Israel’s normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain caught the world by surprise, even Israeli diplomats who maintained under-the-radar contacts with Arab countries, but the initialing of the Abraham Accords changed the paradigm that dictated for more than half a century the dynamics of the region.
“We were surprised by the timing of the announcements, without warning. We were not aware but it was something we had been working on for years. It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Eliav Benjamin, director for the Middle East at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told Efe news agency.
Sponsored by former US President Donald Trump, the agreements were signed on September 15, 2020, in a solemn ceremony at the White House by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan and his counterpart from Bahrain, Abdullah bin Rashid al Zayani.
It was Trump himself who announced on Twitter on August 13, 2020, totally unexpectedly, that Israel and the UAE would normalize relations; a procedure he repeated on September 11 with Bahrain; announcements that were made official a year ago today, with the signing of the Abraham Accords, to which Sudan and Morocco later joined.
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A major first step towards peace in the Middle East
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid recently stated that Israel is negotiating for more countries to join the Abrahamic covenants. Diplomatic sources confirmed that Israel maintains some kind of contact with the entire Arab world except Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, which includes officially designated “enemy” countries such as Iraq.
The Abraham Accords broke the Arab consensus of not tying ties with Israel until the creation of a Palestinian state, but respond to the need to forge a common front against Iran, a nuclear power seen as a threat by both Israel and several Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. Even without formal ties, the shadow contacts between the Jewish state and the Wahhabis are an open secret.
“No one has forgotten the Palestinians, on the contrary. The past decades have benefited no one and the agreements open up new opportunities for them as well, who can take advantage of increased trade and investment,” Benjamin noted.
On the Palestinian issue, Eytan Naeh —chargé d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and incoming ambassador to Bahrain— assures that it should not be an obstacle to forging ties with more Arab countries and gives as an example “the important discrepancies” that Israel maintains with Egypt and Jordan on this issue, without this having broken the relationship established in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
“The more Arab countries normalize relations with Israel, the more issues can be put on the table. The Arab world is moving away from a more emotional approach to the conflict to a more practical one,” he said.
Trade relations are growing
Beyond political issues, the agreements have already paid off economically, with Israel’s trade with the Arab world multiplying by 234% in the first seven months of 2021, with the Emirates leading the way.
Naeh, who led the diplomatic mission that first landed in Abu Dhabi in January to cement the relationship, confesses to being “enthusiastic about the synergies achieved in such a short time”: “we already have embassies, bilateral trade exceeding $600 billion, 230,000 Israeli tourists visiting the UAE and dozens of agreements in high-tech, innovation, water treatment, food safety or medicine”.
After getting the Israel-UAE relationship back on track, Naeh is awaiting the Bareinian go-ahead to move to Manana, while Bahrain’s envoy to Israel, Khaled Al Jalahma, yesterday presented credentials to Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
“I am convinced that the relationship with Bahrain will be as fruitful as with the UAE,” Naeh said, four days after the opening of direct Manama-Tel Aviv air routes, a key step in boosting business exchanges.
On that flight for the first time to Israel was Barein diplomat Houda Nonoo, a former ambassador to the United States and one of the driving forces behind the Abraham Accords, whose signing she attended a year ago in Washington as the only Jewish ambassador from an Arab country.
“At the heart of the agreement is the desire to create a new Middle East, built on peace and prosperity for all,” said Nonoo, a native of Bahrain’s Jewish community, the oldest in the Gulf, settled in the late 19th century.