One of the greatest successes of the “Abraham Accord”—the nascent diplomatic relations deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel—is just the name itself.
The name implicitly indicates that the agreement is between descendants of the children of Abraham—Arabs and Jews—and for Israel, this is a crucial identification in its quest for normalization in the Middle East.
Occupation or ancient nation?
Having lost hope of military victory, anti-Israel forces are conducting a narrative war against Israel. They seek to erase the intellectual foundations of Zionism, which assert that Israel is the ancient home of the Jewish nation, who have had two commonwealths on this same land, and to which Jews have an unbroken historical and spiritual connection.
One of the main avenues of that attack, coming out of the Palestinian camp, has been the buzzword “occupation,” which has become the default association for the Jewish state on campuses, at international organizations and in left-leaning media. The sinister term “Israeli occupation” says all that the enemies of Israel want to say: that Israel is a white colonialist interloper in the Middle East, a European holdover, a foreigner grabbing Arab lands and an abuser of the human rights of the true indigenous people—the Arabs.
The occupation narrative machine has many arms. For example, using UNESCO, the United Nations body in charge of recognizing world heritage sites, the anti-Israel crowd has asserted that integral Jewish sites like Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron are actually Palestinian cities under—you guessed it—“occupation.” Any campus protest against Israel will feature the word “occupation” and most New York Times articles will throw in a jab like “Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem,” etc.
Indeed, the classic Israeli narrative—that of an ancient people repatriating their land in a miraculous story of faith, tenacity and survival—has been replaced by the occupation-narrative which paints Israel as a greedy land thief and victimizer.
Forefather in faith
Political buzzwords surpass their literal meanings and signal value-laden political positions which divide between political camps. The word “occupation” is meant to convey the illegitimacy—and even the evil roots—of Israel. If you are anti-Israel, you will embrace this word and this narrative.
But what is the counter-word to “occupation”? How do you convey Israel’s deep history in the land and the Jewish people’s indigeneity to the Middle East? How do you invoke the flavor of ancient history without sounding like a Bible-thumping extremist? What word can bridge the Arab-Jewish divide?
The answer, which the new accords have found, is “Abraham.”
Vice President Mike Pence visited Israel in January 2018 and made a televised speech at the Knesset:
“Nearly 4,000 years ago, a man left his home in Ur of the Chaldeans to travel here, to Israel. He ruled no empire, he wore no crown, he commanded no armies, he performed no miracles, delivered no prophecies, yet to him was promised ‘descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.’ Today, Jews, Christians, and Muslims—more than half the population of the Earth, and nearly all the people of the Middle East—claim Abraham as their forefather in faith.”
Pence’s admiring words for the children of Abraham foreshadowed a time when traditional but progress-hungry Arabs would embrace and ally with the biblically-inspired and forward-thinking Jewish state under the banner of Abraham.
The UAE also appears to have embraced the image of Abraham as a uniting force in the region. A massive religious complex known as “The Abrahamic Family House” is already under construction in Abu Dhabi, featuring, in the words of the Dubai newspaper, “three main buildings—a mosque, a church and a synagogue that will encourage peaceful co-existence and acceptance of the three Abrahamic faiths Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the UAE’s capital city.”
No wonder that anti-normalization forces, like the Palestinian Authority, are apoplectic. Their life mission has been to delegitimize Israel and inculcate the term “occupation.” Now, their efforts, which relied on fellow Arabs to cement Israel’s image as a white, occupying outsider—and not an Abrahamic relative—are fading.
Words aren’t everything
Israel has already signed peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, and these were inked to the tune of lofty speeches and exuberant visions of a new era of peace and harmony.
But no real warmth ever came from those deals, and Israel never truly gained acceptance in the region. Deep anti-Israelism continued to be taught in Egypt, where “Mein Kampf’” was a top-seller and tourism between the countries never flourished. So, too, with Jordan—no real warmth developed and Israel-hate protests are still popular.
So notwithstanding the great name, the Israel-UAE “Abraham Accord” needs genuine warmth if it is to be a meaningful breakthrough. Real tourism, real business, real ties, real normalization.
Indeed, the UAE has every incentive to normalize relations with Israel—from the common danger of Iran to the interest in prosperity and progress. Hopefully, the deal can start a cascade that will lead the Arab world out of the regressive Dark Ages of hate and into an embrace of Israel as an important member of the Semitic family and a fellow regional tribe. But it won’t be easy to let go of a thousand years of Muslim prejudice and 100 years of open war against Israel.
Jerusalem and Hebron
With all the fanfare about the upcoming accords, the UAE has sadly announced that its embassy will not be in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, but rather in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem, it seems, is too hot of a religious potato even for the Abraham Accord. But Israel should continue to push the issue because as long as the Arabs cannot swallow a Jewish Jerusalem they won’t be able to really accept a Jewish Israel.
Yet, there is another city in which the Abraham Accord can effectuate change—Hebron—in the heart of Judea in the so-called “West Bank.”
This ancient place is home to 200,000 Arabs and about 10,000 IDF-fortified Jews (counting the community of Kiryat Arba). Like in no other place, the anti-Israel Palestinian narrative machine seeks to portray Hebron’s Jewish community as the epitome of the “occupation,” pointing to the city’s military presence and checkpoints. But the truth is that the Jewish presence in the city is thousands of years old—the oldest in the land of Israel—and only broken by the jihadist riots of 1929, in which Hebron’s Jews were massacred, effectively ending Jewish life there until the 1967 Six-Day War.
However, there is something special in Hebron that can bridge the Arab-Jewish divide and heal the historic tensions: Hebron is home to the undisputed Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the burial place of Abraham. The Bible tells the story of how both Isaac, the next forefather of the Jews, and Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, together buried their father Abraham in Hebron 3,800 years ago. Today, a monumental Herodian structure still adorns the site, serving as both a Jewish worship site and a mosque.
Therefore, Hebron should be seen as the first place where Jews and Arabs can come together—if only to honor their common father, Abraham. And if the very name of the “Abraham Accord” can begin to defeat the lie of “occupation” by reconfirming Israel as Semitic and indigenous, then surely the ancient community of Jews living alongside Abraham’s tomb in Hebron is no occupation and can be accepted by Arabs and by the international community.
The Abrahamic region
A new spirit of regional cooperation is about to enter the Middle East, as expressed by the Abraham Accord, which envisions diplomatic, financial and defense relations between Israel and the UAE. But Israel cannot let down its guard just yet. Regressive actors, like Hamas, Hezbollah, Erdogan’s Turkey and Khamenei’s Iran, are still set on delegitimizing, and finally destroying, the Jewish state.
And while Israel’s military muscle keeps physical enemies at bay, the theater of narrative war must not be surrendered. The delegitimizing terminology of “the Israeli occupation” must be defeated like any Hamas terror tunnel or an Iranian nuclear threat.
To that end, the narrative of normalization, which re-envisions and rebrands Israel and the Arabs as coming from a joint father, and which therefore means that Jewish presence in the Middle East is ancient and legitimate, is a powerful weapon against the enemies of Israel. It would be wise for both Israelis, and Arabs who want progress, to utilize it.
Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron and an Israeli broadcaster. Follow @YishaiFleisher.