The intuitive sense among almost all commentators is that the U.S.-brokered peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced last Thursday, is “big” and reflects a real change.
It might be objected: Israel has already concluded peace agreements with other Arab countries — Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994. In both those cases, after decades, the peace remains “cold,” with large majorities in both Egypt and Jordan still intensely anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. True, wars between Israel and Arab states have stopped, but the Middle East remains a violent cauldron and Israel remains embroiled in conflict with Iran and its terror proxies.
The terms reached so far between Israel and the UAE include language about a normalization of relations — but so did the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties. And while Israel and those countries now collaborate in major ways in the security and economic domains, normalization hasn’t come close to happening.
This time, though, it already appears to be different.
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The few days that have passed since Thursday’s announcement, with no formal treaty drawn up and signed yet, have already seen these developments:
The Israeli company TeraGroup signed an agreement with the Emirati company — APEX National Investment — to conduct coronavirus research. Communication will also be a lot easier now that the UAE has opened its phone lines to Israel and stopped blocking access to Israeli websites.
The accord between the countries is supposed to include direct flights, less than a three-hour journey, though that could require approval from Saudi Arabia to use its airspace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday work was underway to establish the flight paths.
Already, one of Israel’s most popular singers, Omer Adam, said he has received a personal invitation to visit from a member of the royal family and that plans are being made for him to stage a concert there.
And with about 200 Israeli companies already doing business with the UAE, Israel’s Economy Ministry estimates that “the normalization could see Israeli exports to the UAE reach an annual $300-$500 million. UAE investments in Israel were predicted to amount to up to $350 million a year.”
A flurry of reports say that other Arab countries — Bahrain, Oman, Sudan, even Saudi Arabia — are next in line for peace and normal ties with Israel. Top Israeli officials say they’re in “advanced talks with Bahrain,” and a U.S. official says Bahrain and Oman will “normalize ties with Israel in the near future.”
Another possible objection: Isn’t this all a temporary alliance against Iran, which threatens both Israel and Sunni Arab states, particularly the Gulf states? Won’t it all crumble once the Iranian threat recedes?
For one thing, that may be all too theoretical for the time being. Even after years of intense economic pressure from the Trump administration, of having to crack down brutally against an embittered population, the regime in Tehran appears to stand firm. Holding a monopoly on power and exercising it savagely, while being fired by a fanatic religious ideology, will do that for a regime. And if Joe Biden is elected, the ayatollahs’ fortunes will improve.
Second, Tehran and its axis aren’t the only threat to Israel and Sunni Arab states. There’s also the radical Sunni axis broadly encompassing Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. Even without the ayatollahs, the Middle East harbors malignancies that can push Israel and moderate Arab states together.
Having said all that — yes, the optimism and enthusiasm sparked by the Israel-UAE peace deal could be overblown. The UAE — small, technologically developed, intensely interacting with the West — could be a special case. “Peace” deals with additional Arab states, if they happen, could be flimsy, fading when the geopolitics change.
What it boils down to is whether the moderate Sunni Arab states will continue in a path of rationality. In this context, rationality refers to moderately authoritarian regimes that don’t attack others or sponsor terror organizations, while seeking accommodation and mutually beneficial cooperation with the West including — however overtly or covertly — Israel. And without undue concern for the self-pitying, non-constructive Palestinians.
The Israel-UAE deal embodies such rationality and offers hope that it’s on an upward curve. The U.S., the Europeans, and the Israelis strongly endorse the deal and will encourage the positive trend. The rest is up to the Arabs themselves.