Just over a year ago, I attended an amazing summit in London, of Arab representatives from many countries in the Middle East. Constituting themselves as the Arab Council for Regional Integration, the men and women spoke fondly of the Jewish communities they had once housed, of Jewish food and music, and passionately about the boycott of Israel, saying it was doing nobody any good.
What these people – who included a politician who was the nephew of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – all wanted, they said, was to re-establish relations with Israel. The younger people were curious to meet their Israeli counterparts; some of the older participants had faced acute and sometimes life-threatening hostility from their governments, because of their attempt to build bridges.
I wrote a lot about this summit but, it must be admitted, more in hope than anything else. I knew how slowly the tectonic plates shifted in the Middle East. I’d been one of the first across the border when the peace treaty was signed with Egypt, but watched it degenerate into cold peace and the too frequent freezing of diplomatic relations; I covered the signing of Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan and saw that fracture, too, characterised by serious mistrust by the Jordanians of Israel and again, a time lag in the appointment of ambassadors.
And yet here we are in the otherwise disaster year of 2020 and the totemic negatives are falling like dominoes, as one country after the other makes a pragmatic decision about how to live with Israel in their midst.
In September, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, followed by Sudan. This week, both Morocco and the kingdom of Bhutan announced they were ready to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
Already we have seen a number of “firsts” unthinkable when I covered the London summit, held in conditions of great secrecy, a year ago. This week, an Orthodox Jewish wedding was held in Dubai – although no one was forthcoming enough to identify the bride and groom by name. It has also been announced that the Dubai Jewish community – and just think about the impact of those three words, and what it means for them to be referred to aloud – will open a Jewish primary school early next year, to cater for the children of the estimated 1,000 Jews now living in the Emirates.
Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor, British-born Fleur Hassan-Nahoum (who grew up in Gibraltar and studied law at Kings College London), took advantage of the Chanukah break to holiday in Dubai with her family. Young Bahrainis and Emiratis have been leaping at the opportunity to visit Israel, some taking selfies on the steps of the Temple Mount, others fixing to see their technology counterparts so that they can exchange high-tech information.
It helps, of course, that neither the UAE nor Bahrain has ever been in direct military conflict with Israel. Morocco has had a relatively back-door warm relationship with Israel, not least because it still has a flourishing Jewish community – but Israelis have not been able to visit the country as individual travellers until now, which is likely to change.
And the big question mark still hangs over what the Saudis might do next. Publicly, everyone is saying they want the Palestinian situation to be resolved before they go any further. Practically? Let me put it this way, a year ago no one, even the dreamers at the Arab summit in London, thought events would move so fast.
Herzl, I think, got it right. “If you will it, it is no dream”.