The costs and benefits of Arab-Israeli normalization on the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords

WASHINGTON DC: Two years ago this week, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalized the peace agreements they reached with Israel the previous month by signing the Abraham Accords at the White House, in a ceremony overseen by US President Donald Trump.

While Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Abdullatif Al-Zayani, the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain respectively, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put their signatures to the document on September 15, 2020, the moment was hailed as the start of a new era. diplomacy in the Middle East.

As part of the deal, Israel said it would suspend its plans to annex the occupied Palestinian territories. Sheikh Abdullah said the UAE remained committed to a two-state solution and its support for the Palestinian cause was “unwavering”.

The prospect of immediate economic and diplomatic benefits prompted Sudan to normalize relations with Israel in October 2020. The North African country became a signatory to the Abraham Accords in January 2021, around the same time it was removed from the list of US state sponsors of terrorism.

Morocco normalized relations with Israel two months after Sudan, with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signing a security agreement with his Moroccan counterpart in November 2021. Israel recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in exchange for the link building.

Two years after the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the White House lawn, it is now possible to assess some of the outcomes of the agreement, such as how it affected bilateral relations and who will benefit from it. most, logically and dispassionately.

Besides diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation, Israel and the signatories of the Abraham Accords were to collaborate on a number of common interests, including energy, agriculture, tourism, security and technological innovation.

Israeli and Bahraini government officials have been interacting publicly since the agreements were signed. Israel has started importing aluminum from Bahrain, and the two countries are considering signing an agreement that allows transshipment of goods arriving by sea in Bahrain onto planes bound for Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) greets Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani upon his arrival for the Negev summit, in Sde Boker in the southern Negev desert on March 27, 2022 (AFP/File Photo)

Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, then foreign minister, made the first ministerial visit to Bahrain, where he inaugurated the Israeli embassy in Manama. In February this year, Gantz became the first Israeli defense minister to officially visit the Gulf country. He was accompanied by several senior military and security officials, including the head of the Israeli navy.

Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Bahraini counterpart, formalizing a security relationship that his office said would “help advance intelligence cooperation, a framework for exercises and cooperation between the defense industries of the country”.

Gantz’s visit came as the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, launched its biennial international maritime exercise 2022. The Israeli Navy took part in the exercise, publicly joining Arab and Muslims with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations. .

With regard to Morocco and Israel, the two countries cooperate today in areas such as education, tourism, cross-border investment, renewable energy and security. Morocco has a strong Jewish tradition with many historic Jewish buildings, monuments and cemeteries, as well as the largest Jewish community of any Arab country. Israel, meanwhile, is home to one of the largest communities of Moroccan expatriates.

The Israeli and Moroccan flags are pictured during an official ceremony in Israel’s Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv. (AFP)

An 84% year-on-year growth in Morocco’s trade with Israel to $41.6 million is seen by the two countries as the start of a valuable new trade relationship. Israeli technical know-how combined with capital from Abraham Accord partners Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates could accelerate Morocco’s efforts to diversify away from fossil fuels.

In contrast, the comprehensive agreement between Israel and Sudan has yet to come to fruition due to instability and the October 2021 coup. In May, the Biden administration suspended development aid, to trade and investment in Sudan, including food aid linked to its normalization agreement with Israel, such as wheat shipments.

As expected, trade and commerce between Israel and the UAE have flourished since the normalization of relations two years ago. In May this year, the two countries signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement which is expected to boost bilateral trade to over $10 billion within five years and add $1.9 billion to the UAE’s gross domestic product. 2030.

On June 27, Amir Hayek, Israel’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, said in a post on Twitter that the total trade volume between the two countries for the first five months of the year reached a value of 912, $1 million, compared to $399.5 million during the same period. period of last year.

Palestinians and other activists raise national flags against Israeli security forces, during a protest against Jewish settlements. (AFP)

Israel and the United Arab Emirates have also signed multi-billion dollar deals in medicine, bilateral investment and space travel over the past two years.

In July, the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and India announced the formation of a new bloc, I2U2, with the aim of strengthening technological collaboration in the region and addressing transnational challenges in six areas main ones: water, energy, transport, space, health. and food security.

Tourism between the UAE and Israel has also grown rapidly since 2020. Commercial flights between the two countries began in November 2020, with daily flights introduced the following year. Tourism websites aimed at attracting Arab visitors to Israel encourage them to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, in addition to the Museum of Islamic Art.

The flow of tourists in the opposite direction has been even greater. Between 2020 and 2021, around 230,000 Israelis visited the United Arab Emirates, despite pandemic restrictions.

Abu Dhabi’s then-Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (left) received Israeli President Isaac Herzog (2nd left) in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. (AFP)

The increase in tourism between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, however, has highlighted the wide chasm between the two societies. In August, multiple Arab and Israeli media reported that Israeli police briefly arrested two Emirati tourists after a shooting in Tel Aviv.

Although the two men were released and received apologies from the police officers who arrested them, many social media users suggested that the Israeli police racially profiled the tourists, mistaking them for Palestinians. A Twitter user said that “if you are Arab, Israel will always treat you as a suspect”.

The alleged arrest of Emiratis is not the only reason Arabs around the world wonder whether normalization agreements will encourage extremists in positions of power in Israel to take a more reasonable stance toward Palestinians and holy sites in Israel. Jerusalem.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador to London and Washington, has expressed doubts that Arab normalization efforts with Israel will lead to improved Palestinian rights.

“The Palestinian people are still occupied; they are still imprisoned by the Israeli government. Attacks and killings of Palestinians take place almost daily,” he told the Arab News talk show “Frankly Speaking” in May.

“Israel’s theft of Palestinian land continues despite Israel’s assurances to signatories to the UAE-Israel peace accord. So there is no sign that appeasement of Israel will change its attitude.

In July, citing a poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which asked people in Arab countries what they thought of Arab-Israeli normalization, Emirati scholar Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said that Emiratis see the process of normalization in a negative light. The 2022 poll found that only one in four Emiratis surveyed saw improved ties as a positive development.

Looking ahead to the signing of the Abraham Accords, Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, writing on the Israeli news site Ynetnews, said: “In the UAE and in a much of the Arab world, we would like to believe that Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy. We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer bonds. Israel’s decision on annexation will be an undeniable signal as to whether it sees things the same way.

The flags of the United Arab Emirates and Israel fly at Expo 2020 Dubai. (AFP/file photo)

Two years later, after two military offensives against Gaza, few Arabs probably have the illusion that the normalization initiatives under the Abraham Accords have changed Israel’s behavior, let alone ended its policy of annexation of Palestinian lands.

The Arab League’s repeated calls for an end to Israeli violations of the sanctity of Jerusalem’s holy sites, an end to the violence and a return to calm seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

The attacks by Israeli security forces on Muslim worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the authorization of Jewish prayers at the holy site are seen by the Arab League as a blatant provocation against Muslims around the world.

Taking part in a September 8 discussion organized by the Atlantic Council think tank to mark the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords, Al-Otaiba called for more to be done to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Israeli conflict. Palestinian.

“Everything we talk about is great, but we can’t avoid talking about the two-state solution. We really can’t,” he said at the virtual event, during which he described the Palestinians as “the elephant in the room.”

Referring to the Abraham Accords, Al-Otaiba said, “I don’t think it was meant to resolve – I think it was meant to gain space and time to create room for diplomacy to address the two-state solution. I still believe that the two-state solution is the only game in town. I think we have to continue.”