile, has been working to reconcile with Israel, as well as with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. One could read this as being related to the Abraham Accords, which Turkey initially opposed; but Ankara’s real interest in reconciliation is economic, not about peace.
AS WE survey the region two years after the accords, we can see many changes. The importance of the growing Israel-UAE-Bahrain relationship is clear. Also, Israel’s move to be within US Central Command’s area of operations is important because the accords enabled Washington to work closely with Jerusalem in the region, rather than doing so via European Command as in the past. Now Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and the US can train together in the Red Sea.
In addition, Israel’s close ties with Greece and Cyprus tie in with Athens working more closely with Egypt and the UAE.
Further afield, Egypt backs the Libyan forces that control eastern Libya, as the country continues to be divided as it has been since 2011. Turkey has backed the government in Tripoli, and rivals continue to clash in Libya.
The point is that the Israel-UAE-Bahrain relationship now ties into the operations of US Central Command’s naval component NAVCENT and this has huge ramifications for the region. USCENTCOM’s new head, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, was recently in Israel, where he saw the country’s large Chariots of Fire drill. That drill is all about preparing for possible confrontation with Iran and Iranian-backed proxies such as Hezbollah. Israel also did massive training in Cyprus as part of the drill.
Here we see how Israel has carved out a new depth of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. This has Hezbollah so angry that it threatened attacks on June 5, as Lebanon complained about Israel gas exploration.
Suffice it to say that Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Yemen and Iraq – all the countries where Iran has proxies – will not be moving toward peace with Israel. Probably neither will Algeria, Libya or Tunisia. But Israel has had brief, recent ties with Oman, after then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2018 visit there.
It remains to be seen what will happen with Saudi Arabia, but overall the growth of ties appears to be running in a positive direction. Tensions over Jerusalem as well as Hamas attempts to sabotage Israel’s relations will continue. But many countries now understand that groups like Hamas exploit these tensions.
This is another major outcome of the peace deals as well. There is more positive coverage of Israel in the region. Most of the media in the countries Israel has peace with are pro-government, which is favorable to the accords because it means fewer governments are pumping out official anti-Israel propaganda. Considering that several decades ago this was not the case, that means a new generation can be raised with more amicable views of both Israel and Jews in general.
The official slogan of the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen is “Death to Israel, curse the Jews.” For years, Western diplomats and media would have accepted such hatred as the ways things work in the region. Today we can see, across a swath of the region, that open hatred for Jews and Israel has been reduced. Jerusalem’s ties with the Gulf matter greatly in this respect, helping to rewrite decades of antisemitism in the Middle East.