Well, well, here’s a picture you don’t see every day, or at least you didn’t use to see every day: Israel Air Force commander Mag.-Gen. Amikam Norkin at the Dubai Air Show in conversation on Sunday with Commander of the United Arab Emirate’s Air Force Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Nasser Mohammed al-Alawi and senior Jordanian Air Force officer Gen. Mohammad Fathi Hiyasat.
Put that photo in context for a moment.
Here is the head of the Israeli Air Force, loathed in wide swaths of the Middle East for its sorties over Syria and Gaza and its vaunted ability to project Israeli power, meeting in the open in an Arab country with counterparts from the UAE and Jordan. The head of Germany’s air force, Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, was also in the picture, but there is nothing remarkable about that.
Now, one may argue, what’s the big deal: Alawi himself was in Israel at the end of October participating in the Blue Flag military drill. True enough, and this itself attested to the remarkable changes sweeping the region.
But a meeting with the Jordanian general in broad daylight? When was the last time the public saw that?
The Israeli military is not exactly a crowd favorite in Jordan. Neither, by the way, is it loved by the Egyptian street.
Yet a week before the Norkin photo was circulated by the German Air Force, the IDF spokesperson’s unit released a photo of senior IDF officers meeting their Egyptian counterparts in Sharm e-Sheikh to sign an agreement allowing more Egyptian troops into northern Sinai.
The IDF would not have released that photo – even though both the Israelis and Egyptians were out of uniform – without the consent of the Egyptians; and the Egyptians would never have consented in the recent past.
Though the security cooperation between Egypt and Israel is strong, with IDF officers meeting their Egyptian counterparts frequently, Cairo was always keen to keep this out of the public eye. Why emphasize this cooperation when Israel in general, and the IDF in particular, are not overly popular among Egyptians?
Yet, amazingly enough, these two photos will pale in comparison to what the public is expected to see next week, when Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, makes an official visit to Morocco to speak about defense cooperation.
Gantz has ministerial authority over the Israel Defense Forces, which on television screens in houses in Morocco and across the Muslim world is often referred to as the “Israel Occupation Forces.” Yet he will be welcomed in a country that continues to pledge fidelity to the Palestinian cause.
It was one thing for Egypt and Jordan – as well as other countries in the Arab world that did not have diplomatic ties with Israel – to hold discreet talks for decades with IDF officers and officials in back rooms. This they would do quite readily. But it was quite another to do so in the open, with cameras clicking.
The Abraham Accords in 2019 changed that dynamic. What these accords brought was a willingness on the part of Arab countries with whom Israel now had diplomatic relations to bring these ties – including military and intelligence ties – out into the open.
All of a sudden the Israeli Air Force commander meeting with counterparts from the Arab world is not rare, but part of the architecture of the Middle East. All of a sudden the Israeli defense minister visiting an Arab state is routine.
The importance of these meetings being documented by the camera is twofold.
First, it sends a deterrent message to common foes, such as Iran. And second, it signals to the Arab public that this type of cooperation is good and nothing to be ashamed of or hidden. It removes the stigma of cooperation with Israel – makes it normal and habituates the public to the idea.
One of the problems with Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan has been that despite close cooperation at the top, Cairo and Amman wanted to keep it in the dark. As a result, the peace did not filter down to the public and remained in the rarefied air of discreet military-to-military consultations. Making these meetings public, shining a light on them, is one way that peace begins to seep down from the top.