By Avi Poster
It’s been awhile since I last opined about Israel in The Observer. Like so many of you, Israel is never far from my thoughts. I awake each morning angst-ridden to read the Israeli news of the day, which too often provides a pallet of concerns. I am deeply worried that the latest reign of terror in Israeli streets, skirmishes on Temple Mount, or episodes of violence in the Occupied Territories could again ignite dangerously blazing flames difficult to extinguish. I quiver thinking what it means that two of the latest terrorist acts within Israel were perpetuated by Israeli-Arab citizens. I am concerned that the recent resignation of a member of the ruling coalition in the Knesset could topple or neuter the political order carved out by Prime Minister Bennett and Alternate Prime Minister Lapid which has led to a far more orderly and functional government and accommodations in the territories that have tampered unrest. I am concerned that Israel’s cautious posturing regarding Russia’s heinous attack on the Ukraine will create fissures in its relationship with the West and, in the end, will not deter Russia from restricting Israel’s needed access to the airspace over Syria that Russia controls or deter Russia from aiding Israel’s enemies. Being an optimist, I trust that Israel will navigate its way, at some cost, through these troubled waters, as she has so often in the past.
Amidst all my worry, lies something rather impressive and applause-worthy that gives me hope for the road ahead: that is the success of the Abraham Accords. The foundation for the Accords was first laid by the Obama administration, then wisely advanced and nurtured by the Trump administration. The original tripartite agreement signed by Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates quicky morphed into new, formalized and strengthened relationships with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, even Turkey. Hopefully more countries will follow including Saudi Arabia, the sought after “crown jewel,” whose reluctance may change as its fear of Iran increases.
Under the structure of a Joint Business Council, the Accords have birthed economic ties that are now flourishing in technology, agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, and more. Trade and tourism between previously sworn enemies have suddenly soared dramatically, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Arabs flocking to each other’s shores. Thousands of containers loaded with consumer goods are being ferried between ports. Think-tanks and universities have signed cooperation agreements, Israeli and Arab athletes are competing against each other, diplomats are sending each other love notes regularly published in the press. Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that this would be the case?
Of significant note to me, the apex of the success of the Accords came this past month with the convening of the Negev Summit. Hosted by Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid, it was attended by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken alongside of the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco (the symbolism of this summit being held at Sde Boker, home to David Ben Gurion, is worth noting). Pulling the Summit together was a brilliant move by Lapid, who is proving to be an able Foreign Minister. Realizing that Secretary Blinken was coming to Israel, he seized the moment by organizing the Summit in just a few short days. Invitations were made informally without diplomatic fanfare (giving participants room to decline without losing face), and all who were invited agreed to attend on a moment’s notice with the exception of Jordan. Unquestionably, the Summit was made for great headlines and optics; but it also elevated Israel’s and Lapid’s stature as a convener of nations on the world stage. The agenda was purposely left open to discussion on a whole range of issues. It produced heralded, substantive results with the formation of six new working groups to advance cooperation in energy, tourism, health, education, food, and water security.
I am particularly pleased that while not a centerpiece of the Summit agenda, the floor was opened to explore the “elephants” in the room: conversations on peace and security in general, the Palestinians and Iranians specifically. To his credit, Secretary of State Blinken opened the Summit reminding attendees that the Accords are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis and that future meetings had to include discussions on how Accord members can best work together to create the conditions for a two-state agreement. Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry, Moroccan Foreign Minister Bourita, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Zayani echoed Blinken with similar remarks. While Lapid was less forceful, he clearly committed to keeping the door open to invite and include the Palestinians in future talks.
Some concluding thoughts:
Without question, the Abraham Accords are a diplomatic breakthrough and historic milestone for Israel’s recognition and acceptance by its regional neighbors. Remarkably, and against all odds, the Accords were reached without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front first being realized, something previously considered impossible.
It is abundantly clear that while the Accords have strengthened Israeli-Arab economic and business ties, gains on the political-military front have yet to materialize. Arab members of the Accords want Israel to sell it arms while Israel wants the Arab world to bolster the Palestinian Authority and decrease Qatar’s influence in Gaza.
There is a long way to go before normalization between Israel and its neighbors will positively impact on the end of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I am hopeful that sustained and strengthened relationships between countries reflected by an increased presence in Israel of Arab bloc diplomats and citizen tourists, will plant seeds that will grow into peace.
One thing we can all agree on is that the region is far better, much safer, to live in when neighbors cooperate with each other, rather than threaten each other. As naïve as I may be, I am praying that the U.S. and Israel can leverage the economic and diplomatic successes gleaned so far from the Accords and the Summit into continued conversations, formidable opposition to threats from Iran, and the attainment of my image of the “Holy Grail,” peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We can only hope that the Accords will be the catalyst that turns “swords into plowshares”.