Contemporary journalism seems at times plagued by a tendency to call events as historic, to the extent one wonders whether now-forgotten events in, say, the 19th century were also labeled that way back then.
Be that as it may, the September 15, 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords did recall images of the 1978 Israel-Egypt peace agreement and the 1993/1995 “Oslo” accords between Israel and the Palestinians, all signed on the same White House lawn. That’s as far as the image goes. The question is whether the historical significance of the Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrein deals will be up to par.
Formally, both the “Treaty of Peace” between Israel and the UAE and the “Declaration of Peace” between Israel and Bahrain make their object clear. And while neither of both Arab states had been technically at war with Israel, their formal recognition of Israel’s existence and sovereignty is no small feat, certainly in the light of the Arab Peace Initiative. This plan, put on the negotiation table in 2002 and heralded by Saudi Arabia, provided for full Arab recognition of Israel in the context of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Peaceful relations between countries and peoples are to be applauded. They can help the world get closer to the goals set out in the Charter of the United Nations, who celebrated their 75th anniversary very recently. However, reports of possible sales of highly sophisticated military equipment by the US and Israel to both Gulf states beg the question what the full rationale for the Abraham Accords was. To be sure, the Accords list several areas in which international cooperation is usually seen as positive. In the broader context of a Middle East fraught with conflict and tension, nevertheless, one can wonder if the primary motivation for the agreements were not the parties’ own national strategic interests.
Also, peace is not only made between governments. Speaking at the Middle East/North Africa Economic Summit back in 1994, then Secretary of State Warren Christopher declared his administration’s mission to be one to transform “the peace being made by governments into a peace between people.”
Indeed, while official peace following conflict can be the fruit of relentless endeavor spread over time, it may take many additional efforts and countless more years for populations afflicted by the conflict to be at peace with each other. In the Balkans, where peace treaties put an end to bloody wars in the 1990s, reconciliation programs run to this very day.
As regards the Abraham Accords, it remains to be seen how wholehearted ties between Israelis and Emiratis or Bahrainis will be. It should be recalled, though, that Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan is generally seen as a “cold” peace. Indeed, while the relevant treaties were concluded between the countries’ leaders, their operational value today lies first and foremost at the level of the military.
Sure, the countries opened up for economic (including touristic) exchanges between them, but when trying to engage Egyptians in a project in which Israelis are also involved, it does not take one long to realize a certain uneasiness or hostility towards the country their leaders made official peace with 40 years ago. Be this uneasiness or hostility due to a lack of information, to a desire to use Israel as a lightning rod for one’s own problems, or to a genuine concern for the Arab Palestinians – or, perhaps most likely, to a combination of the above – the fact is that several obstacles can stand in the way of peace between peoples.
In another hard-fought conflict on European soil, the official peace agreement was followed by a series of publicly funded programs aimed at fostering cross-community relations, economic development, and reconciliation: the PEACE I to IV programs in Ireland and Northern Ireland offered financial support to a myriad of initiatives set up to bring people – sometimes former enemies – together. Data on the PEACE II program, for instance, show that more than 1 out of 3 inhabitants of the region took part in at least one project or activity organized in the framework of the program.
It is rather arduous to find similar data for the Middle East, but according to estimates not more than 3% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has taken part in a program or activity in which both Israelis and Palestinians were involved. Exchanges are often limited to a minimum in the framework of an employment relationship and, for a series of reasons, physical space is separated, as it also is – though in different ways – between various sectors within Israeli society.
If the road to peace in the Middle East has a length and a course that are hard to predict, it is safe to assume that it will need to be walked by people, not only by their leaders.