Welcome to a Brand-New Middle East
Israel’s pacts with the UAE and Bahrain go far beyond the tenuous “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan. They could even help end the conflict with the Palestinians.
It’s a brand-new Middle East. Within the span of only a month, the United States has brokered peace between Israel and two Arab countries—first the United Arab Emirates, then Bahrain. Both deals are revolutionary in scope: By normalizing ties and focusing on business, trade, and travel, these “warm peace” agreements go beyond the often tenuous “cold peace” that Egypt and Jordan made with the Jewish state decades ago. Not only do the UAE and Bahrain deals set the stage for a sea change in Arab-Israeli relations, but they might even present a novel opportunity to finally solve the most intractable issue between the two sides: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ties between Israel and the Gulf have grown exponentially in recent years. Underpinned by the common threat from Iran, what began as whispers of covert intelligence cooperation gradually transformed to increasingly public signs of amity. Gulf leaders have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, Israel’s flag has flown at sporting events, and Israeli officials have been allowed to visit. This process culminated in last month’s UAE-Israel deal, which seeks to break a major taboo in Arab-Israeli relations by establishing deep bilateral ties not just between Israeli and Emirati officialdom or security establishments, but between their peoples. That deal provides the necessary cover for other Gulf states to follow suit.
Critically, because the UAE and Bahrain are regional business hubs, the two peace deals will facilitate people-to-people interactions between growing numbers of Israeli visitors and hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers from across the Arab and Islamic world—including Iranians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians—whose home countries have hostile relations with Israel, if any. Even if the process will be incremental, creating a space for these populations to interact with each other for the first time as real human beings—away from hostilities, mutual recriminations, and governmental propaganda—will have a revolutionary impact on all sides, and on regional peace.
The new peace deals thus remedy a critical deficiency of Israel’s earlier agreements with Egypt and Jordan. To be sure, Israel’s historic 1979 peace agreement with Egypt remains an unassailable benchmark for ending Arab-Israeli wars by removing the Arab world’s most populous and powerful nation from the conflict. Without that critical change, no subsequent agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors might have been possible. But that peace—and its 1994 successor with Jordan—remains a cold one, confined to strong security coordination and a smattering of economic deals. Dependent on the survival of regimes of questionable longevity, such a peace is perpetually vulnerable to regional and domestic vicissitudes.
This was most obvious during the brief Arab Spring in 2011, when the Egyptian revolutionaries who deposed Hosni Mubarak labeled him an “agent of the Jews”—and later stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo after Israeli forces mistakenly killed three Egyptian soldiers during a border clash with Islamist militants.
Israel’s peace deal with Jordan—which, like the UAE deal, formalized decadeslong clandestine ties—has experienced similar volatility. The July 2017 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Amman, and the case of Ahmed Daqamseh, the Jordanian soldier who shot and killed seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997, are two of the more tragic examples. Popular calls to annul the treaty are routine, and official relations ebb and flow in tandem with Israeli-Palestinian tensions. In 2019, Amman terminated an Israeli lease of a Jordanian border enclave due to lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, and this year even it mulled canceling their peace treaty altogether if Israel annexed West Bank territories.
The new normalization deals are different. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, said that his country wants a “warm”—and therefore more durable—peace with Israel, which he said should be a “two-way street” with “people-to-people movement.” He was echoed by Ali al-Nuaimi, another senior Emirati official, who said the deal is a “peace message, not a political treaty.” He stressed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not hinder Emirati-Israeli peace—not “even a war with Gaza.”
Demonstrating their seriousness, the Emiratis have followed through with a flurry of steps to deepen relations with Israel. They have concluded an agreement on medical research and development related to COVID-19, signed an Israeli player for Dubai’s Al-Nasr soccer team, inked a film and television cooperation agreement that plans to establish a regional film festival, sent direct flights to Tel Aviv, and allowed open visits by Israeli journalists. There is great interest in expanding tourism, but that will depend on Israel lifting its coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Gargash said that these kinds of mutual exchange will interlink the two countries and permanently end the “belligerent state of affairs” between them.
Bahrain sounded a similar note, casting its normalization decision as something that would “strengthen Bahrainis’ security and their economic stability.” Bahrain’s normalization announcement is particularly important because such a decision likely would have needed Saudi Arabia’s approval, indicating tacit acceptance of normalization even if Riyadh’s public support has been muted. Bahrain’s deal also raises the possibility that Saudi Arabia might be persuaded to sign one of its own, even with the political sensitivities and constraints that Riyadh faces due to public hostility toward Israel.
This dramatic break with the old pan-Arab consensus—which predicated any normalization of relations on a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians—reflects a sea change in the Gulf states’ approach to the Palestinian issue. No longer is the Palestinian cause at the center of Arab countries’ politics, as was reflected in the Arab League’s refusal of a demand by the Palestinian Authority to condemn the UAE-Israeli deal. Despite continued concern for the Palestinians, some Gulf states seem to have tired of the Palestinian Authority’s obstinacy and rejectionism in its dealings with Israel, and now they’re opting to flip the old equation: Normalization with Israel is seen as the first step to secure Palestinian rights.
If Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE play their cards right, their agreements could have a positive impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations and accelerate progress toward a two-state solution. Under the aegis of this deal, Abu Dhabi and Manama could act as a moderating force on Palestinian politics and society, edging out malign actors such as Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, which have stoked the Palestinian rejectionism that feeds into the Gulf’s frustration and Israeli hesitation to offer concessions.
Currently, the Palestinians are angry, having been urged by their backers to view these deals as a stab in the back. But over time, this can be mitigated. Israel could facilitate Emirati aid and investment in Gaza and the West Bank in order to both counter Iranian, Qatari, and Turkish efforts and enable the UAE to position itself as an alternative mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, goodwill gestures and concessions from Israel—brokered by the Emiratis and Bahrainis—would demonstrate to the Palestinians that these Gulf states are capable of delivering on legitimate Palestinian rights and demands. In time, this could lead to the rise of a more moderate and responsible Palestinian society and leadership that could be a more willing peace partner to Israel.
But peace is a two-way street. To facilitate the UAE’s and Bahrain’s emergence as interlocutors with the Palestinians, Israel must—as Nuaimi urged—“directly approach the Palestinian people” and demonstrate the positive impact that these peace deals will have on them.
The first step is for Israel not just to suspend, but to halt permanently its promised annexation of certain West Bank territories, including the Jordan Valley. The messaging on this issue has been inconsistent: While the Emiratis have said the peace deal would “stop further Israeli annexation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted annexation is merely “on hold,” pending further coordination with the United States.
Indeed, Israeli intentions on the future of annexation remain unclear. Some Likud party insiders claimed that Netanyahu had already frozen the annexation process before the deal was reached. But as Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White movement remains shaky and the specter of a fourth Knesset election in less than two years looms, Netanyahu might use the annexation card to consolidate support from his right flank—both within and outside of Likud—in order to remain prime minister and form a more stable future government. At the moment, Netanyahu is vulnerable to a right-wing challenge because of his turnaround on annexation, and because he is seen as undermining Israel’s zealously guarded military edge by lifting its objections to the United States’ sale of F-35 fighter aircraft to the UAE. Whether Netanyahu will actually proceed with annexation or permanently renege on it remains unclear. If he does move forward, he will not only impede any moderating influence the UAE or another peace-minded Gulf state might have on the Palestinians but also embarrass the governments that told the world, and their populations, that an end to annexation was what Israel brought to the table for peace.
There are other pitfalls as well. There is no timetable for finalizing further concrete agreements on the various kinds of cooperation that have been announced. This could not only cloud the process of implementing normalization but also give fodder to the naysayers for casting their aspersions.
Many technical details remain in the air, and the region’s volatility is no source of comfort. But despite the caveats and remaining questions, the Emirati and Bahraini agreements with Israel remain nothing short of revolutionary. They upend decades of stifling status quo and fruitless political orthodoxies that have failed to advance the cause of a genuine, positive peace—not merely the absence of conflict—for the region’s war-weary inhabitants. The deals plant the seeds for a societal sea change and reveal how regional geopolitics have undergone a decisive shift. In time, the Gulf’s embrace of Israel could even encourage Egypt, which welcomed the deal, and Jordan, which did so more tepidly, to move toward a warmer peace with the Israelis. In that, the agreements should be praised for being truly game-changing, laying the groundwork for genuine Israeli-Arab friendship, and signifying the long-awaited acknowledgment of each other’s humanity.
Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on the Persian Gulf. Twitter: @varshakoduvayur