World

In Arab States’ Embrace, Israelis See a Reshaped Mideast

JERUSALEM — Since its founding, Israel has seen itself as a modern-day Sparta, a tiny fortress nation-state in a hostile desert, whose survival depended on its internal cohesion and sheer military strength.

All around it were Arab and Muslim enemies who denounced the Jewish state as a colonizing interloper, an outpost of foreign intruders who were bound to be evicted, sooner or later, like all their predecessors back to the Crusaders.

But Israel’s back-to-back agreements to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to be marked in a signing ceremony at the White House on Tuesday — and the much-buzzed-about possibility that other Arab nations could follow suit — are causing some Israelis to ask whether a deeper shift may, after years in he making, finally be underway in the Middle East.

Could their country at last be gaining acceptance as a legitimate member of the neighborhood?

Formal diplomatic relations will mean a great deal to Israel after its long wait in isolation: the exchange of ambassadors, establishment of direct flights, new destinations for tourists once travel becomes possible again and the start or acceleration of a host of other commercial, cultural and scientific endeavors that until now could be conducted only in the shadows.

But Dr. Yitshak Kreiss, director general of Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital, and a former military surgeon general, said that the biggest impact could be in changing the way ordinary Israelis think about their place in the region.

In an interview, Dr. Kreiss recalled setting up a field hospital in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there It could treat only a small fraction of the injured, but it had a great impact because “the most important thing for nations in a crisis is hope, the feeling that there’s a better future,” he said.

“When Israelis see the region opening, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Emirates or Bahrain, and next are Chad, or Oman, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia,” Dr. Kreiss continued. “It’s the understanding that this can be a better region, that we should not accept things as they are. This is the strongest feeling Israelis can take from that.”

ImageA chartered El Al flight completed a symbolic first journey last month from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Credit…Christopher Pike/Reuters

“That’s a tremendous change for people of my generation,” Dr. Kreiss added. “Our existence here is no longer a function of how strong we are militarily. It can be, how many neighbors and peace treaties we can bring together.”

Israelis who have studied the Arab world, including former intelligence and national-security officials, politicians, researchers and journalists, are deeply cautious about how much this shift has progressed, saying that Israel is far from being able to let its guard down toward its newfound friends.

Still, they speak of the change as an evolution that was largely hidden from public view until it became evident in the ways that Arab leaders started speaking about Israel.

In 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia told an interviewer that Israelis “have the right to have their own land” and insisted that “our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews.” The same year, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, defended Israel’s airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, writing on Twitter that, with Iran building up forces and rockets there, Israel “has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger.”

Last year, Bahrain hosted a Trump administration conference promoting the economic aspects of its proposal to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Sheikh Khalid regaled Israeli journalists with olive branches. “Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region, historically,” he told one, saying, “The Jewish people have a place amongst us.”

And only on Sept. 4, a Saudi imam at Mecca’s Grand Mosque preached about the Prophet Muhammad’s kindness toward a Jewish neighbor, in a sermon that was variously praised or attacked as appearing to lay the groundwork for a Saudi normalization of ties with Israel.

“They’re retelling the entire story of the Jews in the region,” said Einat Wilf, a former Israeli lawmaker. “And they’re changing the whole narrative: They’re not saying, ‘We still hate Israel, Jews are bad, we wish they’re gone but we need them against Iran.’ They’re saying the Jews belong here, that we’re not foreigners, and that the Palestinians need to accept us.”

What Israel and American officials are working hard to portray as the beginning of a toppling of dominoes — a guessing game of who’s next — is in fact the culmination of a long process, experts said.

Credit…Pool photo by Debbie Hill

There have been false starts: Yossi Shain, head of Tel Aviv University’s school of politics and government, recalled Israelis getting carried away with the idea of peace breaking out in the Middle East at the time of the Oslo accords in the 1990s. “This was exactly the discussion which took place among Jews and American Jewry,” he said.

Yet as recently as a decade ago, according to Shimrit Meir, an Israeli analyst of the Arab world, Israel was still commonly depicted across the Middle East as the “source of all evil, and the ultimate other,” and the Palestinian cause was treated as “the most sacred thing.”

The Arab Spring shattered that, she said. No longer did events in Israel or the occupied territories lead the news each night in Egypt and Lebanon. Arab cable news crews in Jerusalem went from busy to bored. “People wanted to talk about their own issues and political challenges,” Ms. Meir said. “And Israelis, little by little, entered the scene. We read it as an opening.”

The Israeli military’s Arabic-language spokesman developed a huge social media following. Ms. Meir founded Al-Masdar (“The Source,” in Arabic), a website carrying news about Israel that attracted two million Arab readers. Even Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, translated much of its web content into Arabic to try to push back on Holocaust denial.

Other factors combined to point the Persian Gulf countries toward Israel’s doorstep: The 2015 Iran nuclear deal with the Obama administration, which Israel and gulf leaders both opposed; Iran’s expansionist moves in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, which Israel and the gulf countries saw as grave threats; and the belief that the United States was pulling out of the region.

“They have greater trust in the reliability of Israel’s position than the U.S.,” said Robert Malley, a former Obama administration official who now heads International Crisis Group. Presidents come and go, and White House policies pivot, he said. “But as gulf leaders always tell me, they need some constancy, and they’d find it more in a relationship with Israel, because Israel shares that similar strategic threat perception.”

The Palestinians, meanwhile, showed little sign of adapting to the changing circumstances, Ms. Meir said. When President Trump was elected, and the gulf countries — “the biggest donors to the Palestinians,” she noted — made clear that they intended to work with the White House, the Palestinians instead “insisted on boycotting the Trump administration.”

“This is not how life works,” she said. “They had an opportunity to enter the game, to say, ‘We hate Trump, he’s surrounded by awful Jews, but he’s president, the Arab countries are paying our bills, and we have to accommodate him.’ They failed to understand the phenomenon of opening up Israel to the Middle East.”

Credit…Said Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Of course, the Palestinians are not going anywhere, as their leaders have pointedly reminded Israelis since the Emiratis’ agreement was announced.

“I’m the problem,” said Saeb Erekat, a veteran negotiator and secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee. “I’m what needs to be solved. That’s it.”

Zvi Bar’el, a scholar of the Islamic world and Haaretz columnist, questioned how much normalization with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, so far away, would really affect “the psyche of the Israeli public,” given the tense relations with Arab neighbors closer to home.

“We don’t consider them an enemy anyhow,” Mr. Bar’el said of the gulf countries. “As long as there are balloons from Gaza, a missile threat from Lebanon and Syria, and the master enemy, Iran, it will not change people’s approach either to the Arab world or Arabs at large.”

Still, Mr. Bar’el said that Israel’s peace deals with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 — however “cold,” or bereft of extensive civilian interaction — showed that each new agreement with an Arab country imposes new constraints on Israeli actions.

“Comes the moment when the peace process will be revived, these new Arab partners will have a say in it — even more, probably, than the U.S., let alone Europe,” he said.

In a similar vein, analysts warn, if Israel is able to leave its old isolation behind and take its place as just another country forging alliances in a volatile region, its new friends could also get it into new kinds of trouble.

Yoel Guzansky, a former head of the gulf desk at Israel’s National Security Council, warned that Israel’s blossoming Emirati ties could place it at the forefront of an “anti-Turkish” camp in the region.

“I don’t think that’s good for Israel,” Mr. Guzansky said. He noted that the U.A.E. had just deployed F-16’s to Greece, as Turkish-Greek tensions are peaking. “I think it’s better for Israel to hedge its bets against Turkey and not to poke it in the eye.”

“The U.A.E. is far away,” Mr. Guzansky added. “Maybe they can take more chances than Israel. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Adam Rasgon contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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