The Abraham Accords, which brought about normalization and a quick warming of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, can easily be seen as a silver lining in an otherwise challenging year, as the world was beset by the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. The Accords not only open new relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, but also triggered movement towards normalization between Israel and Sudan and the formalizing of ties between Israel and Morocco. Surely the region is positively transforming before our very eyes.
Forty-two years ago, the late president of Egypt Anwar Saadat called upon the sons of Abraham to lay down their arms and seek peace. Receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, he uttered “Let us put an end to wars. reshape life on the solid basis of equity and truth.”
We saw other moments of hope, such as the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s offer of a two-state solution in 2008 – but those did not alter the reality. Indeed, the last decade was one of turmoil, instability, and civil war throughout much of the region. It is in this context that the announcement of the Abraham Accords caught the attention of those who still hoped for peace, and also of a new generation that did not know hatred and war.
Fifteen years later, Jordan became the second Arab nation to forge peace with Israel. The 1990s brought hope that more would happen on the Palestinian front with the launch of the Oslo Accords. But hopes quickly faded when radical actors including Islamists and non-Arab powers like Iran took advantage of the Oslo to extend their destabilizing influence throughout the region. The peace treaties between Egypt, Jordan, and Israel marked the beginning of an era of hope for Israelis and Arabs alike – but the coldness of that peace shows that we have much work ahead of us.
The treaties signed in 1979 and 1994 offer a cautionary tale. While they ended the state of war between regional rivals, they were ultimately non-aggression pacts signed between governments that never materialised into a “people’s peace”. To be clear, the cooperation between Egypt and Israel, and between Jordan and Israel, on a governmental level, remains strong and crucial to regional stability. However, the absence of a “people’s peace” (and the credence given to anti-normalisation voices) creates a significant void, which prevents the region from moving forward.
Sadly, since 1978 and to this day, the state-controlled media, public intellectuals, academics and civic society in Egypt and Jordan, as well as in the Palestinian Authority, were never pushed to embrace peace. Stereotypes of Jews and Israelis are still rife in the streets of Cairo, Amman and Ramallah and textbooks still teach of hatred, bigotry and violence. On the contrary, several Gulf leaders have long prepared their peoples for peace and normalisation.
The UAE declared 2019 as the ‘Year of Tolerance’ and set a goal to establish itself as a world center for breaking down boundaries between people and religions. It established a Ministry of Tolerance to promote this agenda. It reformed its education system to prepare its society to reject discrimination and emphasise acceptance. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has led efforts in the Gulf promoting inter-faith dialogue and co-existence for decades. This is deeply embedded in the fabric of its leadership and people. For example, all religions have a seat on the Shura Council, the Upper House of its Parliament. While parts of the Middle East are still mired in radicalism and instability, the UAE and Bahrain are beacons of hope.
Through access to modern technology, average citizens and intellectuals from the UAE, Bahrain, Israel and other parts of the Arab world are already coming together, building relationships and exchanging ideas. While Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Manama are sure to support such efforts, we, a group of Emiratis, Bahrainis, Arabs and Israeli intellectuals, are making sure to play our part from the beginning. We believe that such relations form the foundation for a “people’s peace”, granting it public and intellectual legitimacy and depth.
We sincerely hope that the Abraham Accords are writing a new chapter in the region’s history. We are determined to do our own part by building deep people-to-people relations and creating a real civic, intellectual and cultural engagement between our peoples, between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael.
Dr Majid Al Sarrah, Dr Nir Boms, Dr Najat Al Saied and Dan Feferman are members of the Gulf-Israel Policy Forum, an initiative of the UAE-Israel Business Council, and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University