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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

A Middle East moment

New Arab-Israeli deal makes peace possible

For many Americans the prospect of travel to the Holy Land is reason enough for an Israel at peace with its neighbors. And that’s no trivial thing. Religious sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims helped bring 4.5 million visitors to Israel in 2019, pilgrimages driven by Israel’s history and its Western-style welcome. 

Street-level perspective helps to understand the geopolitics driving the Arab world’s move to normalize relations. It’s an issue as important as Arab worry over Iranian aggression and falling oil prices.

On a sunny day in Tel Aviv, which is most days, you can find a brunch spot between the Jaffa art galleries or join a fitness class just off the boardwalk. Freedom of movement.

On a Saturday at the city’s beach, you’ll see bikini-clad Israeli women next to Orthodox Jews in long dresses and Muslims draped in swim burkas, all dabbling in the waves and laughing as they go. Freedom of expression.

When the rocket sirens blare, as happened 18 months ago when Hamas launched two long-range missiles from Gaza toward Tel Aviv, Israelis head indoors and wait for anti-missile defense system Iron Dome to kick in. Afterward, they return to the restaurants, art galleries, and beaches. Freedom of security.

Israel is a country hemmed by those who want to wipe it out, yet it brims with prosperity. Decades of unstinting U.S. aid no doubt have helped, but the engine of commerce driving its $43,000 per capita GDP is largely self-determined. 

Other Middle East countries, that like Israel missed out on oil reserves but not substantial U.S. aid, have squandered their advantage: Egypt’s per capita GDP is $3,000. Jordan’s is $4,000. 

These are the pedestrian undercurrents carrying Arab leaders to Israel’s doorstep. What Israel stands for in 2020 is less a pariah in the Middle East and more of an answer—to decades of terrorism and instability that for too long have characterized the region.

The Sept. 15 ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House marking peace between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain is the first such moment since 1988. Each leader signed a bilateral agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opening the countries to trade, travel, and diplomacy. All three signed the “Abraham Accords,” a brief declaration “to advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity.”

President Donald Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, along with envoy Avi Berko­witz, saw an opening where other presidencies have failed. By delaying Israel’s plans for further West Bank annexation, they brought the Gulf states into a relationship with Israel that may lead to a two-state solution for Palestinians.

Trump leaned into a reality recent administrations pushed against: that Palestinian leadership repeatedly shunned peace deals in Palestinians’ interest. He didn’t wait to bring along the Palestinian Authority, a sidelining that may be good news for Palestinian people held hostage by leadership aligned with Hamas.

For Christians, the Arab thaw also is an opening toward the Jewish state. Armenia upgraded diplomatic relations, opening an embassy in Tel Aviv in September. The move helps secure the Armenian Apostolic Church’s continued presence in Jerusalem and gives new impetus to once-estranged relations—all over the objections of Iran, a long-standing Armenian ally.

Christian leaders in Lebanon, too, are rethinking hostile relations with Israel. Maronite Church Patriarch Bechara Al-Rai welcomed the UAE and Bahrain deals, even though Lebanon is far from such an arrangement.

The deals say nothing about wars in Syria and Yemen but suggest the region is realigning its compass and ready to do business with Israel on new footing.

That’s good news, because Israel has much to offer. In the Negev last month scientists harvested and tasted the first Judean dates, a species of the fruit celebrated in the Bible, the Quran, and other ancient texts but extinct for centuries. Scientists germinated seeds collected at an archaeological dig at Masada. They used the latest in microsatellite genotyping to date and geolocate the six seeds, then coaxed them to germination. They gave them the Biblical names Adam, Jonah, Uriel, Boaz, Judith, and Hannah. The seeds’ resurrection is a tangible gift to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and a sign of what determined prosperity makes possible.