For the entire world, 2020 will be known as the Pandemic Year. But 2020 may also be recalled fondly as the Peace Year by many Israelis and Arabs, for whom the signing of the Abraham Accords softened the pangs of COVID-19. It is fitting that four of the top countries in per capita vaccinations are also the pioneers of normalization: Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and the United States.
Israel, the world vaccine leader, has inoculated 86 percent of its over-50 population and 55 percent of those Israelis 16 and up. The UAE has vaccinated two-thirds of its population and about a quarter of Bahrain’s has received at least one jab. These extraordinary statistics demonstrate all three countries’ commitments to health, science, technology, innovation and global engagement.
Not even the sky’s the limit for those countries. Since the September 15 Accords signing on the White House lawn, the UAE’s unmanned exploration spacecraft reached Mars and Israel launched its first university-made (i.e., not government-made) nano-satellite. Leading Israeli and Emirati institutions are partnering on artificial intelligence research, and all signs indicate that scientific collaboration will continue to deepen among the countries.
Culture is also flourishing. Last month, Bahrain hosted an online celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim for Jewish communities in the Gulf. And last month, Jews in six Gulf countries formed the first association to enhance regional Jewish life. The Association of Gulf Jewish Communities will import 650 pounds of matzah this month to celebrate Passover, which commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.
The excitement generated by the possibilities for people-to-people, business-to-business, investor-to-investor and entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur relations seems endless. Israel is referred to as the “Start-up Nation” because of the worldwide bestseller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer written in 2009, in which the economic miracle of Israel—driven by Israeli innovation and start-ups—was recognized. Israel’s nickname has led to newer and equally fitting monikers for Bahrain and the UAE. The expectation is that innovation and creativity coming out of the “Start-up Nation” can move to the “Pilot Nation” (Bahrain), and from there to the “Scale-up Nation” (UAE). Much of that is already happening. Over 130,000 Israelis have visited the UAE since October. Kosher food is becoming more widely available in the Gulf. A young Bahraini woman has started the Kingdom’s first Hebrew-language school.
How did we get here? By questioning conventional wisdom on the Iran nuclear deal and Arab attitudes toward Israel.
Among President Trump’s first moves was a sharp divergence from the chattering class’s favorite foreign policy program of the Obama administration—the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. President Trump recognized that the billions of dollars and endless goodwill that had been showered on the mullahs in Iran was all for nought. It portended ill for the United States and its allies in the Middle East—Israel as well as the Gulf Arab states. Recognizing the possibility in the old saw, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Trump team, led by Jared Kushner, set off on what many regarded as a fool’s errand. After all, how many American presidential administrations had the audacity to believe that theirs would be the one out of which peace in the Middle East would spring? The answer is, of course, “all of them.”
But the Trump team took a different approach. It didn’t focus on the historical grievances of the region and looked instead to the strategic realignment that was emerging—one in which Israel was quietly leading a coalition of Gulf Arab states against an increasingly aggressive Iran. The vehemence with which former Secretary of State John Kerry adhered to the old trope that there can be no peace in the Middle East without first solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was turned on its head.
Prior to the Abraham Accords, it had been 26 years since Israel signed its last peace deal, with Jordan. In between, Israel has been forced to defend itself militarily from Palestinian terrorism and Iranian proxies: Lebanon’s Hezbollah; the PLO and Hamas, during their prolonged terror campaign known as the Second Intifada; and Hamas (again) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as they barraged Israeli civilian centers with rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
But Israel was no longer the bogeyman of the region—Iran assumed that mantle, and Gulf Arabs recognized it. Gulf rulers are not kept up at night over fears that Israel will strike their wealth or their families with nuclear or conventional missiles. But they may well be kept up thinking that Tehran will—either directly or through a network of proxy terror organizations or terror-supporting governments. So the enemy of my enemy turned out to be a pretty strong friend and ally, indeed.
It turns out that peacemaking has legs. Check out the Trump scoreboard.
Following the initial signing of the Abraham Accords, other normalizations of relations with the Jewish state soon took hold in Sudan, Morocco and Kosovo. It is rumored that Indonesia is well on its way toward normalization and is interested in having a Jakarta campus for the world-renowned Israel Institute of Technology, the Technion. The Biden team’s engagement with the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, to sign on to the Abraham Accords would surely demonstrate bipartisan U.S. support for warm and lasting peaceful relations.
All of these countries recognized that it is no longer in their national interests to hold on to the days of yore—the days of empty, anti-Semitic sloganeering and rote calls for the Jewish state’s destruction. The days at hand are the days of innovation, tourism, start-ups, pilots and scale-ups. The days at hand belong to those nations that seize the moment.
Bonnie Glick is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and a fellow in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.