President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would launch the process to normalize relations between the two countries was favorably praised by many in the Atlanta Jewish community. They echoed the wider community, even as they diverged on the significance of the move.
“Any peace is a good thing,” said Guy Tessler, former head of Conexx: America Israel Business Connector. “But it’s mostly a political move that serves Trump and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. It takes the focus off their politics,” said Tessler, who left Conexx about a year ago to pursue other business interests.
“For Netanyahu, it’s the near daily demonstrations in front of his home and his personal [upcoming] trial and close to 1 million Israelis unemployed. For Trump, it’s the elections. He needs to show the Jewish, Israeli and evangelical communities” an international achievement, Tessler said.
“There have been business relationships between Israel and the Emirates since 1994,” he said, adding that the big economic winners of the agreement are the UAE and the United States, which will most likely now sell F-35 fighter planes to the former.
On the other hand, Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, asserted, “I think it’s one of Israel’s greatest accomplishments in its history because it’s not on a border with Israel, so it’s not as a result of war.” He was referring to the fact that the UAE will now become only the third Arab country with diplomatic relations with Israel, and the first since 1994. That’s when Israel and Jordan established relations; Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, two years after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his highly heralded visit to Israel. Unlike the UAE, Jordan and Egypt had fought Israel since the latter’s war of independence in 1948.
The UAE-Israel announcement is an “historic breakthrough and may be only the beginning of more Gulf nations establishing formal diplomatic relations [with Israel],” gushed Mitchell Kaye, who represented East Cobb for five terms in the Georgia House of Representatives. He stressed that this is “only the third peace treaty and the first in 26 years.”
Although it’s been clear for years that Israel and the UAE have worked together – recently sharing information to fight the coronavirus pandemic – most Israeli companies have kept a low profile. One exception is cybersecurity firm Check Point which openly lists its Dubai office on its website.
Still, the UAE had supported the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative launched by Saudi Arabia, which called for normalization between Israel and the Arab countries only after the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967. Pointedly, a senior member of the Saudi royal family, in the wake of the Israel-UAE agreement, reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s support of the Arab Peace Initiative.
While the latest deal appears to be putting the cart before the horse, the UAE contended that the bargain with Israel was in exchange for Netanyahu pulling his proposed annexation of West Bank territory off the table.
Even long-time supporter of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Gershon Baskin, wrote in his Jerusalem Post column, “The Israel-UAE deal should wake up the Palestinians to the reality that no one is going to help them. Not the U.S., the E.U. or the Arabs. Salvation will come from within, not from the outside.”
Israelis, for the most part, greeted the announcement with subdued enthusiasm. They are focused more on the growing numbers of COVID-19 positive cases and the resulting hobbling of the economy. Until Monday, they were also consumed with concern that a fourth round of elections in less than two years would be instigated by Netanyahu. A last-minute agreement by the coalition government to delay passage of a national budget for 120 days, along with a freeze on several top appointments, such as the state prosecutor, seemed to relieve those concerns.
The latter issue was reportedly the biggest spoke in the wheel to a government compromise as Netanyahu attempted to take control of those judicial appointments on the eve of the opening of his trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The evidentiary part of his trial is scheduled for January.
Facing monthslong protests near his official residence in Jerusalem as well as his private home in Caesarea – and other locations around the country – Netanyahu might have backed away from elections, fearing the results. In the last three elections he was unable to cobble together a right-wing government, finally establishing a unity government with the party of his main opponent.
Not long after the agreement with the UAE was announced, Netanyahu quickly informed his compatriots that the government was “working on enabling direct flights, over Saudi Arabia, between Tel Aviv and Dubai and Abu Dhabi.” He obviously understands Israelis’ craving for travel outside the country, especially as most countries are closed to Israelis due to the spreading virus.
Travel industry experts predict, however, that flights between Israel and the UAE won’t happen until well into 2021 or maybe even later. And although Saudi Arabia has allowed flights from a few other countries to fly to Israel in its air space, it still doesn’t allow Israeli airlines to do so.
Meanwhile, three countries are now allowing Israelis – with negative COVID test results – to enter: Croatia, Bulgaria and Greece. Inveterate travelers who pre-pandemic would jump on a plane to go anywhere, Israelis’ mouths are particularly watering with thoughts of visiting the UAE, a federation of seven emirates of which the capital Abu Dhabi and Dubai are best known.
Dubai is the most populous city, at 3.4 million. Overall, the UAE has a population of 9 million, of which 8 million are foreigners, mostly from poor Asian countries who fill simple jobs such as gardening, cleaning, maintenance and driving. Dubai’s economy rests primarily on trade, tourism and the financial services industries. Last year, Dubai hosted more than 12 million visitors.
Home to what is believed to be the world’s largest duty-free shop, huge malls, seven-star hotels and super glittering modern office towers, the UAE still has limited tourist attractions. “Israelis will go anywhere,” points out Tessler, “but after three or four days, there’s nothing to do there.”
That probably won’t stop Israelis from chalking up another country they have visited. Just days after the agreement was announced, Israelis were at least able to make direct phone calls to the UAE for the first time.