Five years ago, neither Yousef Al Otaiba nor Jeremy Issacharoff could have imagined that the United Arab Emirates—one of 19 countries to declare a total economic boycott of Egypt in 1979 for making peace with Israel—would soon come full circle and itself embrace the Jewish state.
But that’s exactly what happened thanks to the Abraham Accord—a US diplomatic breakthrough announced on Aug. 13, 2020, that since then has led three more Arab countries to renounce all hostilities with Israel: Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Earlier this month, Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington since 2008, and Issacharoff, Israel’s envoy to Germany since 2017, discussed their two nations’ friendship—as well as their own—for nearly an hour. Their online conversation was hosted by Eliot A. Cohen, dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS and moderated by Eric Edelman, former US ambassador to Finland and Turkey.
The Feb. 4 event, via Zoom, made it clear that changes in the political and economic landscape of the Middle East over the past 15 years or so have made once-unthinkable alliances possible. It was only two years ago, in fact, that Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi and hosted a Mass for 180,000 Catholics, marking the first papal visit to the Persian Gulf in history.
“Here we are, welcoming a pope and building an Abrahamic House, a conservative Gulf country putting money into a public synagogue, right next to a church and a mosque,” said Al Otaiba.
“I was probably one of the happiest Israelis to see the signing of the Abraham Accords,” said Issacharoff. As the third-ranking official at Israel’s embassy in Washington in 1994, he was the first Israeli to make official contact with the UAE, which at the time was considered an enemy state—even though the two countries had never fought against each other.
“It’s the whole idea of innovation and creative thinking—not only diplomacy but also in science, health and other areas like agriculture,” he added. “There’s a tremendous amount in which our countries can cooperate.”
UAE, Israel find common ground
Despite the rather obvious fact that Israel is a democracy and the UAE an absolute monarchy, the two Middle Eastern countries have quite a lot in common. The UAE—a federation of seven emirates dominated by the two largest, Abu Dhabi and Dubai—is nearly four times bigger than Israel in size and home to 9.9 million people, compared to Israel’s 9.2 million inhabitants.
Both countries have world-class universities as well as highly developed telecom and healthcare networks—a reality that has allowed Israel and the UAE to lead the world in per-capita vaccinations against COVID-19.
In addition, both nations are rock-solid allies of the United States. And perhaps most importantly now, both feel threatened by Iran—whose nuclear weapons program and proxy support of terrorist groups worldwide have brought Israel and the Gulf states together like never before.
Before his current posting in Berlin, Issacharoff—a veteran diplomat who represented Israel in Washington from 1993 to 1998, and again from 2005 to 2009—was deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry with overall responsibility for arms control, nonproliferation, regional security, counterterrorism and the authorization of Israeli weapons exports.
“Our conversations with the UAE made us realize that there is such a range of issues we could discuss—investment, tourism, people-to-people, business-to-business—but also, when we sat down and talked about Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Lebanon, we didn’t necessarily agree about everything,” Issacharoff said. “In every conversation, the Palestinian issue was always brought up. But to me, it was amazing how much we did agree—and how much our interests converged.”
Al Otaiba, whom TIME Magazine named one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2020, agreed.
“I don’t think anyone in the UAE ever believed Israel was a threat to our national interests,” he said. “The fact is, I was friends with Jeremy for a very long time before the Abraham Accords. If we listed ten items in a meeting, we’d probably agree on eight or nine of them.”
Pending Israeli annexation gave UAE an opening
Things, of course, don’t happen in a vacuum, and as both men confirmed, it was the oft-repeated threat last year by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to annex up to 30% of the West Bank—including all Jewish settlements and the strategic Jordan Valley—that finally spurred Abu Dhabi into action.
Under terms of the deal worked out by the Trump administration, Netanyahu agreed to drop all talk of annexation in return for full diplomatic recognition by the UAE and normalized relations.
“The annexation debate that occurred last summer is why it happened when it did, and the way it did. But minus annexation, I think it’s fair to say this was probably on the trajectory. The annexation debate is what gave us the detour to do it now,” said Al Otaiba, adding that the UAE realized early on that the Arab Peace Initiative—adopted in 2002 by the 22-member Arab League—would never succeed.
“That approach was, we’re all going to hold together until there’s a full solution based on 1967 borders. We tried that for 18 years and it didn’t work, so we’ll now try something different,” the ambassador explained. “Each country goes along its own path, and in our case, we got some very important concessions. But if other countries want to do that or not, that’s up to them.”
Al Otaiba continued: “We try to make progress on quality-of-life issues like access to jobs, technology, broadband, taking incremental steps on a daily basis. That is a more realistic approach than saying ‘let’s have a big conference and talk about a two-state solution,” he said. “I’m not hopeful that solution would work.
Yet the Palestinian leadership saw the Israel-UAE deal as a “stab in the back” and a “betrayal,” leading enraged demonstrators in Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Bethlehem and Gaza to burn Emirati flags in protest. In revenge, the UAE slashed its funding for UNRWA, the United Nations humanitarian aid program for Palestinian refugees—from $51 million in 2019 to just $1 million last year.
Regardless of what the Arab world does, both diplomats agree that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is stalled until after elections on both sides of the conflict.
“We’re going into elections March 23, and the Palestinians will have elections in May. This isn’t a time for breaking new ground,” Issacharoff said. “Until a new government is formed, this will have to work itself out. I don’t think we’re on the verge of any major breakthroughs.”
Confronting the Iranian nuclear threat
Nevertheless, it’s the threat from Tehran which has done more to unite Israel and the Gulf than anything else.
Both Israel and the UAE are adamantly opposed to a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1: China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. That agreement placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of US and European sanctions.
President Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018, though Biden has pledged to return if Iran resumes compliance with its provisions.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to senior officials in the Biden administration. What I’ve seen so far is that they have learned the lessons of what did not work the previous time,” said Al Otaiba.
For one thing, Washington is in a much stronger position than it was six years ago, while Tehran has been weakened by dramatically lower oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged the country.
“Also, last time, we were not consulted. It was done behind our backs, and that’s what broke the trust and harmed the relationship,” Al Otaiba said. “They’re reaching out to make sure that mistake does not happen again. There is room for a deal, but we want a deal that is longer, that is stronger, and that addresses our issues.”
Issacharoff agreed, highlighting the fact that, unlike in 2015, the Arabs and Israelis now speak as a unified voice.
“This is not 2015. We cannot turn the clock back. If you’re looking for diplomacy, it must encompass a significant element of pressure, and a significant element of deterrence,” he said. “But it’s a new administration now. It’ll still take a bit of time to work through these discussions. I hope the regional concern and voice will be heard.”
The future of Israel-UAE cooperation
It’s not only threats that have brought Israel and the UAE together. The potential for cooperation exists in agribusiness, defense, medical technology, tourism and even space exploration.
“Our countries have a very strong interest in doing everything we can to prevent terrorism,” said Issacharoff. “We share similar view as to where the threats are, and we can work to prevent this from getting worse.”
Added Al Otaiba: “We haven’t had our military or defense industries engaged intensively yet, but we’ve already seen the UAE and Israeli air forces train in the US together, so we’re starting from a good place. Maybe we should send two astronauts into space together. This is about the future, about science, about going to the next frontier.”
Until a few weeks ago, when new coronavirus mutations ground all flights to a halt, the arrivals board at Dubai International Airport listed more incoming flights from Tel Aviv than any other single point of origin. Suddenly presented with a new, relatively close destination, Israelis flocked to Dubai—the UAE’s tourism and shopping hub—for conferences, business meetings and just plain vacations.
By mid-December, more than 50,000 Israelis had already visited the UAE, and nearly 150 hotels in the Emirates have begun serving kosher food, in anticipation of an influx of Jewish guests. Once the pandemic has passed, said Al Otaiba, bilateral investment will boom, and a warm peace will truly blossom—not just between Israel and the UAE, but between Israel and the entire Gulf.
“My favorite part of the Abraham Accords is that no one really had to lose anything. It was a win for the US, a win for the UAE and a win for Israel,” said Al Otaiba. “This is what diplomacy is all about—finding a formula where everyone benefits from the deal.”