The surprise announcement on August 13, 2020 of UAE’s deal with Israel sent shock waves pulsating across the Muslim world. The novel message ‒ novel in being promulgated publicly for the first time ‒ was “Israel is not our enemy; it can be our friend and partner.” That message was, of course, far from novel to the leaders of the region, with whom Israel has been engaged in active and fruitful cooperation for many years ‒ the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan.
In other quarters, the message fell on deaf ears. The deal was instantly condemned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the two giant nations that together half embrace the Arab world: Turkey and Iran. These countries are not natural allies. Adherents of Islam they both may be, but Turkey is a Sunni Muslim state while Iran, claiming leadership of the Shia Muslim world, seeks to dominate the whole. Significantly, neither is an Arab nation ‒ which doesn’t inhibit either from meddling in intra-Arab disputes. Iran is engaged directly and by way of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon; Turkey is currently intervening in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, to say nothing of picking a fight with Greece and Cyprus by undertaking energy exploration in their territorial waters.
And yet, despite Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, taking every opportunity of denouncing Israel on the world stage, trade turnover between Turkey and Israel in 2019 was an all-time record, topping $5.8 billion.
In fact active cooperation by the Muslim world with Israel, if often covert, is extensive and could provide a firm base on which to develop the collaboration implicit in the UAE-Israel deal.
For example, ever since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president of Egypt in 2014, Egyptian and Israeli forces have been acting in close collaboration, countering jihadist assaults in North Sinai aimed at overthrowing the regime and reinstalling a Muslim Brotherhood administration.
The position of Saudi Arabia towards Israel has changed remarkably in the past few decades. Despite both countries’ efforts to keep their relationship under covers, there are well-documented reports of extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic and intelligence collaboration. Indeed in an interview in 2018, Saudi’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, extended to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a whole, the idea of active association with Israel. The GCC is comprised of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. Until August 13, none had diplomatic relations with Israel.
Even so, there was that surprising trip in October 2018 by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman ‒ a trip that was kept secret until after it had happened. Like most Arab countries, Oman did not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
As for Qatar, a “gentleman’s agreement” with Israel seems to have existed for a good few years. Qatar is a firm supporter of Hamas, and has been pouring money into its coffers. Much ‒ but not all ‒ is earmarked for humanitarian and infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip, and also to pay for fuel, meet the salaries of civil servants and provide aid to tens of thousands of impoverished families. Israel has made no effort to curtail this supply of ready funds, some of which have doubtless been applied to uses of which Israel would not approve. It is estimated that Qatar has supplied Hamas with about $1 billion since 2012, and that Israel has, if anything, encouraged its largesse.
Cooperation between Israel and Jordan is regulated by the peace treaty of 1994. Adjacent neighbors, the two nations work closely together on a practical basis, while maintaining their opposed political stances. These joint initiatives extend from security to lucrative commercial agreements, from gas supplies to communications to Jordanian control of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
As for the newly-forged UAE-Israel deal, something of the sort might have been foretold back in November 2019 when Israeli athlete Alon Leviev won gold in a ju-jitsu contest in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the 7-emirate federation that is the UAE. He not only received the gold medal beneath the Israeli flag, but Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, was played across the arena. Just a few years ago all Israeli symbols were banned in the UAE.
Despite ‒ or perhaps because of ‒ the torrent of abuse being poured on the UAE-Israel deal by the hard-line rejectionists, long-held assumptions about Israel in the Muslim world will inevitably be reassessed . The holy cow slaughtered by the new agreement is the long-held article of faith in extremist Muslim circles that Israel has no place in the Middle East, that it is a colonial enterprise shortly to be overthrown through armed resistance. Allied to that is the oft-reiterated dogma that so-called “normalization” with Israel is a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.
The new UAE-Israel understanding sweeps both creeds to one side – and the whole Muslim world can see that it does. Arab states that accept the new reality can glimpse a bright future beckoning. Together with Israel, they could participate in re-shaping the Middle East into a thriving, expanding, hi-tech and commercial hub that might rival Singapore or Hong Kong, bringing previously unimaginable prosperity to the region. For Lebanon, the key would be to break free of the shackles of Hezbollah; for Iraq to remove the pernicious stranglehold of Iran. The penny might drop even for the PA. Announcing the UAE-Israel deal, President Trump alluded to “many more countries” in the region normalizing ties with Israel, and “some very exciting things, including ultimately with the Palestinians.”