In explaining the seismic political shift underway in the Middle East, David Makovsky recounted a conversation he had recently with a government official from the United Arab Emirates. The official told him, “We don’t know what America is going to do, but there’s one country we know we can count on: Israel. We think alike.”
Makovsky, who directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on Arab-Israel Relations, joined his friend Ghaith Al-Omari, a senior fellow in the institute’s Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship, for a discussion Wednesday during the Oshman Family JCC’s annual Z3 conference, which took place online this year due to the pandemic. The program was designed by the Peninsula JCC and moderated by Rabbi Lavey Derby.
The UAE was the first of one of four Arab nations to announce, in recent months, a peace pact with Israel, along with Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco. Makovsky called the breakthroughs “a remarkable moment,” adding, “Israel is starting to normalize relations with countries not on its borders. These are countries that never faced [Israel] on the battlefield. A lot of the peace treaties are about the past. These are the future. There’s no bad blood.”
Illustrating just how different these latest peace deals are from Israel’s previous bilateral accords with Egypt and Jordan, Makovsky described the new Abrahamic Family House under construction in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE.
The interfaith complex features a synagogue, a church and a mosque. And for Hanukkah, a menorah was set up in Dubai in front of Khalifa Tower, the world’s tallest building.
Perhaps more telling, Makovsly said, the Emiratis are prepared to invest heavily in joint Israeli-UAE projects, pulling from an investment pool that tops $1 trillion.
“The economic potential of [Israeli] high-tech coming together with a lot of money could be a win-win,” he added. “There is a sense of a new discourse about Jews and Israel in the Arab world.”
Al-Omari, a native Palestinian who lives in Washington, D.C., agreed that normalization has been “very valuable for the countries involved. There are real tangible benefits — whether security, military or economic. It’s a very positive development for the region traditionally defined by conflict.”
Moreover, he said, most Arab governments now see Islamc fundamentalism, religious intolerance and extremism as more a direct threat than Israel.
The changes have meant that the Palestinian cause is no longer the priority it once was in the Arab world. Al-Omari said there is a sense of fatigue after “failed negotiation after failed negotiation.” And after their initial outrage over the bilateral peace deals, Palestinians are starting to get over their sense of betrayal and accepting the new reality, Al-Omari said. They may even seek to extract benefits.
As the Emirati deal was predicated on Israel backing away from Israeli annexation of West Bank land, Al-Omari said he thinks such leverage can help Palestinians. He also said he hopes future economic cooperation would include Palestnians.
“Can we expand the hub,” he asked. “Can some of this investment from the Gulf include Palestinains? Will we look at multilateral projects?”
Both panelists said they believe no parallel breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be forthcoming. Rather than aiming for a hopeless, grand-slam peace deal, they said, it would be better for negotiators to aim for “singles and doubles,” as Makovsky put it.
“We should look at smaller, more concrete steps between the two sides,” Al-Omari said. “One thing we never hear about is security cooperation between the sides. It is so deep and entrenched, in some ways the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is the biggest partner with the Palestinians. If Palestinians start getting used to Israelis doing good things, then the narrative of ‘no partner’ starts to disappear.”
Both had advice for the incoming Biden administration, with Al-Omari suggesting the new president “first, do no harm. Be modest, focus on small, concrete achievable steps. I would love to see the U.S. play a more proactive role.”
Makovsky, who served in the Obama-Biden administration as a Middle East envoy under former Secretary of State John Kerry, said the incoming president “sees foreign policy as an extension of personal relationships.” He recounted Biden’s oft-repeated memory of meeting Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on one of his first foreign trips as a senator in the early 1970s, when she told Biden of the Jewish state, “We as Jews have nowhere else to go.”
“He’s told the story a million times,” Makovsky said. “But is it in his kishkes? Yes. He’s someone who gets the sense of vulnerability Israelis feel.”
The Makovsky–Al-Omari talk took place on the seventh day of this year’s eight-day Z3, which stands for Zionism 3.0. As previous conferences did in person, this year’s program did entirely online — exploring a new era in relations between Israel and the diaspora (as well as other Israel-related issues). Programming ended Thursday. A video of the talk can be seen here.