At the beginning of this week, Israel’s Cabinet approved the historic deal and on the same day, the first ship from Dubai entered the Haifa port carrying electronics, cleaning supplies, iron, and firefighting equipment. According to The Jerusalem Post, vessels will bring cargo from the UAE on a weekly basis.
Abraham Accords Bring New Promising Opportunities
"Two days ago, an Emirati cargo ship entered the Port of Haifa which is a very exciting experience for everybody because this is not a very usual kind of situation when an Arab ship is getting into an Israeli port. This is a great occasion", says retired Brig. General Dr Meir Elran, a senior research fellow and head of the Homeland Security Programme and a co-head of the Society-Military Programme of the INSS.
The Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain embody great economic potential for both Israel and the Arab states in a vast number of fields, including trade, security, tourism, finance, communications, technology, health, and climate change. Dr Elran singles out transportation as one of the issues which could substantially change the regional "geography".
"As for economic significance, particularly of the issue of transportation, there is no doubt that there are a variety of promising programmes and projects that can indeed revolutionise transportation, and not only transportation, but also the map of the Middle East", the retired general stresses.
He explains that right now, most goods heading to Europe from the Persian Gulf (or from Asia) through the Middle East are carried by waterborne transport which has to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandeb, the Red Sea, and get into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal.
"The basic idea is that this is definitely a very important maritime way but there are also prospects for land routes which would connect the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean and then to Europe, through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and then Israel. I think this a very significant prospect and there are plans to make that happen", the researcher says.
The Strait of Hormuz has long remained a bottleneck for the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. According to UN rules, countries can control up to 12 nautical miles (13.8 miles) from their coastline, which means that the strait's narrowest, 21-mile wide, point lies within Iran and Oman's territorial waters. The width of the shipping lane in either direction amounts to only 2 miles, which makes the maritime route highly vulnerable given the brewing tensions between the Gulf states and Iran. Tehran has repeatedly threatened to block the strait, where ships carry $1.2 billion of oil every day.
One of the Israeli projects aimed at circumventing the Hormuz envisages pumping Saudi and UAE crude through the existing infrastructure of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline in order to bypass both the "dangerous sea route" and "the costly Suez Canal", according to Globes, an Israeli financial newspaper. The Eilat-Ashkelon trans-Israel pipeline, jointly built with Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1968, may potentially deprive Tehran of one of the leverages over its Gulf neighbours.
Iran Up in Arms About Israeli-Gulf Normalisation
The conclusion of the Abraham Accords has escalated tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Gulf neighbours. Tehran slammed the UAE and Bahrain for the "betrayal of the Palestinian cause". Commenting on the development, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani stressed that Abu Dhabi and Manama would be responsible for "any consequences" resulting from their deal with the Jewish state. Moreover, in September, some observers suggested that Iran may strengthen ties with Turkey and Qatar in order to counterbalance the emerging Israel-Gulf partnership.
"The Iranians don't really need new reasons to try to expand what we call their quest for regional hegemony in the Middle East", says the retired general. "The relations with Qatar are very important to them and so are their relations with Turkey. I am not sure that present circumstances of the normalisation between Israel and the two Gulf countries make a very significant difference in this respect as far as the Iranians could concern, but we have to be very watchful about that and we have to see what the future will hold and we will have to react in accordance with a magnitude of the threat".
The situation in the region is growing increasingly complicated, according to the retired general: in addition to the traditional political challenges, the Middle East has recently been affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-economic crises all over the area.
"We have to wait and see to what extent they'll have any major weight in changing the trajectory of what's happening in the region", he underscores.
Will Sudan be the Next in Line?
Amid the uncertainty brewing in the Middle East, the question arises as to which Muslim country will be next to formally normalise relations with the Jewish state. According to some reports, it could be either Oman or Sudan. Khartoum is reportedly considering a formalisation of ties with Israel following the 2019 coup d'état which brought an end to the 30-year rule of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
“Israel is developed. The entire world works with Israel. For development, for agriculture — we need Israel”, Sudanese deputy head of state Gen. Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo said on Sudan24 TV in Juba earlier this month.
However, while Israel's rationale for boosting ties with the rich and prosperous UAE and Bahrain seem obvious, one might ask why the Jewish state is seeking to strengthen the relationship with Sudan, currently engulfed by political and economic crises.
"The issue of Sudan is a very complicated one and it will take some time, probably, to make this step", Dr Elran notes. "We'll have to wait and see, but Sudan, of course, is a very important country. It has different kinds of problems both with the US and its African neighbours, but I think it will be very important for Israel because for us the most important thing is to expand the recognition and normalisation between Israel and as many Arab countries as possible".
Normalisation Deal & Palestinian Cause
Previously, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state was emphasised by Arab and Muslim countries as a prerequisite for formalising ties with a Jewish state. However, as the Abraham Accords have indicated that these two issues are now regarded separately, the researcher highlights.
"The most important thing in terms of the new normalisation is that it adds significantly to the emerging trend of the distinction between Israeli-Palestinian relations and relations between Israel and Arab countries", he says. "Traditionally the idea was that the Palestinians can use their relations with Arab countries to put pressure on Israel. This was the main idea of the boycott strategy".
However, the boycott strategy failed a long time ago with the new peace deal having dealt the final blow to this policy, according to Dr Elran.
Given this, Palestinian political entities have subjected the Abraham Accords to sharp criticism. In late September, the Palestinian Authority, the interim government body for Palestinian Arabs, quit its Arab League role in protest over Israel's normalisation deals with Muslim states.
While the deal is seen by its antagonists as a "stab in the back" of Palestinian Arabs, Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) suggests in one of its reports that forthcoming joint ventures between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain may also involve the Palestinian Arabs to "allow them as well to enjoy the fruits of peace".
Nevertheless, these opportunities shouldn't be taken for granted by Palestinian politicians, according to the retired general: "I think if they are rational and if they are determined to improve the life of their people and find any kind of resolution between them and Israel, they have first of all to search for another option, not necessarily the option of refusal, objection and no dialogue. It would be my advice to them to start talking with Israel".
"I would recommend them to look at the new picture, the emerging picture and decide in accordance with the novelty of the situation what is best for them", Dr Elran emphasises.