The historic news that the United Arab Emirates will become the third Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel follows more than a quarter-century of engagement between AJC and Arabian Gulf leaders.

While the move came as a surprise to many, UAE leaders have been dropping hints for months—including twice during groundbreaking public conversations with AJC.

In May, UAE Ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh appeared in a rare public dialogue with AJC Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer Jason Isaacson on a variety of issues, including Israel’s place in the region.

A month later, at AJC Virtual Global Forum 2020, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash said that international cooperation to confront the pandemic  opened opportunities to de-escalate tensions and resolve conflicts through diplomacy. He spoke specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and ongoing threats from neighboring Iran.

“I think we can have a political disagreement with Israel and try to bridge other differences,” he said.

“These were not accidental comments,” Isaacson said Thursday after the historic announcement. “They were obviously part of a long-considered process of looking for an opening. It was a logical progression of years of increasing contact…mostly under the table.”

But friendly exchanges and overtures have become more public in recent years. In 2018, Israel’s culture and sports minister visited the UAE and toured its grand mosque; the Israeli communications minister spoke at a telecommunications conference in Dubai; and “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, was played when an Israeli athlete won gold in a major judo competition in Abu Dhabi.

In February, an Israeli cycling team rolled through Dubai as part of the UAE Tour. And in May, the first commercial flight from Abu Dhabi touched down in Tel Aviv carrying humanitarian cargo for the Palestinian Authority. Israel has been slated to participate in Expo 2021 in Dubai and the country maintains a mission to the UN International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. The UAE is also home to a small but thriving Jewish community, which AJC helped coalesce over more than a decade.

Now, the third-ever peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state – after Egypt and Jordan – is in preparation. It will open the door for direct flights, security cooperation, business ventures and mutual embassies.

It also opens the door a little wider for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Isaacson said. As part of the agreement, the Israeli government’s plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank have been suspended. While leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain praised the agreement, the Palestinian Authority called it a “despicable decision” and recalled its ambassador to the UAE. 

But UAE leaders insist that the country still backs the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for full diplomatic ties between Israel and the entire Arab world in exchange for, among other things, the establishment of a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that agreement includes “positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations.”

“The Emiratis are clear in their own announcement that they see this step, this open engagement, as helping the Palestinians,” Isaacson said. “It’s the argument we’ve been making in the Gulf for 25 years: Isolating Israel and pretending Israel doesn’t exist doesn’t help the Palestinians. The only path forward is through negotiations, and through building trust.”

Isaacson has been taking AJC delegations to the Gulf since Jordan signed its peace treaty in 1994 to “open doors and open minds about the prospects of relations and cooperation with Israel.” During those trips, conversations have centered on the benefits to the entire region offered by cooperation in security, medical and irrigation technology, and trade.

AJC’s quiet but consistent dialogue with the UAE and other Arab countries has helped prepare the ground for greater engagement with Israel.

“We’ve brought many friends to these countries who have made this case,” Isaacson said Thursday. “Will the people of the region start thinking about Israel in a different way? I truly believe so. If the public sees and reads about the benefits, the unlimited potential, of peace, it will speak in a new voice, and governments will listen.”

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