This week marks the painful remembrance of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Yet, the week also shares the anniversary of the most powerful intellectual and diplomatic rebuke to the Al Qaeda worldview. Osama bin Laden attacked America for its role in the Middle East and desperately tried to whip up hatred between Westerners, Jews, Muslims, and Arabs. His death in 2011 did not end his message, but the Abraham Accords signed on September 15, 2020, have changed the lives of millions. And it has the potential, if America builds on existing achievements, to positively alter the Middle East and the wider world.
First, I am writing these lines as I shuttle between Jerusalem and Arab capitals. The Accords helped establish direct flights between Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, some above Saudi airspace. In the airport lounges of Dubai, I watch ordinary Iranians and Israelis, supposedly sworn enemies, talking about their families and businesses. Trade volumes are increasing annually between Arab nations and Israel from $590 million in 2019 to $3.4 billion last year and will burgeon significantly. With 200 weekly flights between Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, more than a million Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates. Air traffic has increased between Israel and Morocco, Jordan, and Turkey.
Second, since 1947, Israelis have lived behind an iron curtain with little contact with their Arab and Muslim neighbors. Most Israelis, only encountering Palestinians at checkpoints, viewed Arabs with suspicion. Now, as one Israeli general explained to me, “We Israelis are wearing new glasses and seeing Arabs and Muslims as partners in peace.” In the security of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Israelis visit mosques and malls, beaches and golf courses, kosher restaurants, and even a synagogue beside churches and mosques. In Jerusalem, Israelis are stabbed and dare not enter Gaza. In the Arabian Gulf, Israelis and Arabs dance at weddings, invest in businesses, and change school curricula to educate for a better future. As the Accords declare: “We seek tolerance and respect for every person in order to make this world a place where all can enjoy a life of dignity and hope, no matter their race, faith or ethnicity.” Change takes time and leadership. What the Accords have started must continue and, in the long run, will increase the popularity of peace in Arab countries. Persuading 350 million Arabs will be a more complex challenge than 10 million Israelis, but the work has begun and requires American and regional support.
Third, where the UAE has led, Saudi Arabia will likely follow, and now there is a serious and sustained negotiation led by the United States to make peace between Mecca and Jerusalem, Islam and Judaism, Israel and Saudi Arabia. That such a diplomatic and civilizational breakthrough is even on the negotiation table is a significant advance from the days when Osama bin Laden wrongly claimed to represent Saudi interests. Bin Laden sought to expel American and Israeli interests from the Middle East: The Saudi crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, seeks treaty-level American security guarantees and advanced weapons systems to protect Saudi Arabia from radicals inside and outside his country. These are the corridors opened by the Abraham Accords.
Fourth, the Accords suspended Israeli annexations of disputed territories until 2024 and kept alive Palestinian dreams of a future state. That “normalization, not annexation” model is now on the table for Saudi Arabia to secure a longer term of no expansion. Palestinian leaders from the West Bank have been meeting in Riyadh and Amman to open a new stage of respect and dignity for their people. Still, the challenge for those of us who support Jewish-Muslim coexistence is to deepen further the noble aim expressed in the Accords: “We believe that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among States advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world.” In a future Palestinian state, we should imagine the presence of Jewish citizens. After all, Israel has a 20 percent Arab population.
Fifth, for years since 9/11, Israelis and Westerners would point fingers at Arabs and Muslims and say, “Where is a real peace with Israel if you are moderate and peaceful people?” Our silence was revealing. The Abraham Accords have ended that question and allowed Muslims and Arabs to hold their heads high. But such confidence in coexistence remains fragile. Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Pakistan, Yemen, and others should end unwarranted hostility with the world’s only Jewish state. If we pursue our peaceful pathway, in time, they will join the circle of peace, too. But it won’t be free of challenges.
The Iranian government is watching its plans for an anti-American region crumble, and it will increase its funding and terror activities to destabilize Arab governments, American interests, and Israel. Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen, and others across the Middle East are busy working to disrupt a Middle East aligned with America. Russia and China linger beside the Iranian clerics. But the threats to stability come from within our own side, too.
As China seeks to peel away Western allies, America must not repeat the mistake of naively promoting nation-building in Gaza, Iraq, or Egypt, where the outcome of elections is the successful mass organization of radical Islamist parties who rarely govern in a democratic—nevermind liberal—fashion. Solidifying the Abraham Accords and its vision of pluralism, progress, and peace means U.S. diplomacy must beckon more nations under the roof of a civilizational grouping that shelters our allies and partners. Building infrastructure from Dubai to Saudi Arabia to Israel to the Mediterranean, as announced at the G20 Summit last week, is a testament to what is possible. Similarly, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have all requested deeper and greater American security arrangements. The US and Bahrain have signed a security and economic pact this week that shows others what is on the table for allies of America. The Abraham Accords provide the foundations for that military, economic, intellectual, and policy framework for a grand partnership between America, Israel, and fifty-two Arab and Muslim nations.
Ed Husain is the Director of the N7 Initiative, a partnership between the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation and the Atlantic Council. Husain is also a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.