Prior to the start of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the Arab countries had been able to block the development of diplomatic, political, and economic relations between many countries of the world - especially the important Asian powers such as China, India, and South Korea - and Israel, based on a specific assumption that it would be difficult for those powers to maintain good relations with Arab countries if they take the step of developing their relations with Israel. In other words, the Arab countries succeeded in placing the relations of those powers with the Arabs and Israel within a "zero-sum game" formula, meaning that those countries had to choose between Israel and the Arab countries, and that developing their relations with Israel would directly entail losing their relations with the Arab countries.
Many factors contributed to the success of the Arab countries in ensuring the success of this formula or equation, most notably the stage of the Cold War at the time, and the siding of many countries of the world, such as India, with the East Camp led by the Soviet Union, which led to the absence of strong relations with the US or any of its allies (Including Israel). In addition, there was no strong basis for economic and technical relations between many countries and Israel, meaning that there was no opportunity for significant mutual gains between the two sides. However, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many countries of the world reviewed the feasibility of this Arab "equation", and the feasibility of linking relations with the Arab world to relations with Israel, especially that many of those countries needed to turn west, and to use the development of their relations with Israel as a gateway to develop their relations with the West and the US. On the other hand, many of the countries that maintained limited relations with Israel have reached a level of economic and technological development, which contributed to the existence of strong foundations for building economic and technical relations with Israel that would generate mutual benefits for both sides.
These changes have led to a decline in the capability of the Arab world to impose its traditional formula, which it had succeeded in imposing on many friendly countries during the period of the Cold War. On the other hand, those changes also have led to an acceleration of the development of Israeli relations with many of those countries in the economic and technical fields, especially in the sectors of agriculture, medicine, technology and communications. This was facilitated by the fact that most of those "friendly" countries have moved into the category of large or emerging economies, which has created great opportunities for building joint relationships in various economic sectors based on the mutual benefits of both sides. In contrast, the capability of the Arab world to besiege Israel or limit its relations with the outside world has diminished. In addition, the relations of many old "friendly countries" with Israel in sectors such as agriculture, technology, communications, and medicine have become much stronger than their relations with "Arab friends."
These conclusions would be confirmed upon review of the size of the relations between China, India and South Korea, for example, and Israel in the above fields in comparison with those relations between those countries and the Arab world. This indicates that what Israel has to offer those economies in those areas far exceeds what the Arab world has to offer any of those economies.
In this context, it could be said that the peace treaty announced on 13 August 2020 between the UAE and Israel could establish strong relations between the two sides in qualitative areas such as the economy, trade, medicine, health, and technology in general, and communications technology in particular, as well as cooperation in the field of seaports. This would be facilitated by the following factors:
First, the UAE is not a direct party to the Arab-Israeli conflict, despite its strong and unconditional support of Palestinian rights. The absence of direct borders between the two sides reduces the degree of sensitivity in developing their relations in those areas.
Second, the nature of the UAE as a "cosmopolitan" country (a country that is founded on respect for cultural and religious diversity and pluralism, and the capability to accommodate this diversity and benefit from it). This rare "cosmopolitan" nature in the region provides a basis for openness on the one hand, and a decline in opportunities of resistance to sectoral cooperation between the UAE and Israel, on the other hand.
Third, the absence of extremist and violent religious organisations in the UAE, which is an important additional factor that contributes to facilitating sectoral cooperation between the UAE and Israel. The presence of those organisations in many other Arab countries has contributed to blocking this cooperation over the past decades, due to the success of those organisations in the religionisation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Fourth, the increase in the number of non-traditional threats, which creates wide opportunities for cooperation between the two sides. The Covid-19 pandemic represents an important model in this field, in addition to other challenges such as climate change. This is also facilitated by the important Israeli experience in those areas.
In addition to the opportunities of bilateral cooperation, there are important opportunities for tripartite or collective cooperation between the UAE, Israel and other parties from outside the Arab world, such as China, India, and others. The opportunities of this cooperation increase against the background of the UAE's strong relations with those countries in the economic and technical fields, especially the field of energy and renewable energy. In this connection, bilateral cooperation could be extended to cover a wide list of fields, through the mechanism of "joint projects", both at the level of investments and research activities.
However, despite the importance of the above shifts, both in relation to the controls of Arab-Israeli cooperation in general, and the opportunities of this cooperation, some expected complications may appear in this path, including the US approach that is based on ensuring Israel's superiority, both technically and militarily, given that an important portion of the technologies used by Israel is of US origin. In addition, despite the relevance of the above factors and shifts, which stand behind the logic of openness to Israel at this stage, the Arab world would continue to face an important dilemma, namely: how can this potential development in economic and technical relations with Israel be employed to serve the two-state solution? While the current moment in the balance of power and international policies imposes a state of openness to Israel and easing the restrictions imposed on Arab-Israeli relations, this does not mean the end of the project to establish the Palestinian state. Thus, the change really refers more to the tools and context rather than the principles or giving up basic goals.
Hanin Ghaddar | 10 Oct 2021
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