For better Middle Eastern relations tomorrow, engage youth today

The ground in the Middle East continues to shift.

Naftali Bennett recently became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom of Bahrain. This was on the heels of a similarly unprecedented visit to the United Arab Emirates in December and a visit by Israel’s Defense Minister to Morocco in November. 

More significant than these official visits have been the unofficial ones — the tourism that’s taking place amongst these countries. According to Israel’s tourism minister, more than a quarter of a million Israelis visited the UAE between September 2020 and October 2021 — despite COVID pandemic restrictions. Morocco says it expects hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists in 2022.  

The launching point for this once unthinkable Arab-Israeli rapprochement, of course, was the September 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords in which the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, after which Morocco and Sudan quickly followed suit. The signatories pledged to “pursue a vision of peace, security and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world.” There is lots of evidence that these nations actually meant what they signed. 

The pursuit of prosperity is well underway. Over the last year, bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE has increased tenfold, with predictions of $1 trillion in trade by 2031. Trade has also increased with Bahrain, and in February, Israel signed a trade and investment agreement with Morocco with the ambition of increasing trade five-fold. 

The pursuit of mutual security, once even more unthinkable than commercial relations, is taking place as well. Last year’s visit by the Israeli Defense Minister to Morocco included the signing of a bilateral security pact. In the wake of missile attacks on the UAE by the Yemen-based Houthis in early 2022, Israel and the UAE have reportedly ramped up intelligence cooperation and military technology sharing

But in order for the central promise of the Abraham Accords to be realized — the vision of a lasting peace — more, much more, needs to be done. While Arab and Israeli governments are increasingly recognizing their shared interests, public attitudes shaped by years of conflict will inevitably take longer to change. Arab populations have been taught for generations to reject the very right of the “Zionist entity” to exist, and accepting a rapidly changing reality won’t happen overnight — especially in the face of extremist messaging to the contrary. For their part, Israelis have become accustomed to tragically regular conflict with terrorist groups operating out of Lebanon and Gaza. During the most recent 11-day war with Hamas in May 2021, a spasm of Jewish-Arab communal violence rocked Israeli cities and showed how fragile peaceful coexistence can be. 

The United States has tools at its disposal to harness the tailwinds driving Arab-Israeli reconciliation and to accelerate the healing of these rifts. For many years, the U.S. Agency for International Development has funded efforts to foster partnerships between Israelis and Arabs, such as the Conflict Management and Mitigation Program and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. Privately funded programs such as Seeds of Peace have contributed to increased linkages between Israelis and Palestinians. These programs should be expanded. 

But there’s another idea we should embrace that would do even more to ensure that the spirit of the Abraham Accords lives on. It’s time to create a YALI for the Middle East. 

Created in 2010, the Young Africans Leaders Initiative, or YALI, was established as the flagship U.S. program to invest in the optimism and energy of Africa’s youth. Through fellowships and regional learning centers, YALI trains the next generation of African leaders in entrepreneurship, civic engagement and democratic governance, and today boasts a network of more than 700,000 across the continent. 

YALI is State Department and USAID supported, but it’s powered by the participation of countless organizations and private sector groups. For example, the Wilson Center was proud to host the 10-year anniversary of YALI, at which alumni shared stories of the businesses they had expanded with U.S. assistance, the policies they had helped enact, and the relationships they had forged across Africa. With support from Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and others, YALI is stronger and more far-reaching than ever. 

The U.S. has similar youth-focused efforts in Asia and Latin America, but no program as comprehensive in the Middle East, let alone one focused on Israeli-Arab reconciliation. As the last few years have vividly illustrated, Israeli and Arab youth have many issues in common, be they struggling with the fallout from a global pandemic and climate extremes, or seeking economic opportunity in a fast-changing world. A “Young Middle Eastern Leaders Initiative” should begin with young people from the accord countries, as a way of connecting them to its vision, but then expand to other communities where there’s fertile ground. 

The Biden administration’s foreign policy team is understandably stretched these days by the many challenges it’s taking on. Still, the progress in many parts of the Middle East since the accords were first signed suggests the prospects for sustainable partnerships and lasting peace are real. The U.S. should marry a top-down approach of encouraging more governments to join the Abraham Accords along with a bottom-up effort to strengthen societal and economic integration. 

A Young Middle Eastern Leaders Initiative will remind young people they have much more in common than they’ve been raised to believe — and give them the tools to build a better future based on that commonality. 

Ambassador Mark Green, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars served as USAID administrator from 2017-2020 and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from mid-2007 to early 2009. Before that, he served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Wisconsin’s 8th District.

Tags Abraham Accords Arab–Israeli alliance against Iran Arab–Israeli peace process Bahrain–Israel normalization agreement Chris Coons Chris Van Hollen International relations Israel Israel–United Arab Emirates normalization agreement Israel–United States relations Karen Bass Mark Green Mike Rounds

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