Far from the rubble of Gaza, where a ceasefire agreement appears to be holding and Palestinians mourn loved ones killed over 11 days of relentless Israeli bombing, plans are still quietly under way for the upcoming opening of the Israel-Gulf Cooperation Council Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates.
The chamber was established only in February, after the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalised relations with Israel last year under the Abraham Accords.
Brokered by the United States, the accords paved the way for closer security and economic ties between the signatories without a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
That decision elicited howls of protest when the accords were first struck. Now the latest escalation of the decades-old conflict has cast the accords in an even more unfavorable light with Israel’s pounding of Gaza claiming the lives of at least 243 Palestinians, including 66 children.
The voices condemning the Abraham Accords are loud. But beneath those public disparagements, others have encouraged the Chamber of Commerce to stay the course.
“People call us from the Gulf, and also Morocco saying, ‘Be careful, it’s dangerous. Be safe and let’s hope it will be finished soon and we can go back to our activities and everything we want to do’,” Henrique Cymerman, president of the Israel-GCC Chamber of Commerce, told Al Jazeera.
For believers in the Abraham Accords, the four-month wave of recognition last year was a euphoric time.
Israeli tourists flocked to Dubai, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper was lit up in the colours of the Israeli flag, and direct flights started between Tel Aviv and Dubai. Eitan Na’eh, the head of mission at Israel’s newly establish embassy in Abu Dhabi, was recently quoted as saying that around 130,000 Israelis have visited the UAE since normalisation.
The UAE and Israel also promoted bilateral business deals actively and publicly. Last month, a UAE sovereign wealth fund signed a memorandum of understanding to buy an Israeli natural gas field for $1.1bn – the biggest potential deal yet since the accords were signed.
Now flights between the two countries are cancelled, while in Bahrain, civil society groups recently signed a letter asking their government to expel the Israeli ambassador.
“It is sort of a time out,” Cymerman said. “In the Gulf, they are observing events. They are very, very careful because they know in a second things can change.”
A difficult position vs security and economic cooperation
On Friday, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem and fired tear gas at Palestinians.
The UAE has condemned an earlier storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the imminent forced eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. But it has been careful not to prominently label Israel the aggressor in the conflict in Gaza, a position starkly at odds with wider public opinion in the Arab world.
“I’m impressed by the fact that there has been rather limited impact so far on Israel’s relations with the Arab world more generally, and specifically the UAE and Bahrain,” Eran Lerman, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told Al Jazeera.
Sceptics of the Abraham Accords not only point to the carnage in Gaza but also violence inside Israel between Arab and Jewish citizens and deadly protests in the occupied West Bank as evidence of the failure of normalisation.
Ibrahim Al-Assil, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says that though the conflict put the UAE in a difficult position much sooner than it expected, this criticism is misplaced.
“Normalisation was driven by national security needs and economic aspirations. They didn’t attempt to solve the Palestinian conflict, nor can they,” he told Al Jazeera.
Analysts in the region say the UAE’s concern with Iranian foreign policy and its desire to combat what it claims to be Turkey’s more assertive role in the Middle East are two factors contributing to normalisation.
In the latest conflict, Turkey and Iran have been the two Middle Eastern countries most vocal in their criticism of Israeli air strikes and violence.
But the Abraham Accords go beyond security issues. Gulf states like the UAE are eager to diversify their economies away from oil and partner with Israeli businesses, especially in technology and tourism.
Still, mainstream public opinion in the Arab world is highly critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian cause. In order to sell the deal, the UAE emphasised the new prospects for peace that would stem from normalisation.
Speaking at a panel event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this February, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, said the Abraham Accords were done primarily to prevent Israeli annexation of the West Bank and keep the two-state solution alive.
“The reason it happened, the way it happened, at the time it happened was to prevent annexation,” he stated.
But as the death toll in Gaza climbed, little was said officially from the UAE about the Abraham Accords and how diplomatic ties can help the Palestinian cause.
The UAE appears to be shifting its focus even farther away from this issue and putting more emphasis on its bilateral relationship with Israel. The Emirates has retained its ambassador in Israel.
“For sure what is happening in Gaza is a test but I don’t think it is an indication to step back,” Ebtesam al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Center, told Al Jazeera.
“This conflict now is between the Palestinians and the Israelis, it’s not between the Arabs,” al-Ketbi said, adding that recent events are certainly putting pressure on signatories to the agreements.
While the Emirates has tightly restricted official comments on the conflict in Israel and Palestine, in the UAE, where social media is tightly controlled, a war of public opinion is playing out to advance this shift.
A controversial cleric and vocal supporter of normalisation with Israel, Waseem Yousef, recently tweeted, “Hamas launches rockets from within civilian neighbourhoods and when the response comes Hamas cries ‘Where are the Arabs and Muslims’? You have made Gaza a graveyard for the innocent and children.”
تطلق #حماس صواريخ بين مساكن ومنازل الناس، وحينما يأتي الرد تتباكى #حماس وتصرخ أين العرب أين المسلمون؟
جعلتم #غزة مقبرة للأبرياء و الأطفال! أذيتم #مصر و #سيناء أحرقتم أعلام أغلب الدول العربية، شتمتم جميع الدول لم تحترموا أحداً، لم ترحموا طفلا ولاشيخا في #غزة #الإخوان_المسلمون وباء pic.twitter.com/daZV6a6sQb
— Dr. Waseem Yousef (@waseem_yousef) May 11, 2021
Al Jazeera reached out to Israel’s Foreign Ministry to discuss its bilateral relations with Bahrain and the UAE, but the ministry declined to comment on the matter.
The more cautious approach to relations is at odds with the more groundbreaking aspects of the Abraham Accords.
Official recognition of Israel by Egypt and Jordan – the first two Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel – was mainly kept at the government level. Today the citizens of these two Arab countries have hardly any interaction with their Israeli neighbours.
The Abraham Accords, by contrast, publicly promoted interactions between Israelis and the respective countries’ Arab citizens.
When relations were normalised between the UAE and Israel, many Emirati tourists were slammed for posing for pictures in Jerusalem at sites where Palestinians are not even allowed.
In the short term, closer ties in sectors like tourism may suffer. Lerman says Israelis might be reluctant to visit the UAE due to concerns over their safety in the Gulf country, noting “We are going to need a breather.”
But as one of the main drivers for Israeli and Emirati normalisation and a cornerstone on which leaders hoped to build stronger relations, business ties between the two countries may be a key indicator of the Abraham Accords’ durability.
For supporters of the agreements, there is reason to be optimistic here. Cymerman says that large business initiatives are still proceeding and he hasn’t seen a desire from Arab or Israeli businesspeople to cancel deals.
“The businessmen in general are even optimistic because they see that relations are ongoing,” he said.
Al-Ketbi says when Dubai hosts its Expo 2021 in October, she expects businesspeople from around the Middle East, including Israel, to attend.
Whether the agreements can change Arab public opinion after the bloodshed in Gaza, or if they even need to, is another matter. But many believe the accords will not be derailed.
“The Abraham Accords will lose some momentum, but I do not expect them to change, because the rational behind them and goals that drove them are still there for the signatories without change,” said Al-Assil.