Pleasant winds are blowing towards Israel from the direction of the Persian Gulf. Immediately after President Isaac Herzog’s historic visit to the United Arab Emirates early last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz embarked on an equally historic visit to Bahrain. Both flew to their respective destinations over Saudi Arabia, another friend, albeit one that prefers at this stage to keep its ties with Israel out of the public eye.
Although Herzog’s visit was more of a courtesy call, there is substance even in ceremony and symbolism. To be sure, visits from Israeli premiers and defense ministers, the majority of which are kept a secret, are traditionally viewed by Arab countries as a necessity, which is how the leaders of these countries justify them to their people. But such was not the case with Herzog’s visit to the UAE—an official and very public visit that was entirely an expression of true friendship.
Gulf States are not afraid of such visits and don’t bother hiding their existence. Quite the opposite: Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” is openly played—a clear testament to these countries’ self-confidence, and confidence in the strength and importance of relations with Israel. And just as importantly, it indicates confidence in their peoples’ broad support for peace with Israel.
This is what’s unique about Israel’s relationship with these countries, compared to its ties, close and important as they may be, with the Arab countries on its borders. In those countries, the rulers don’t even try to rally public support for peace, because they assume, often incorrectly, that due to the toxic atmosphere generated by the Arab media, their people oppose any ties or contact with Israel.
Herzog visited the Emirates at a delicate time; Houthi rebels based in Yemen launched yet another missile attack on the UAE during his visit. Although the Houthis pulled the trigger, the guiding hand belonged to Tehran, which supplies the Houthis with the missiles they launch at the UAE on its orders, and which perhaps they will one day fire at Israel. Gantz, on the other hand, visited Bahrain amid a large U.S. naval exercise in the Red Sea in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and for the first time, Israel.
The Abraham Accords changed the geopolitical picture in the region, shifting Israel from a defensive posture against Iran’s proxies in surrounding Syria, Lebanon and Gaza to an offensive one.
Iran, to be sure, is the head of the octopus, without which the Houthis, Hezbollah and Hamas would be considerably weaker. Hence the obvious conclusion is that the head of the octopus must be targeted, not just its tentacles. In this vein, Israel is successfully dislodging Iran from Syria and establishing its own military foothold near Iranian shores, which in turn is helping Gulf countries protect themselves against Tehran.
It appears the Abraham Accords weren’t just a gimmick of the Trump administration. It also appears that those who believed these Gulf States would lose interest in the agreements upon Biden’s arrival in the White House and even engage in rapprochement with Iran were wrong.
In the past, Israel was always the driving force behind its relations with Arab countries, often beyond what these countries could even accommodate. This time things are different. The Gulf States are displaying an eagerness to get down to work, and all Israel must do is try to keep up with the dizzying pace they are setting.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.