18 Aug 2020 19:31 IST

Israel-UAE diplomatic ties could forever change the Arab world

Tel Aviv City Hall lit up with the flags of United Arab Emirates and Israel as the countries announced they would be establishing full diplomatic ties. Oded Balilty   -  AP

It could bring about peace and stability in the region long riven by war and strife

There are 22 nations in the Arab League. Seventeen of them — Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen — refuse to recognise that the State of Israel even exists.

I know about the hatred that is at the core between Israel and these countries, first-hand, in some ways. As a naturalised US citizen on an assignment in Israel in 1999, my US passport had multiple Israeli stamps as I had travelled in and out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. I returned to the US later that year. But four years later, my company asked me to travel to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a different project.

The travel agency processing my Visa application to the Kingdom returned the passport saying it was unusable because it had proofs of prior visits to Israel. I was made to obtain a new passport with no Israeli stamps on it. Indeed, on the new passport application, there was a box that I could check indicating "prior travel to Israel" as a reason for my requesting a new passport, despite my current passport being valid. My new passport, with a brand new Saudi Arabian visa, arrived in the mail three weeks later.

Mutual suspicion

In fairness, the suspicion is mutual. It is almost impossible to get through Ben Gurion immigration if your passport has proof of travel to any Arab country. The Israeli concern is based on the indoctrination in the Arab world against the Jews.

Generations of school children in these countries, going back to Israel’s independence in 1948, have studied maps that show the entire territory of the State of Israel as still erstwhile Palestine. Even today, religious schools continue to teach children extremely prejudiced and negative views about Jews. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, when he was running for president, famously said, “They have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?”

So it was an earth-shattering development when President Trump announced last week that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to normal diplomatic relations, including allowing travel between the two countries.

The last agreement between Israel and an Arab country was in 1994 when King Abdullah of Jordan opened his Hashemite Kingdom to the Jewish state. That was the year when President Bill Clinton brought Israel and Palestine together to sign a peace deal. Yitzhak Rabin and Simon Peres of Israel, and Yassir Arafat of Palestine all shared the 1994 Nobel Peace prize.

The first and only other agreement between Israel and an Arab state was in 1978. Urged on by President Jimmy Carter, Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, of Israel, agreed to establish embassies and start full diplomatic relations. Given the anti-semitic history of Egypt and the wars that it had led against Israel, the Camp David accords helped lower tensions in the Arab world. Both leaders won the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.

But peace between Israel and the Palestinian territories has eluded the region since the Oslo Accords of 1994. Matters got out of hand when Israel’s Ariel Sharon deployed troops to the West Bank and Gaza in 2003 to quell rocket and mortar attacks by the Palestinians. Since then, there have been numerous false starts, but the two peoples have never been more divided.

Endemic corruption

Arab nations, going back to Israel’s founding, have continued to use the oppression of the average Palestinian as a proxy for their disgust of the Jewish state. Palestinians have no airport or land border of their own, so they depend upon Israel to regulate all flow into and out of the Palestinian Territories. Poverty is rampant and corruption is endemic. Foreign aid that trickles in doesn’t always go to those for whom that it is intended.

And there’s Iran. For four decades since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought in Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran has actively tried to influence geopolitics in West Asia. The eight-year Iran-Iraq war brought human tragedy and destruction as chemical weapons were used. Iran controls Hezbollah, a designated terror group in Lebanon, with tentacles in Syria, causing strife in both nations. Iran powers the Houthi rebels in Yemen to fight an unwinnable battle against the Saudis. Iran has openly called Israel a cancer in the region that has to be eliminated.

As younger leaders began to take over Arab Sunni states, they recognised that the real threat to regional peace was not Israel, but actually Iran. Becoming friends with Israel had the benefit of further strengthening relationships with the United States, still the military guardian in the region. Besides, there were upsides to trading with a rich, technologically advanced country like Israel, rather than attempting to placate the Mullahs of Iran.

West Asian stability

President Trump and his unconventional West Asia strategy - of strengthening relationships with Israel and the Sunni Muslim states - while throttling Iran to force change has brought about remarkable stability in West Asia. He also unconventionally partnered with Russia to eliminate the terror group ISIS and Al Baghdadi, its cruel leader.

When Trump pulled America from the five-nation Iran Nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2017, pundits predicted mayhem. In 2018, when Trump had the United States formally open its embassy in Jerusalem, the Jewish state’s capital city, critics erupted in anger. And in December 2019, when Trump had Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general, killed, critics predicted an apocalyptic situation.

None of these predictions have come true. In fact, the chance for peace in the region has never looked better.

If the UAE can see the benefit of a deal with Israel, other similarly minded states, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could follow too. A crack in the Arab League’s unilateral support of the Palestinian cause for over 60 years could finally force the Palestinians to make genuine concessions to Israel, which has consistently said that it is willing to trade land in return for peace in what amounts to a genuine two-state solution. Even a Palestine-Israel peace accord, the Holy Grail of international diplomacy, is now not unimaginable.

But, soon as the elements of the new agreement between Israel and the UAE are implemented, the world can see El Al aircraft parked in Dubai, and Etihad and Emirates planes in Tel Aviv. Devout Sunni Muslim citizens from the UAE can travel to Jerusalem to offer prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third-most holy shrine in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. Meanwhile, Jews can bring technological expertise, in areas such as desalination and drip-irrigation, to the arid regions of the UAE.

Such seismic changes in the Arab world are rare. And because they are so rare, the potential exists to transform the region, rooted in medieval ideologies for centuries, away from endless war and strife, into a more tolerant and accepting community of nations.