September 15, 2023
The following article, by Marc Sievers, Director, AJC Abu Dhabi: The Sidney Lerner Center for Arab-Jewish Understanding, originally appeared on Trends Research.
September 15 marks the third anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords on the White House lawn, an occasion that American Jewish Committee (AJC) is delighted to celebrate with our partners across the region.
These remarkable agreements, establishing normal relations between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, represent the most significant breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy in decades, ending the prolonged period of stalemate in Arab-Israeli relations that followed the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process and setting a new paradigm for peace-making. Not long afterward they were followed by the announcement of the establishment of normal relations between Israel and Morocco.
Benefits of the Accords
Part of the successful formula for the Accords is attributable to the way the new relations with Israel were crafted to meet the varying needs of the parties. For example, the UAE achieved an agreement to freeze an Israeli government plan to annex much of the West Bank as well as a U.S. commitment to include the UAE among the small group of countries eligible to buy the F-35 fighter aircraft, even if the Biden administration has set new conditions for the sale of the aircraft which the Emiratis have not accepted (U.S.-UAE discussions on this issue are ongoing). Bahrain focused on a closer security relationship with Israel in the face of ongoing Iranian threats, and in February 2022, the two countries’ defense ministers signed a security cooperation agreement; a visit to Manama by Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on September 3-4 reportedly focused in part on advancing a free trade agreement between Bahrain and Israel.
Morocco sought a side agreement from the United States recognizing its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently addressed in a letter to King Mohammed VI in July. Israel gained a new set of Arab diplomatic and economic partners and a powerful new narrative about the benefits of recognition and cooperation that continues to push back against calls for boycotting and demonizing Israel. The United States, for its part, demonstrated anew its diplomatic prowess and essential mediating role while contributing directly to the region’s peace, security and prosperity.
The Abraham Accords have ushered in a new era of trade and investment, tourism, technical cooperation in energy, scientific research, water desalination and desert agriculture, and state-of-the-art medical technology. The COP28 climate conference in Dubai later this year will provide an opportunity to highlight the most advanced Israeli technologies, including sustainable energy and water use, and open new avenues of environmental cooperation. Between the UAE and Israel, the trade statistics speak for themselves: according to official Israeli data, trade of goods (excluding software) in the first seven months of 2023 reached $1.84 billion, an increase of 30.45 percent from the previous year. Trade between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and Morocco is at much lower levels, but the trends are upward.
Regarding tourism, according to the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, Israel is the eighth-largest source of tourists to Dubai and the ninth largest to Abu Dhabi, despite Israel’s relatively small population. Many commentators have noted that tourism among Abraham Accords countries largely flows in one direction, but estimates suggest almost 40,000 tourists from the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco are expected to visit Israel by the end of this year. Considering that these are countries that had no formal relations or officially approved contacts until three years ago, this range of peaceful engagements among Israelis and Arabs is truly remarkable.
A New Era of Jewish-Muslim Dialogue
A historic process of reviving the once-rich Jewish contribution to the region’s Islamic civilization is underway, separately but in parallel to the development of normal diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. A thriving Jewish community is growing rapidly in the UAE, under the benevolent protection of the Emirati authorities. Attracted by the UAE’s economic dynamism and openness to talented experts and entrepreneurs of all backgrounds, Jews representing many nationalities and streams of Jewish religious practice are making the UAE their home. Bahrain has built on the presence of the Gulf’s only indigenous Jewish community to revive Jewish life and restore the use of the kingdom’s century-old synagogue.
Jewish visitors to the UAE and Bahrain from the United States, Israel, and Europe are amazed to see the flourishing Jewish life that has blossomed just in the past few years. Many Jews note that they feel safer and more secure wearing a kippah or a Star of David necklace in public in Dubai or Abu Dhabi than they would in New York, London or Paris. The opening of the first purpose-built synagogue in almost one hundred years took place in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, while the traditional synagogue in Manama’s old market has been renovated and reconsecrated. Both these developments took place with the blessing of the UAE’s and Bahrain’s royal families. These are developments of great significance that portend a new spirit of mutual respect and dialogue between Jews and Muslims, in sharp contrast with the well-documented wave of antisemitism that plagues Jewish communities around the world.
At the opposite end of the Arab world, Morocco has long protected and preserved its Jewish community and now welcomes tens of thousands of Israeli tourists a year. Ties between Israel and Morocco are profoundly enriched by the hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews of Moroccan and other Maghrebi origins who cherish their North African roots and traditions.
New channels of dialogue and interaction are blossoming between Jews and Muslims in the Abraham Accords countries but also in the United States, Europe and elsewhere around the world. Increased understanding and engagement between Jews and Muslims promise to have a global impact, even as increased migration, economic stresses and social media conspiracy promotion have contributed to rising antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred. This is our challenge: to redouble our efforts to promote dialogue and understanding and to reject ignorant and hateful stereotypes.
The Changing International Context
Since the signing of the Accords three years ago and the message of hope they sent around the world, we have also witnessed a rise in international conflict and tension. At the time of the signing of the Accords, tensions between the United States and Iran were at their peak. Many American and Israeli analysts saw the Accords as part of an effort to build a regional anti-Iran coalition, but this was always a misreading of the motivations of our Gulf partners, whose primary strategic goal is the maintenance of peace and stability.
With the support of the United States and Europe, India has embraced the new opportunities for cooperation represented by the Abraham Accords. The I2-U2 bloc of India, Israel, the UAE and the United States is all about benefiting from the new opportunities for increased trade and investment linking India with Israel and the Gulf, with the full support of the U.S. The I2-U2 is not a security bloc and its members do not share a common foe. Instead, they are focused on maximizing the development of strong trade and investment relationships among all four countries, with an emphasis on food security and high-tech investment.
The latest dramatic development is the signing at the G-20 summit in India of a Memorandum of Understanding on the Principles of an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor or IMEC, which will “stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe,” according to the White House announcement. The idea is to build a railroad network to connect regional supply chains much more efficiently from India to Europe and vice versa. The railroad network will include cable for electricity and digital connectivity and also lay pipe for hydrogen export. While still at an initial stage, participants are scheduled to meet within two months to develop and commit to an action plan with timetables and presumably funding plans. This kind of future-oriented mega-project linking Israel with the Gulf and Jordan could not have been considered seriously before the Abraham Accords introduced a new vision of regional cooperation.
Iran at a Crossroads
Despite the new spirit of cooperation, Iran’s policy of confrontation continues to pose a challenge. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now engaged in separate diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions with Iran, the outcome of which will have long-lasting implications for international peace and security. Iran has an opportunity to demonstrate it is prepared to live in peace with its Gulf neighbors and cease its incessant efforts to undermine their stability and security – a posture called into question by Tehran’s march toward near-nuclear threshold status.
Even if diplomacy produces a period of relative calm in the Gulf, Iranian threats against Israel continue to rise. Iran’s efforts to surround Israel with a vast arsenal of ballistic missiles stockpiled by Iranian proxies are incompatible with a policy of non-aggression in the Gulf. Sooner or later, provocations by Iran’s proxies will trigger a devastating Israeli response that may not be limited to Lebanon and Syria. Further developing a Gulf-Israel early-warning network, combined with a deepening, discrete regional security dialogue, will help contain Iranian aggression and ensure that Gulf efforts to reduce tensions are successful.
The Impact of Israel’s Governing Coalition
I am often asked how the formation of Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition has affected the Abraham Accords. It would be disingenuous to ignore the impact of the coalition’s far-right elements on Arab attitudes generally and among the Abraham Accords partners specifically. Yet, it is essential to note these are agreements between states and not specific governments, and as mentioned earlier, trade, investment and tourism are all continuing to grow. The current Israeli government may serve its full term, or it could fall due to a number of unforeseen developments, including the tensions within Israel over the government’s efforts to change the balance of power between the judiciary and the legislature.
Israel’s stability and reliability, along with its dynamic tech sector and military and intelligence capabilities, are key to understanding the attraction of engaging it, despite the risks of condemnation and rejection by some. Israel has too much at stake to allow itself to descend into sustained unrest.
A broadly accepted, reasonable way forward on Israel’s judicial overhaul is a strategic necessity. I am confident that Israelis, government and opposition alike, have the good sense to recognize this reality and will find a way to reach consensus. As they do so, we will see the Abraham Accords as pointing the way to a more peaceful and prosperous future for the entire Middle East, including the Palestinians, should they decide to take advantage of the emerging opportunities.