How the Abraham Accords are helping the Middle East come to terms with Israel’s existence
Four years ago, I shared a coffee with a Shia friend originally from Lebanon. The subject of Israel came up, as it often does. When I suggested that the Sunni of the region would beat the Shia to peace with Israel (and thus reap the benefits), he looked at me with incomprehension — as if to say that I had no idea how impossible that would be. But after a moment, he shared what others from the region will say in private: that his generation is hostage to the civil war generation, but that if there can be “a generation without war, there can be peace with Israel.”
The sense of a possible regional normalization with Israel is partly informed intuition, but also a reminder that Iran’s resistance narrative and scapegoating tactics are nothing more than the hollow raison d’etrefor its terrorist industrial complex. Resistance to Israel is Hezbollah’s justification for illegal arms — the ideological pretext for its gradual takeover of the Lebanese state via reigning through fear.
“Very few people really believe the [anti-Zionist] ideology,” another Lebanese man told me last year. “It’s simply good for business. The ideology is the basis for how it all works.” By “it all,” he meant corruption and the takeover of his country by Iran and Hezbollah. And by “works” he meant how Lebanon has come to ruin.
Recognizing the situation does not mean one can change it. A Lebanese leader or even the Maronite cardinal patriarch, Boutros al-Rai, may occasionally condemn Hezbollah and call for a peace settlement, which Hezbollah will never permit. Lebanon may not reach that “generation without war” before it is destroyed from within by Hezbollah, corruption and incompetence.
And yet, peace has in the past come quite unexpectedly in the region, as it did when the U.S. helped Egypt and Israel make peace. The Middle East might become more open if they grasped just how significantly Israel has changed internally.
In 2021, I visited Israel in August and Lebanon in September. Israeli friends reacted to news of my trip north as if I’d said I was vacationing in Afghanistan. When they think of Lebanon, they think only of Hezbollah, though in truth there is much more even to that tiny country. The Lebanese, for their part, were fascinated to learn about Israel. They were most surprised to learn that Israel is essentially a Middle Eastern and North African country — that most of Israel’s Jews today descend primarily not from Europe but from the Arab world: Morocco, Iran, Yemen, Central Asia and beyond. This often surprised the Lebanese, much as it stuns others in the region.
Too few Westerners and Middle Easterners – in fact, few outside Israel – know the story of the exodus of Jews from the region after 1948. Until then, many Middle Eastern countries had substantial indigenous Jewish minorities, called Sephardim, or sometimes (even derogatorily) Mizrahim (“Easterners”). These Jews lived and died for centuries in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Upwards of 1 million fled their homes after neighbors and governments turned on them following the creation of modern Israel.
Few of them were Zionists. Many knew nothing of the movement. Most wished to remain in their homes, but they weren’t given that choice. Apologies and invitations to return have been few, and one hears little of these exiled Jews from international human rights groups. Nor is it often acknowledged, outside Israel, that 20 percent of its population is Arab, the consequence of a decision in 1948 to grant citizenship to many Israeli Arabs on the land, despite the declaration of war by five Arab states against Israel that year.
Since 1948, being an Israeli citizen has made it nearly impossible for one to travel to most of the Middle East. Thus, for nearly three quarters of a century, Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Sephardi Jewish refugees haven’t been free to travel or encounter their Arab neighbors in the region. For Sephardic Jews, their encounters with other Middle Easterners typically occur in Europe or North America. When they meet the countrymen of their parents and grandparents, the response is invariably the same: “I had no idea there were Jews from my country.”
Today, however, for the first time, Israel’s Middle Eastern communities – most of Israel’s citizens – have begun to travel to places in the region that were heretofore impossible because of laws forbidding contact with Israelis. A powerful and purposeful barrier between Middle Eastern peoples is thus crumbling.
What made this possible? In 2020, the U.S. and regional partners negotiated the Abraham Accords, a series of bilateral agreements that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, as well as restored and upgraded relations with Morocco. The accords have revolutionized the region. There are three main reasons why this decisive development occurred so swiftly.
First, since the Arab Spring, regional leaders came to see that their people are not so easily manipulated by scapegoating resistance narratives that project domestic problems onto a distant and somewhat abstract enemy. Anti-Zionist ideology has been a useful governing tactic, but it’s done little to address the real challenges of urbanization, unemployment, economic modernization, education, food security and access to water.
Second, it’s nearly impossible to hide from citizens the economic success of Israel’s pluralistic society and democratic spirit. Every country that develops trade with the tiny Jewish startup nation enjoys material benefits. And those that punish their citizens for contact with Israeli markets necessarily stagnate.
The third reason is sheer exhaustion. Arab nationalism and Islamism have failed. People want competent administration, not perpetual conflict. It can finally be wondered whether the region has arrived at its Westphalian moment, in which wars of religion and ideology die of exhaustion.
The people of the Middle East see the rest of the world passing them by — and now, with the Abraham Accords, they see states in the region coming to terms with Israel’s existence.
The new regional rapprochement with Israel is fragile, however. Indeed, there’s been a backlash, in some places (such as Iraq) so perilous that overtures toward normalization are now punishable by death. But this backlash might be understood as the last gasps of a failed ideology.
Anti-Zionism is clung to by insipid and corrupt leaders who simply aren’t competent to reorder their societies according to need — leaders whose wish is simply to survive long enough to die in their beds or at least in exile, like the deposed Shah of Iran.
Most of the Middle East (Iran and its proxies and partners notwithstanding) now seeks some new paradigm, something pragmatic that will meet the demands of the people. Happily for Israel, its demography, geography and entrepreneurial economy are all suited to regional rapprochement.
Both Israel and its regional partners would do well to emphasize through its diverse citizenry that it’s not some colonial aberration but very much of the region — culturally, religiously and socially.
Arab leaders were willing to deal with Israel in part due to frustration with the Palestinian rejection of successive opportunities for peace deals. And while Palestinian leaders in the West Bank today call the Abraham Accords “a knife in the back,” the accords may offer job-hungry Palestinians the opportunities that their political leaders deny them.
It is Palestinian leaders, not the people, who benefit from the status quo. Arab states may play a role in this development: through direct investment, the creation of special economic zones in the West Bank or even pressure on the Palestinian Authority to revoke regulations that forbid Palestinians to work for Israeli settlers (as tens of thousands currently do).
International diplomatic pressure can be brought against countries such as Lebanon and Iraq to rescind their laws that forbid contact with Israelis. States in the region that are shifting toward openness might grant visas to adherents of Abrahamic faith communities to make pilgrimage to the holy sites of their faith. (Lebanese Christians, for example, cannot travel to Jerusalem, the most sacred site in Christianity, because of anti-Zionist laws that remain in place since modern Israel’s reconstitution.)
Finally, Western and regional governments might reduce or cut off aid to countries that refuse to rescind anti-normalization laws and teach antisemitism in schools or preach hatred through state-funded religious institutions.
Perhaps as a prelude to these steps, Western and regional partners can work behind the scenes with some governments of the region that exiled their Jewish communities after 1948 to grant special visitor visas to the descendants of those refugees, and to begin public education efforts that acknowledge the presence and cultural significance of those communities. Thousands of synagogues, cemeteries, schools and other structures attest to millennia of Jewish lives.
There are few places in the world as ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse as Israel. For all the emphasis on Israel’s Europeanness, it is today, as in many ways it always was, principally a Middle Eastern nation. Israel’s neighbors who grasp this fact will benefit immensely — first through trade, then culture and perhaps one day through civil society and governance. Israel’s diverse citizenry, Israeli Arabs and Sephardim among others, may speed the process of regional rapprochement along as much as state-level diplomacy.
Andrew Doran is a senior research fellow with the Philos Project. He previously served on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State (2018-21).