Israel’s announcement that it will soon open an office in Abu Dhabi recalls a period in the mid-1990s which demonstrated some promise about the possibility of Israeli ties to the Arab world.
When considering those ties, the right place to begin the discussion would be the Camp David agreement and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The Israeli-Jordanian treaty of 1994 could be considered either the bookend of that effort begun in Jerusalem and Cairo, or the beginning of a second—and what appeared to be promising—stage in Israel’s relations with the Arab world. In the wake of the 1991 Madrid Conference, which openly brought Israelis and Arabs into the same room together, a number of Arab countries opened “offices” in Israel. Included among them were Morocco, Oman, Tunisia and Qatar. Little publicity surrounded the presence of these offices, which were not embassies or consulates, per se. They were billed primarily as “trade representations.”
The post-Madrid period produced other important results. India, which had diplomatic ties with Israel since 1950, upgraded its relations to full ambassadorial status. That “era of good feeling” also produced the relatively short-lived “multilateral talks” aimed at moving forward a nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Indeed, no less than 11 Arab states participated in these discussions, on such topics as economic development and the environment. In addition to the core participants—Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians—the multilaterals included 26 other countries (primarily from Europe and Asia) and several agencies of the United Nations.
I recall visiting Tunisia with a B’nai B’rith mission in December 1994 where, coincidentally, the Arms Control and Regional Security multilaterals were being held in Tunis. There was a real sense that a diplomatic and psychological Rubicon had been crossed, with Israelis and Arabs mingling and talking alongside diplomats from key members of the European Union and Asian economic giants.
Though Saudi Arabia participated in the multilaterals, I have always believed that had Riyadh not been a fence-sitter at a crucial moment, had it taken the leap and itself opened an “office” in Israel, we might have been much further along on the road to some kind of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation than we were then—or certainly are, today. Had the Saudis sent a clear message in that direction by actually opening an office or some other demonstration of cooperation, the Palestinians (who were certainly major recipients of Saudi largesse in those days), might have had to sit up and take notice.
Instead, the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinians pushed away intense efforts to strike a deal in the closing months of the second Clinton Administration. That rejectionism, in turn, fueled the Second Intifada, which took 1,000 Israeli lives in a paroxysm of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
That then began a regression from the once-promising steps on a path toward normal relations with the Arab world, culminating in the abrupt closure of the Moroccan, Qatari, Omani and Tunisian offices in Israel in the wake of the Second Intifada.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that if the Israeli-Palestinian problem could be solved, all other Middle East issues would fall into place. But looking back, it suggests that the Palestinian leadership had no serious interest in any deal that was not zero-sum in its favor.
Fast forward to 2015. The decades-old Arab fixation on the Palestinians has faded rapidly in some quarters with an ascendant and threatening Iran and the rise of ISIS. Iran’s hegemonistic designs on the region have created palpable apprehension in a number of Arab capitals, generating an important commonality of interest between Israel and some of its Middle East Arab neighbors.
Hamas makes no bones about calling for Israel’s destruction. The Palestinians are divided into two warring camps, in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinian leadership in the latter seems unwilling, or unable, to move toward a free and fair negotiation with Israel. The shibboleth that solving the Palestinian issue would fix all of the region’s problems has given way to a Sunni-Shiite fight-to-the-finish in one country after another in the region. The Arab Spring has become a misnomer, now commonly derided as the Arab Winter. Big powers now compete in Syria, as the old World War I-era borders are erased in a blaze of religious-secular warfare. New definitions of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ are being written daily.
From all of that comes the announcement of the Israel office in the UAE. It will not be a diplomatic mission; instead it will be a representation among some 144 countries who sit at the International Renewable Energy Agency, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi.
This is not something that was done in the dark; announcements about the office have appeared and have been reported on everywhere. Where this welcome development will lead is not clear; it may just end with this; or, it may foretell a return to the promise of the mid-1990s, which began with the Madrid Conference.
There is clearly now a realization in some places in the Arab world that, contrary to being a threat, relations with Israel can serve everyone’s interest, and not just on the threat posed by Iran. Arab states have squandered decades in which, had they widely accepted Israel, they could have created a different environment in the region. But that need not be the case going forward.
As chaos grows in the region, some important things, fortunately, seem not to be spinning out of control.