Forty-three years ago this November, Anwar Sadat stunned the world by arriving in Jerusalem for peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. This move set many precedents and undermined assumptions about the region that had existed for decades.
Chief among these was the idea, widely assumed, that no Arab leader could ever make peace with Israel because Islam declared that the Middle East is sacred territory to Muslims. The notion that a country describing itself as a Jewish state in the heart of the region was seen as beyond the pale. It was presumed that under this viewpoint Jews and Judaism could only be accepted in the region as subordinates to Islam.
Sadat’s initiative showed that this assumption was not set in stone. The leader of the most populous Arab state had broken the taboo. Mutual recognition inherently spoke of equality.
Still, all these years later, while the agreement fundamentally changed the strategic balance in the region and the character of Israel’s security, it has not translated into fundamental tolerance and respect between Israelis and Egyptians, or between Jews and Muslims.
The recent peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, known as the Abraham Accord, offers the potential for that deeper change that has never been realized in the Egyptian accords, nor in the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan that eventually followed.
The possibility for this broader sea change can be seen in the events leading up to the latest announced agreement, the thinking behind it, the growth and treatment of the Jewish community in the UAE, and the specific efforts to promote interfaith dialogue.
And indeed, in the past few days alone, we’ve seen a number of important indicators about desire for substantive engagement between Israel and the UAE on both the governmental and societal levels. This includes the launching of direct flights between the two countries, cooperation on issues related to healthcare and scientific advancements and rescinding of UAE’s anti-Israel boycott law, which opens up opportunities for direct business relationships between both countries.
Unlike the Egyptian-Israeli breakthrough that was achieved by leaders at the top with no role whatsoever for others in government or society, Israel and the UAE have been engaged in contacts on many levels over the years, which this agreement aims to dramatically broaden.
Israeli businessmen have been traveling to the UAE to discuss investment. Intelligence officials have been sharing information particularly regarding the common threat they see from an expansionist Iran. Even though the actual announcement came as a surprise to observers because many thought the UAE would never go so far until there was at least significant progress on the Palestinian issue, it was widely known that some quiet elements of normalization were already happening.
The dramatic possibilities for coexistence that were already happening on the ground is visible particularly in the growth of the Jewish community in the UAE in recent years. There are now said to be 2,000 Jews living in the UAE.
Services are held discreetly in a location in Dubai, and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of New York University is serving as chief rabbi of the community. Construction is also underway on a synagogue in Abu Dhabi, which will be part of an Abrahamic Family House that also contains a mosque and church as part of an initiative aimed at interfaith solidarity.
All of these developments have been approved and encouraged by the UAE leadership.
Interfaith dialogue is being promoted within the UAE society as a government priority and were the government’s thematic focus last year as part of what it called the UAE’s Year of Tolerance.
While there are other aspects of some UAE policies that we hope will change in the future, including the country’s suppression of anything approaching political dissent, the country’s concrete involvement in advancing interfaith tolerance, including toward Jewish people, has gone beyond mere rhetoric and is truly exceptional.
While there is much talk about the UAE decision leading to other Arab states following a similar path, less discussed but of importance as well would be if the Emirati model of interfaith respect and tolerance would spread around the region.
In effect, what the UAE is doing is presenting the opportunity for a different societal path, if not a different political model. The Arab Spring was seen as a movement toward democracy but that has been halted by the potent combination of Islamic fundamentalist and authoritarian reactions, including of course by the UAE’s own government.
Still, respect for a more pluralistic Middle East, where different religious beliefs beyond Islam are accepted, can go a long way to challenging the radicalism and antisemitism that has so poisoned the region for so long.
What the UAE’s developing overture toward Israel does in some ways is to broaden the historic step that Sadat took into society itself.
Sadat, all those years ago, presented his breakthrough as the moral thing to do to end the bloodshed and the smart thing to do for Egyptian interests. Creating a more respectful relationship between Jews and Muslims too is both morally proper and smart for both societies.
None of this going forward will be easy or straightforward. There surely will be ups and downs. But with appropriate care on all sides, this agreement has the potential finally to begin to truly change human relationships in the region.