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A New Middle East of Arab-Israeli Rapport? Not So Fast

AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool

In a “major boon for Israeli air travel,” The Times of Israel reports, “Saudi Arabia [has] announced that it will henceforth allow flights from ‘all countries’ to cross over its airspace on flights to or from the United Arab Emirates.”

Israeli leaders “understood this to mean,” TOI goes on, “that Israeli flights can head to and from the Far East via Saudi Arabia and UAE, drastically reducing travel time.”

In other words, it’s assumed that “all countries” includes Israel, whose planes — until this week — had never been allowed to traverse Saudi airspace. Enthusiasm doesn’t appear to have been dampened by the fact that the Saudis couldn’t somehow eke out the word “Israel” in their announcement.

It didn’t seem to dent the enthusiasm of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called the announcement a “huge breakthrough”:

“For years, I have been working to open the skies between Israel and the East. It was spectacular news two-and-a-half years ago when Air India received approval [from the Saudis] to fly directly to Israel,” he said in a filmed statement, standing near a huge map.

“Now there is another tremendous breakthrough: Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back. Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy.”

The new Saudi policy “will open up the East,” the prime minister went on.

“When you fly to Thailand or anywhere else in Asia, it will save time and money. This is amazing news for you, the citizens of Israel. These are the benefits of a peace that is genuine,” he said.

The Saudi announcement comes hard on the heels of Monday’s (truly) historic visit to the UAE by a U.S.-Israeli delegation, which, as TOI put it, “[passed] over Saudi airspace in a flight laden with symbolism.”

The U.S. contingent was led by Jared Kushner, who has played a key role in brokering an emergent Israel-UAE normalization deal known as the Abraham Accord, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien; the Israeli team was led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat. In Abu Dhabi, Kushner and Ben Shabbat met with the UAE’s national security adviser “for talks on cooperation between the two highly developed Middle East economies.”

The talks there also dealt with cooperation in health matters including COVID-19, finance, space exploration, and other areas. By all accounts, the Israeli contingent was warmly received.

The Israeli media, for its part — despite a prevalent hostility to Netanyahu — was decidedly upbeat. Popular columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote:

The Israeli delegation’s official visit to the UAE – flying in Saudi Arabian airsace on an El Al plane with the kingdom’s permission – is a day of celebration for Israel.

We wanted a new Middle East and here it is taking shape right before our eyes….

Is this trend within the Arab world real, or is it simply an agreement between leaders that has nothing to do with Arab public opinion?
There is still no polling to back this assumption but scouring through Arab media clearly shows that something is going on over there and it didn’t begin with the Israel-UAE deal….
Articles we would not have dreamed of reading two or three decades ago are published today not only on sites operating in the West but in leading newspapers in Arab countries.
Prominent Saudi journalist Mashari Althaydi wrote that the UAE reached an “historic achievement.”
Yemeni economist Manahel Thabet published an article praising Israel’s scientific achievements and called on Arab countries to cooperate with Israel.

 

Yemini is right that positive sentiment toward Israel has been growing in Arab countries. And yet, though it is not nice to rain on this parade, there are indications that it’s too soon for a “celebration” and Israelis need to be more cautious.

For one thing, confident claims by Netanyahu, Kushner, and others that additional Arab states are waiting in line to follow the UAE’s example are not — so far — being borne out.

Kushner, who flew on from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain and then Saudi Arabia — two of the Arab countries often mentioned as also likely to open official ties with Israel — appears to have encountered something other than eagerness.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa reportedly told Kushner that his country wouldn’t cut a deal with Israel unless Saudi Arabia — the kingpin of the Gulf states — did so first.

As for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he appears to have reiterated to Kushner the longstanding Saudi position that before there could be official Saudi-Israeli ties, there would have to be successful Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations resulting in an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

As anyone cognizant of the Palestinian Authority’s — let alone Hamas’s — ongoing attitude toward Israel knows, that’s the same as saying warmer relations will have to wait until another era if not forever.

And then there’s the matter of the top-of-the-line F-35 warplane, which the U.S. has sold so far only to allies like Israel, Japan, and South Korea (Turkey was also supposed to get the planes until Washington changed its mind).

It’s been widely reported that Abu Dhabi sees the F-35 as a prize for its developing deal with Israel. Israel opposes the sale of F-35s to other Middle Eastern countries, and fears that, if the UAE does get the planes, it will set a precedent: warmed-up relations with Israel = shiny new F-35s. Given fundamental Middle Eastern instability and unpredictability, that would mean a scary environment for Israel.

Israelis have a deep longing for acceptance in the region, and positive signs shouldn’t be dismissed. But they also shouldn’t be exaggerated; sentiments aside, let’s see what develops.

P. David Hornik, a longtime American immigrant in Israel, is a freelance writer, translator, and copyeditor living in Beersheva. In addition to PJ Media, his work has appeared in American Spectator, National Review, Frontpage Magazine, New English Review, American Thinker, The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere. Among his books are Choosing Life in Israel and, newly released by Adelaide Books, the novel And Both Shall Row.