There is probably no reasonable person who has yet to praise Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates. It’s a real achievement with great potential on the one hand, and almost no price to pay on the other.
The news correspondents may have flooded Israelis with flashy reports on boutique hotels and fancy malls, but the real bonanza hides in the infinite potential for business between Israel and the UAE, and with its partners who may jump on the wagon of the new Middle East.
An acquaintance who works in a major fund for high tech investment says that since the beginning of the week, the office’s inbox is full of direct requests from businesses in the Gulf. They all read about the same, he said: we have money, let’s cooperate. “I’ve never seen such eagerness for doing business,” he said. “I believe we’ll be there in the next few weeks.”
In fact, the Israeli high tech sector has been in the Gulf for years. Not from the top, meaning investments, but from the bottom: the products. There is almost no Israeli company that hasn’t tried its luck in the Gulf in the past decade. Especially cyber companies—defensive, but also offensive. The Israeli Defense Ministry supervises every deal, but has only blocked a few transactions.
That allowed for companies like NSO, Verint, Checkpoint and others to work in the Gulf with almost complete freedom, including teams that are situated there permanently. Those who understand the field know to look for the privileged terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport—formerly the Masada lounge and today Fattal—where all the passengers on private planes arrive. Their number has skyrocketed over the past few years, with the rise of business with Gulf states. It’s a two-way street: Israelis fly there, and businessmen from the Gulf come here.
Almost all of this activity happens by private plane, to stay under the radar. Since there aren’t any direct flights between Israel and the Gulf, the planes take off from Ben Gurion, land in Amman, Jordan, and then immediately continue eastward. The price of a private flight like this can reach up to tens of thousands of dollars. For a businessman to attend a single meeting it’s usually not worth it, but for a company flying a few of its employees as part of a deal worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars this is a quiet and comfortable means of transportation.
All this activity will now move into the open, and we’ll see the hundreds of companies already doing business in the Gulf. From security industries—all of them, without exception—that have been trying in recent years to sell various products, through companies that deal with agriculture, water and food technologies, to other potential businesses, including the finance sector.
These seeds were planted in the mid-1990s, after the Oslo Accords. That’s when the first Israelis visited Oman and the Emirates, delegations traveled to Oman, and offices were opened in Bahrain and Qatar. The Second Intifada cooled the relations, but the fundamental Islamists—the Shi’ites of Iran and the Sunnis of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda—warmed them up again. In the Gulf they understood that Israel is not the problem in the Middle East, but mostly the solution, that with all due respect to the recalcitrant Palestinians, the region has more serious problems, which Israel stands on the front lines of.
That led to deep, intimate, and productive cooperation. On the Israeli side, the party mostly responsible for this cooperation was in most cases the Mossad, the direct arm of the prime minister. Traditionally the Mossad conducts Israel’s covert diplomatic ties, but in the past decade its activity broke every known norm and was used as a basis for cooperation that has considerable operational gains as well.
The Mossad overcame the crisis of the assassination in 2010 of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which cast a shadow for a few years over the ties with the principality. The UAE wasn’t angry about the assassination; the Hamas activist didn’t interest them one bit. Their anger was over being disgraced in public, in front of security cameras. They demanded that Israel not carry out similar operations on their territory in the future as a condition for rehabilitating ties. This led to much deeper cooperation.
The demand from the UAE to receive as part of the normalization deal with Israel the possibility to buy F-35 fighter jets and advanced unmanned aircraft from the United States was not surprising. It was also not new.
Israel’s Defense Ministry has forbidden Israeli companies to sell advanced offensive technologies to the UAE, for fear they would fall into the wrong hands, and this policy has not changed. Jerusalem has also consistently objected to the transfer of advanced U.S. technologies to countries in the Middle East, based on the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region. This commitment began with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Congress passed a law as recently as 2018 calling for consulting with Israel before any decision to sell weapons to countries in the region. All past U.S. administrations have abided by this commitment in the past, and this administration is no different.
From the prime minister’s announcement that the deal with the UAE did not include any change in Israel’s position on this matter, one can conclude that the sale of F-35s was indeed on the table. Widespread reports on the issue this week revealed a double truth: It is doubtful that Israel can really influence the deal, and that the way the issue was managed in Israel was not good.
The United States may have a deep commitment to Israel—but it has a deeper commitment to itself. Given the current financial situation, and on the eve of elections, a multi-billion dollar sale of fighter jets—translating into thousands of jobs for the U.S. economy—is very relevant. This should be the starting point for Israel, which should attempt to make lemonade from lemons and get something valuable in exchange from both the UAE and the Americans.
It’s still not late to do that. Especially if along the way Saudi Arabia and other states join the normalization push; they might also have demands in areas that concern Israel.
Regardless, normalization in the region is a huge achievement for Netanyahu, and one whose diplomatic, economic and security value cannot be underestimated. Correct management of the issue now can maximize these gains, at a time when the Israeli economy also needs oxygen. On the way, it will divide the Middle East clearly between good and evil ahead of the fight against Iran and its emissaries—in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza—who will do everything to sink the new reality in the old and familiar swamp that is the Middle East.
Gaza reminded us this week of this unfortunate reality. While in its imagination Israel sailed towards peace deals and economic ties, in its daily routine it was dragged into a fight in the south.
“Israel’ll fix it”
Hamas is not interested in escalation. There is no Israeli official who thinks otherwise. Hamas wants money and a horizon. The economic situation in Gaza concerns the terrorist organization greatly, mainly due to fear for the stability of its rule. It is frustrated at not being able to reach long-term understandings with Israel, and furthermore that its struggle is not garnering interest from the Arab and Western worlds. Gazans watched with concern how the world’s attention—and with it the promises for aid—moved to Beirut following the Aug. 4 blast that leveled the Beirut port.
The harassment that the citizens of Israel’s south have been subjected to in recent weeks is supposed to solve the issue. Hamas is trying to transfer the responsibility to Israel: let Israel find a solution. There was an old TV show in Israel called “Chaim’ll fix it.” Chaim Topol made the viewers’ wishes come true. Hamas has adopted the format—”Israel’ll fix it.” It wants Israel to make sure it has enough money, in exchange for quiet.
As of Thursday morning, 270 fires had been set by incendiary balloons launched from Gaza over the past few weeks. Up to the start of the week, there were also the “nightly harassments” near the border, and rockets were fired at Ashkelon and Sderot. Hamas wasn’t directly responsible for all this activity, but it definitely allowed it. This is its way of signaling distress, without losing control.
Israel knows this dance, and moves accordingly. On the one hand, it responds decisively: While Gaza is not destroyed from the air, each night the air force has struck unique Hamas infrastructure and weapon manufacturing facilities. The terrorist group is also being punished economically: The trade crossing at Kerem Shalom has been closed, fishing is forbidden and gas transfer to Gaza has been limited.
The Gaza streets felt the effect immediately. Prices surged and there was less electricity. The internal pressure on Hamas grew. It was cornered: If it completely stopped the violence, it would be seen as surrender. Ratcheting it up, on the other hand, could lead to escalation it doesn’t want. As always, Hamas tried to do both: stop the nightly harassments and rocket fire, but keep up with the incendiary balloons.
As opposed to what some Israelis (especially in the center of the country) believe, the south is not all black. Only parts of it have been burnt. The fires are annoying, but their damage is limited. In the beginning, there were only a few balloons, which burned large areas. Recently there have been many balloons which burned only small areas. The reason for this is the effective work of the fire brigade, the Israel Defense Forces, the police and civilians. Each fire is located and put out quickly.
The main damage is psychological. Hamas is building on that and enjoys the fact that each fire is mentioned in the media and on social networks, which puts pressure on Israeli decision-makers. As mentioned before, let Israel fix it. And if it doesn’t, let it stew slowly.
Various officials are trying to solve this puzzle. An Egyptian delegation visited Gaza this week. It came to Ramallah, went to Gaza for a day, and returned to Cairo with no agreements. Simultaneously, United Nations delegates are at work, and constant negotiations with Qatar are being held to ensure Qatari funding for Gaza will continue. The Qatari delegate is willing to come to Gaza to discuss this, but Israel is demanding quiet in the south as a condition for his entrance.
The Qataris haven’t decided against continuing the funding, but they have demands. They want more recognition of their efforts, and certainly now when they’re not part of the new peace deals with the neighbors in the Gulf. They’re willing to discuss enlarging the monthly sum from $30 to $40 million dollars. Israel will agree, as long as the money is used for civilian projects, like converting the Gaza power plant from diesel to gas and adding a fourth turbine that would significantly enlarge its output and thus electricity for Gaza citizens.
In Israel they will try to link this with long-term understandings that will ensure that Hamas is deprived of new reasons to harass Gaza civilians in a few months. The problem is that the road to such understandings, as always, must include a deal for returning the bodies of IDF soldiers and of Israelis held captive in Gaza. Those with information on this issue say the price Hamas is asking in return is so steep that the chances of such a deal being reached are almost nil. However, given the civilian strife in Gaza, Hamas may become more flexible.
It is thus probable that the current reality in the south will remain unchanged in the upcoming days. The sides will try to reach an agreement while living under the threat of escalation. As always, every rocket from Gaza and every attack from Israel has the potential to deteriorate the situation; the IDF is prepared for this, and the Southern Command has held meetings to prepare for any escalation. The growing belief is that a deal will be reached to bring back the quiet to the south, but with a clear caveat: Gaza is going nowhere. The new winds blowing in the region will not reach it in the foreseeable future.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.