On a night in October 2001, when I was wearing sunglasses despite the darkness, with my baseball cap pulled down over my face, inside a car with darkened windows, I crossed the Jordanian border at the crossing near Kibbutz Maoz Haim. I continued eastward to an airport on the outskirts of Amman, where the plane that took me to the United Arab Emirates was waiting for me.
At the time I was the transportation minister in the government of Ariel Sharon, a member of the security cabinet, and that’s how I became the first Israeli minister to visit that country. Quite a few years passed before Israeli ministers openly visited this important Arab country, always in the context of an international event.
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Since that clandestine visit I have both written and spoken about the establishment of a strategic alliance between Israel and the Gulf countries, headed by the UAE. I saw that as a crucial step for blocking the Iranian threat and for regional peace. It was clear that without progress with the Palestinians that wouldn’t happen.
That’s why the peace and normalization treaty to be signed in the coming days in Washington with the UAE gives me great satisfaction, as does the knowledge that additional Gulf countries welcome the agreement and may eventually sign a similar one.
The fact that signing the agreement is a political production by two politicians, U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are in serious distress, does not overshadow my satisfaction. The cancellation of the dangerous idea of annexation, as the Emirates’ condition for the normalization agreement, teaches anyone who doesn’t understand that it’s not the one-state solution that will prevail in the context of a regional peace arrangement, but only the two-state vision.
But the joy of peace shouldn’t interfere with our sober perception. While Israel continues to battle the coronavirus and its economic devastation, the external security threats are accumulating like storm clouds on the horizon. Iran is continuing inexorably on the path to nuclear power and regional hegemony. There is a possibility of a conflict with it and with its offshoots in the broad northern arena.
The Palestinian arenas in Gaza and the West Bank continue to be explosive, and the agreement with the Emirates is increasing Palestinian frustration in the short term, rather than the opposite. Even Turkey’s behavior does nothing to add stability to the eastern Mediterranean, and it is trying to meddle in the Palestinian arena as well. The economic and security-related fruits of the new treaty will not come soon enough to help us with the economic and strategic problems that Israel is now confronting. Make no mistake, the fruits are still distant.
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In recent years I have conducted dozens of discussions with government officials, academics and businessmen from the Gulf countries. My conclusion is clear. Recognition of the necessity and the benefit of ties with Israel is found mainly among the leadership in those countries. The recognition that normalization with Israel, with its technological power in every field, will be a blessing for everyone, has yet to sufficiently infiltrate the classes below the elites.
Anger at Israel is still prevalent although muted; what’s happening in the territories strongly influences these feelings. The decision to built 5,000 additional homes in the settlements proves our disdain for their importance.
The treaty with the Emirates is likely to turn into a piece of paper, into archival photos, if there is no diplomatic continuation. And that must revolve around the fraught issue of the future of the Land of Israel, Israel’s final border and its relationship with the Palestinian people. That’s not simple politically, and we are seeing the reactions on the Israeli right to cancellation of the annexation.
But if anyone thinks that relations with the Gulf countries will develop without a diplomatic compensation for the normalization, let him look at our relationship with Jordan. There are gas exports, there is cooperation in routine security arrangements, but other than that there’s really nothing. This flower of a treaty with the Emirates can either bloom or wilt. It all depends on us.
Ephraim Sneh, a former government minister, is the chair of the Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netanya Academic College.