Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Israel’s Rewarding Road to Normalization

A little over a year after the Abraham Accords, Israel and its new Arab partners are seeing dividends.

By , a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
Bahraini, Emirati, and U.S. leaders sign the Abraham Accords.
Bahraini, Emirati, and U.S. leaders sign the Abraham Accords.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington on Sept. 15, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

JERUSALEM—Buoyed by the progress of normalization with three Arab countries that could mark a change for the Middle East, Israel is beginning to think of itself as a key player on the global stage.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump sponsored the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020, and a separate declaration with Morocco followed three months later. The accords made official what had been covert security ties between nominal enemies and set the stage for full-fledged partnerships in security, economics, culture, and other realms. It was, for an administration star-crossed in its foreign policy, a rare success. And for Israel, it has provided a rare opening.

Other than belated peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and a failed interim self-rule deal with the Palestinians, Israel has been at existential war with most of the Arab world since its founding. But since the Abraham Accords, Israel has been trying hard to show that peace pays off, and it hopes to leverage its enhanced regional standing into far-flung gains.

JERUSALEM—Buoyed by the progress of normalization with three Arab countries that could mark a change for the Middle East, Israel is beginning to think of itself as a key player on the global stage.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump sponsored the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September 2020, and a separate declaration with Morocco followed three months later. The accords made official what had been covert security ties between nominal enemies and set the stage for full-fledged partnerships in security, economics, culture, and other realms. It was, for an administration star-crossed in its foreign policy, a rare success. And for Israel, it has provided a rare opening.

Other than belated peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and a failed interim self-rule deal with the Palestinians, Israel has been at existential war with most of the Arab world since its founding. But since the Abraham Accords, Israel has been trying hard to show that peace pays off, and it hopes to leverage its enhanced regional standing into far-flung gains.

“Apart from Syria and Lebanon, there is no other Arab country we’re not engaging with and which is not engaging with us,” said Eliav Benjamin, the Israeli foreign ministry’s Middle East department director.

Skeptics dismiss the accords as a mere mechanism for U.S. and Israeli arms sales and dealings with dictatorships that reportedly use Israeli spyware. Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack said Israel’s normalization was enabled by “Pegasus diplomacy,” referring to the export of Pegasus spyware manufactured by the Israeli company NSO, and similar technology that enabled harsh regimes to spy on their own people. For Mack, the security aspect of normalization is paramount.

But normalization has created a new world of opportunities for Israel to finally taste being part of the region in people-to-people terms. A Holocaust memorial exhibition has opened in Dubai, academic exchanges are underway with Morocco, and Israel’s Sheba Medical Center is providing health care in Bahrain. The siege of Arab enmity, which was undermined but not broken by earlier peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, appears to be retreating.

Even with Saudi Arabia, seen as the biggest prize, things are edging ahead, with Israeli companies cooperating with Saudi counterparts “in different ways, shapes, and forms,” Benjamin said, adding it would take more time for diplomatic ties to ensue.

Normalization—the creation of formal economic, diplomatic, security, and other ties—has changed Israel’s relations with part of the Arab world. But the question remains: Is formal Arab recognition an acknowledgement of Israel’s strategic prowess as a potential ally against Iran and its export of revolution? Or is it simply a sellout of the Palestinians who yearn to be free of Israeli occupation? Or both?

Israel is pleased with the way normalization is proceeding, even though analysts stress it is too early to tell whether it’s a honeymoon or something that will mature and endure. Israel, at least, feels emboldened. Projecting its influence from the Western Sahara via Morocco to Sudan—through its ties to the generals who led the 2021 Sudanese coup—to the Persian Gulf, Israel now increasingly sees itself as a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.

“It should be a no-brainer for the international community that we are not just a legitimate player but a key player,” Benjamin said. “Countries that were shying away are interested to hear what we have to say. In a tough neighborhood, we’ve met the challenges. Israel punches way over its weight, but rightly so.”

With its normalization partners, there have been few rifts over the Palestinian issue, just a one-off criticism by the United Arab Emirates in May 2021 over Israeli plans to evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, which were opposed by much of the international community. And then there is the Western Sahara, where the United States under Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed region in exchange for Morocco’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel. The Biden administration has not reversed Trump’s gift to Morocco, which made the Sahrawi people the orphans of normalization.

“We share the view of who the good guys and who the bad guys are,” Benjamin said, with the latter comprising Iran, its proxies, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State. 

For many Israeli Middle East scholars, until now forced to study their subjects mostly from afar, normalization has been more than a breath of fresh air. “An international subsystem in which one component is deemed illegitimate was an impediment to normal interactions and was not a healthy situation,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, professor of Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University.

In Morocco, the feeling is similar among a growing number of people. The two countries long had clandestine relations. And they have cultural and historical affinities too; Morocco was a haven and new home for Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the close of the 15th century. 

“People are happy [the relationship] is coming out of the closet. Relations are going to grow,” said Moroccan social scientist Mohamed Chtatou, who teaches at the International University of Rabat. A scholar of Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco, where adherents of each religion venerate the same saints, Chtatou is hoping normalization will enable him to become a visiting professor at an Israeli university. Most Israeli universities have reached cooperation agreements with Moroccan counterparts, Benjamin said.

In Dubai, former Emirati member of parliament Ahmed Obaid al-Mansoori was inspired by normalization to open the first substantial exhibit on the Holocaust in the Arab world. “I decided we should have not just political peace but compassion for one another and cultural exchange,” he said. “There is nothing like the Holocaust in terms of the magnitude of the crime against humanity and a religion,” he added, contravening a strong tendency to downplay or deny the Holocaust in the Arab world.

Israel’s most rapidly developing relations are with the Abu Dhabi, which Amir Hayek, the Israeli ambassador to the UAE, has praised as being an “open and tolerant” society that shares Israeli values. The UAE, for its part, has reciprocated by promoting a positive attitude toward Israel; a new textbook includes a story about a boy named Yossi from Tel Aviv who moves to the UAE with his family. Despite COVID-19, 300,000 Israelis visited the UAE last year, though tourism in the other direction has yet to develop.

Bilateral trade, including diamonds, reached more than a billion dollars last year, Hayek said, and the two sides were expected to complete negotiations on a free trade agreement by March. Hayek added there is potential for cooperation in food security, agro-technology, health care, and other fields. Meanwhile, Israeli companies view the UAE not only as a partner in its own right but as a springboard to penetrate other Persian Gulf markets. In May, Israeli financial services firm Rapyd is slated to open an office in the UAE that will employ Israelis alongside expatriates, including some from countries that do not have official relations with Israel.

Israel is also pleased with the way things are headed with Morocco. In November 2021, Morocco became the first Arab state ever to openly sign a defense memorandum of understanding with Israel during a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. For Morocco, Israel is buttressing it against Algeria, which it’s at loggerheads with, and any show of lingering resistance to its control of the Western Sahara.

But this relationship is not just about weapons and geopolitics. With Morocco replete with Jewish historic sites—many of which have been renovated by the government in recent years—and more than a million Israelis tracing their roots to Morocco, potential for tourism and cultural exchanges are vast. Two airlines are already making direct flights, artists have gone back and forth, and the national libraries of the two countries have inked a cooperation agreement.

Normalization with Bahrain is moving more slowly than with its close ally, the UAE, but Israel wants to give it a push because of its strategic setting and close ties to Saudi Arabia. The two countries have reached 12 economic agreements covering aviation, banking, technology, and water. In a sign of Israel backing the kingdom against Iran, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Bahrain in September 2021 and made remarks from aboard a vessel of the U.S. Fifth Fleet docked at its headquarters.

Although normalization has made Israel stronger abroad, it is also taking strategic steps closer to home to permanently rule the occupied West Bank, said Hagit Ofran, who monitors settlement growth for Peace Now. A new network of roads and highways under construction is transforming relatively remote settlements into places within easy commuting distance of Israel’s major cities, setting the stage for an increase in the settler population by hundreds of thousands of people, she said.

Israeli human rights violations are also increasing as demolitions of Palestinian homes reach their highest point in five years and a surge of settler violence remains largely unchecked by the government and Israel Defense Forces, rights groups said.

“These peace agreements come at the same time that Israel is continuing with occupation and killing Palestinians and demolishing their homes,” said Sami Hureini, a youth leader from the West Bank village of at-Tuwani. “Things are just getting worse. This is why we reject all normalization. It’s a betrayal by these Arab countries.”

Correction, Feb. 1, 2022: A previous version misstated Sami Hureini’s name.

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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