For Jewish News Nov 2020
A remarkable picture of how the newly-signed Abraham Accords — between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain — are working in practice, emerged at a ground-breaking webinar on Wednesday, convened by the Anglo-Israel Association.
For the first time, the ambassadors of the three countries in Britain, in a panel event moderated by Lord Finkelstein, spoke of their hopes for close co-operation and, in the pointed comments of both the UAE ambassador, Mansoor Abulhoul, and the Bahraini ambassador, Sheikh Fawaz al-Khalifa, their wish that the Abraham Accords should be “a warm peace”. An Israeli trade delegation was in Bahrain on Wednesday morning, and twice-weekly flights between the UAE and Israel start next week.
For her part, Israeli ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, in one of her first public appearances since arriving in the UK, said that she wanted the Abraham Accords to “inspire” the countries with which Israel already had peace treaties, Egypt and Jordan. “We are not replacing our friends, we are extending the number of our friends”, she said.
Ambassador Abulhoul said that the approach was different for both the UAE and Bahrain from the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “We don’t share borders with Israel and we haven’t had a conflict with it. So we start from a different position”.
But while all three ambassadors enthused about the opportunities in the context of the Abraham Accords — particularly in hi-tech, tourism, trade, co-operation on dealing with Covid, all of which have already begun — they were more circumspect when it came to discussing the prospects of peace between Israel and other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. Israeli media have reported a visit to Saudi Arabia this week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but this has been denied by the Saudi Foreign Ministry. None of the ambassadors was ready to confirm or deny the visit, but expressed optimism that other Arab countries would join the Accords in due course.
What Lord Finkelstein called “the elephant in the room”, the issue of the Palestinians, was addressed directly by Ambassador Abulhoul. “Decades of not talking to each other did not serve the cause of peace”, he said, adding: “We have seen already how engagement with Israel allowed us to take the issue of annexation [of the West Bank by Israel] off the table. That preserved the two-state solution as a viable option. Our firm commitment to the Palestinian cause has not changed. We still believe it is essential to end this tragic dispute. That means a just settlement based on a two-state solution.”
He said he believed that the Palestinians would “recognise the tangible benefits from the suspension of annexation”, and that the signatories to the Abraham Accords to help bring the Palestinians and Israel back to direct negotiations.
The panellists were asked about the boycott and dealing with antisemitism. With some pride, the Bahraini ambassador spoke about the flourishing Jewish community in his country and noted that Bahrain had closed the Israel boycott centre 15 years ago.
The diplomats were also asked about Iran and its position in the region. Ambassador Fawaz al Khalifa said it was important to recognise that the Abraham Accords “are not an alliance against Iran”, while Ambassador Abulhoul said there was UAE co-operation with Iran on Covid and on aid it had given during recent floods in Iran. Like Ms Hotovely, the ambassadors were at pains to say their differences with the Iranian regime and not with the Iranian people. Mr Abulhoul stressed that the UAE, in particular, “has no interest in confrontation with Iran”. Its issues were with aspects of “malign behaviour” and how Iran continued to behave.
All three diplomats believed that the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration, nevertheless indicated a bipartisan American policy, and all welcomed support from President-elect Joe Biden in continuing to bring more countries into the discussions. Ms Hotovely observed that previous US administrations had stuck to “the paradigm that the Palestinian issue has to be solved first. These Accords are breaking that paradigm, and we in Israel know how to work with Joe Biden.”
Lord Bew, chair of the Anglo-Israel Association, expressed “great happiness” that the AIA had been able to convene the meeting, the most hopeful and optimistic of his 10 years as chairman.