The Abraham Accords Will Change Israel—Just Not in the Way You Think | Opinion

There have been two principal progressive critiques of the so-called Abraham Accords—the spate of peace and normalization agreements between Israel and a growing number of majority-Arab and Muslim states. The first is that these states have abandoned the Palestinian cause and have given up their leverage over Israel for a tuppence. The second is that it's all meaningless theater: Israel was never at war with any of these countries, and has long enjoyed (barely) covert trade and/or security cooperation with nearly all of them.

Both criticisms only get it half-right: this is indeed theater, but it is far from meaningless; and far from giving up leverage on Israel, the signatories have increased theirs exponentially.

Let's start with the leverage. Since 2002, the promise of normalization and integration into the region was dangled before Israel, in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state: the so-called Saudi Initiative. To those who supported the two-state solution, the offer was as tantalizing as it was a no-brainer: both an end to the occupation and Israel's own conflict with the Palestinians, and wide-open travel and trade in a vast region where Israel was hitherto a pariah. But many in Israeli politics (then as now) were opposed to the two-state solution—whether for nationalist-territorial cultural attachment to the West Bank / Judea and Samaria; or because it saw partition as an existential threat, fearing the Palestinian state would be a beachhead for eventual expansion over the entirety of historic Palestine, and the expulsion or subjugation of Israeli Jews (a re-enactment, one might say, of Israel's own historical trajectory, but in reverse.)

With stakes so high, the promise of peace with the rest of the Middle East was neither here nor there. If anything, it was distinctly threatening, because it implied greater exchange and cohesion between the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world: the spectre of unity that has haunted Israeli policy makers since the War of 1948.

That said, no consequential faction in Israel has ever opposed peace with the non-combatant nations of the Middle East on their own terms, divorced from the issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The accords accomplish precisely that, and represent one of the finest achievements of "cakeism" approach personified by Benjamin Netanyahu: the doctrine that contrary to liberal and progressive tropes (or hopes) you can indeed afford full democratic rights to only about half of the population you control, and still enjoy all the perks of a legitimate global and regional player. (They also, incidentally, represent a partial vindication of the Trump-Kushner mercantile approach to peacemaking: you can indeed buy peace through straightforward, often financial quid-pro-quo, but only when you don't have to contend with decades of ongoing violence and trauma.)

But while the signatories have indeed given up all pretense of concern for the Palestinians and their cause, they have far from given up even an ounce of leverage over Israel. In fact, they've increased it in ways Israelis are only beginning to understand—and not just in the immediate context of these new alliances, the will-they-won't-they coalition against Iran.

A seismic change, inside and out

The projected financial windfall of the agreements is enormous. Official estimates speak of NIS 1.5 billion NIS (half a billion USD) in Israeli exports alone, to the United Arab Emirates alone, in the first year alone. Add to that the exchange of services, especially in cyber technologies. Add up the preposterous amount of liquidity in the Gulf economies, with astronomical amounts of ready cash that dwarf anything Israeli tycoons have to offer (as shown last week by the casual purchase of one of Israel's most emblematic football clubs, Beitar Jerusalem, by an Emirati sheikh; and in the telling rift it has already caused between the club's fanbase and proudly racist, anti-Arab ultras.) Throw in the huge vistas opening up to tourism and pilgrimage, and the much touted potential for overland road and railway links between the Persian Gulf and Israel's Mediterranean port of Haifa.

Now, multiply all this by, say, 15-20 years of ever-growing integration and dependencies between Israel and these new markets. The new economic ties become not just the cherry on top an already surprisingly robust (and deeply unequal) Israeli economy, but a veritable mainstay of the same—all hinging on the good will of kingdoms whose economies are still centrally and politically controlled, as demonstrated by the same nations' blockade against Qatar.

The implications of the accords for the movement of people are so great they deserve a special mention. Normalization means Israelis no long need to fly the long way round to travel to India, China and the Far East—major leisure and business destinations for Israelis—and tourists moving from East to West will find it faster and cheaper to visit the historical sites and beaches Israel has to offer. Much more importantly, pilgrimage to Jerusalem and other holy sites will open up to many more Muslim believers than ever before. If Saudi Arabia does indeed go ahead and join the normalization train, the consequences will be seismic: uninhibited, direct travel guaranteed and even encouraged between all major holy sites of Islam, for the first time in half a century.

This is where the theatrical—or symbolic, if you like—impact of the agreements comes in, and it is far from trivial. With the tourism boom alone, we'll likely see a small-scale version of what is happening in much of the Western world, where cuisines, wineries, museums and entire cities are adjusting to meet not just the appetite of Chinese mega-companies, but the tastes and expectation of the Chinese traveler's ever-growing expendable income; except, in our case, in Arabic. This is of huge importance. Since the end of the Second Intifada, two simultaneous processes have been underway in Israel: even as racist attitudes towards Arabs hardened (a number of sectarian indicators have been growing worse), Palestinians and the Arabic language have been increasingly present in the public sphere, from transport to entertainment to the media, and positive—or at least neutral—interactions across the sectarian divide have been on the increase.

The latter process is now set to accelerate dramatically, with Arabic becoming not just a language of surveillance and espionage, but also a key language of trade, travel and services. Arabic music, filmmaking, and visual art will become omnipresent in a country where not too long ago, public broadcasting excluded even Arabic-influenced music produced by Israel's own second-generation Jewish-Arab artists; and this kind of Israeli music will now migrate deeper into the Middle East than it already does.

The latest state to join the normalization spree—Morroco—affords a particularly visceral example of what it might mean beyond tourism and commerce. Morocco and its Israeli-Jewish diaspora has been engaged in a sometimes painful, sometimes joyful reckoning with the rupture that saw the expulsion of the majority of the country's Jewish population and its migration to France and Israel. Thanks to Morocco and Israel throwing open their borders, this reconnection is set to accelerate. For the first time, reclaiming the void they left in Morocco's cultural, economic and political life is becoming at least a logistical possibility for Israeli-Mrrocans—although of course the process itself may take another generation or more.

Shedding the shell

So overall, what we see is a relatively small fish busily digging its way into a much bigger pond; Israel's military prowess and its role as validator for American aid and arms trade is important, but this alone won't have the same cultural and widespread economic effect on its new Arab allies as the other way round. And it's not just about simple math. This dismantling of defensive walls has deep implications for what Israelis perceive themselves to be—a Western outpost in "the Orient," or part of the region itself, in the present, as Israelis, not just as Judean Jews of the historical past; at the very least they'll be have a more keenly felt claim able to being both. Zionism as it exists today formed in isolation from the region where it was actually put to practice, a mirror image of Diaspora Judaism formed in cross-pollination with its host cultures. Now the walls are coming down, and a new cross-pollination process with its own risks and its own rewards is about to begin.

Where does all this leave the Palestinians? This probably deserves a separate column. In brief: in the short term, they are left pretty much where they were before—divided, dispersed, saddled with an autocratic leadership and subject to a militarized segregation regime, with its million crippling blows—from humiliating restrictions to outright killings, with 2020 alone offering some of the most searing examples. The leverage Arab states are currently raking in is not likely to be deployed to aid any Palestinians anytime soon—as we've already established, these governments don't actually care—and it's not clear how much of the windfall of tourism and trade will actually get to the West Bank (Gaza windfall, as with most things good, appears to be out of the question.) As for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, open trade and travel with the Gulf could, arguably, turbo-charge the growth of a Palestinian-Israeli middle class, while increasing Arabization of the Israeli public sphere might make it easier for them to rent a flat or evade stinkeye when speaking Arabic on public transport; but in the short term, that's about it.

And yet. Some of the newfound Israeli-Arab amity is certainly vulnerable to ricochets from the conflict—imagine if in 20 years, the Gulf states find it convenient, for whatever reason, to close the tap on Israeli trade and travel; say, in response to yet another Gaza war. More importantly, there is a bigger realignment in play here. Pro-Israeli writers celebrated the collapse of Arab-Palestinian solidarity this past year as the beginning of the end of the "Arab-Israeli" conflict, musing that perhaps there wasn't much of a conflict there to begin with. They're right; but the flip side to this is an inevitable refocusing of minds on the conflict that very much does exist, the Palestinian-Israeli one. The useless shell of a "civilizational" Arab-Israeli conflict is beginning to be shed; the hard, incandescent core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is beginning to emerge. The move is from a geopolitical chessboard to an intimate and visceral struggle, with a vastly different power balance and vastly more existential stakes.

Dimi Reider is a senior editor at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.