My Word: The Abraham Accord’s splendid past

Netanyahu's approach wasn’t as unprecedented as his many opponents claimed. The Oslo Accords were, after all, clandestinely created by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin behind Rabin's back.

ISRAELI AND UNITED Arab Emirates flags can be seen on a road in Netanya this week. (photo credit: FLASH90)
ISRAELI AND UNITED Arab Emirates flags can be seen on a road in Netanya this week.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
It was hailed as an “earthquake” – a tectonic shift in regional relations – and it certainly sent ripples around the world. But the announcement on August 13 that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to normalize relations in the appropriately named “Abraham Accord” threw me back in time as much as it had me thinking about the future.
Like most people – including Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi – I was taken by surprise by the news, but it was a pleasant surprise.
The Blue and White Party leaders, both former chiefs of staff, were understandably upset that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had kept them out of the loop before the peace treaty was announced – reportedly for fear that they would leak the story or torpedo it in some way. Netanyahu’s silence was less surprising than the deal itself. He doesn’t trust many people let alone political rivals. His approach wasn’t as unprecedented as his many opponents claimed. The Oslo Accords were, after all, clandestinely created by Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin with the help of academics Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak behind prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s back.
I was never a fan of the Oslo process: From the outset – covering the initial unfestive ceremony in Rabin’s office – I feared what the agreement’s name “Gaza and Jericho First” implied. Would the Golan Heights and Jerusalem be second, I wondered.
I always suspected that one of the main reasons Peres et al worked so hard to create the Oslo Accords was that they hated the thought that it would be a Likud-led government that would – again – go down in history as reaching a peace agreement. It is often overlooked that, apart from the peace treaty with Menachem Begin signed with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, it was the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir who albeit reluctantly agreed to the Madrid process launched in October 1991.
And this is where my memories of past and present merge.
In April 1994, just as the Oslo process was beginning to literally blow up with Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israeli buses, I got a taste of what real peace could look like. When an official Israeli delegation to multilateral talks on water traveled to the Sultanate of Oman within the framework of the Madrid process, I was one of the large delegation of Israeli journalists who accompanied them to the capital Muscat. I still cherish the Omani stamp in my Israeli passport.
We flew on an Egyptian airline via Cairo, avoiding the much shorter route that would have taken us over Jordan with which we still didn’t have a peace agreement. But the Jordanians and representatives of other Arab countries we met, particularly the Gulf states, were friendly. Most were excited about the possibilities that peace would bring, not only regarding water-related issues such as desalination and agricultural practices, but also on topics such as health.
The Palestinian representatives at the talks were attached to the Jordanian delegation. They didn’t have their own delegation and I noted that many of those from Gaza and the West Bank got on better with the Jordanians and Israelis than they did with each other.
The region was still recovering from the 1991 Gulf War. Our hosts in Oman were keeping a keen eye on Shi’ite Iran just across the clear blue waters and juggling to maintain good diplomatic relations with all their neighbors at a time when the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism was already apparent.
One of my strongest memories revolved around the topic of tourism. I recalled it for obvious reasons this week when, no sooner had the existence of the talks with the UAE been revealed, than Israelis began discussing the best places to go shopping in Dubai and dine in Abu Dhabi.
In 1994, Omani officials said they would welcome Israeli tourists but there was a problem. They couldn’t accept Israelis without accepting Palestinians, whom they didn’t want. They were afraid the Palestinians would make their homes there – as they had in Kuwait. The image of Palestinians cheering as Saddam took over the small, oil-rich country and launched Scud missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia was still a fresh memory, hard to put out of mind.
The key to regional peace at the time was considered to be Syria. There couldn’t be peace with distant countries in the Gulf until there was peace between Israel and its neighbors, starting with Syria, Omani foreign minister Youssef bin Alawi told the Israeli reporters. That was obviously many, many springs before “The Arab Spring” of 2011. Nonetheless, even without a formal peace agreement, relations with Oman and other Arab countries grew warmer. Oman and Israel opened economic representative offices in 1996. The relationship turned cold with the Second Intifada in 2000 when the Palestinians yet again launched a campaign of terrorism.
And that is why, although I am pleased at the new peace treaty, I am also wary about being too optimistic. The UAE is neither Jordan nor Egypt. It is not a neighbor and it was never a real enemy.
Understandings can turn into misunderstandings and friends can become foes. Just recall the excellent relations Israel once enjoyed with Iran (pre-Islamic Revolution) and Turkey (pre-Islamist Erdogan). Both countries this week condemned the Abraham Accord.
The statement issued on August 13 by US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (aka MBZ) read: “This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region.”
The Abraham Accord is a positive development rather than a game changer. The treaty might have been a secret but the relationship between Israel and the Emirates was not. The UAE is to be praised for having the courage to make the ties open and hopefully expanding them. It has yet to be seen which other Arab states will follow in the UAE’s footsteps or whether they’ll prefer to wait to see how this peace agreement comes to fruition and what gains can be made.
The Palestinian leadership – serial naysayers of peace – naturally condemned this latest move, too. Protest rallies were held in which portraits of Netanyahu, Trump and MBZ were defaced and set on fire. Hamas stepped up its ecoterrorism with some 50 incendiary balloons a day being unleashed on Israel and a couple of rocket attacks.
Netanyahu praised the agreement as changing the paradigm from “land for peace” to “peace for peace.” I’m not convinced. Clearly, the prime minister has decided to forgo the opportunity of extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
Gantz’s message that sovereignty can wait didn’t help. Neither did the divisions within the Right which made Trump’s Deal of the Century, including sovereignty, hard to apply.
The UAE deal could turn out to be a very mixed blessing if it is used as a threat rather than an incentive – if every Israeli action is taken under the shadow of a warning that the Emirates will recall their (future) ambassador, freeze or break ties.
Sovereignty is a sign of strength and it shouldn’t be sacrificed for a still unknown deal. The promise of the Abraham Accord takes us back to a good place – where we were before the Oslo Accords completely destroyed the Madrid process. But there is also a lot to lose. And, as we have seen, diplomatic relations can change for better  – or for worse.
The wind that one day causes an Israeli flag to flutter at a future embassy in Abu Dhabi could prove to be a fickle one. Recognition of Judea and Samaria is of long-lasting strategic importance. The message should be: “Carry on building peace, carry on building homes.” If Israel forgets its own connections to its ancient homeland, it can’t expect others to remember why the modern Jewish state exists.