There was a certain inevitability about the historic accord that establishes formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that was announced Thursday by President Donald Trump in the White House.
It has been an open secret for years that the two small Middle East countries have been flirting with each other. Their strongest bond is having a common enemy in Iran and they have often shared information about that.
Israel produces super high-tech security products. The UAE can afford to buy them and apparently does. Israeli diplomats, businessmen, intrepid tourists, even spies have become frequent visitors to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, though officially, at least, Israelis were banned from the sheikhdoms.
The Jewish state should feel a little less isolated today. El Al has some (but not a lot) of flights to Europe and North America and a few to Asia. But getting anywhere in the neighbourhood, including Africa, and to many smaller destinations in Europe and Asia is complicated, time-consuming and expensive.
The air link with Jordan has been a main conduit for Israelis headed abroad. But the connecting flights from Amman are nothing like the hundreds of destinations that can be reached every day from the UAE on Emirates Airlines or Etihad Airlines. And Israelis love to travel. Living in a country less than half the size of Nova Scotia, COVID-19 travel restrictions have been giving them a particularly bad case of cabin fever.
There will be similar advantages for other travellers to if, as is rumoured, the Saudis, Omanis, Bahrainis, Kuwaitis and Qataris, who have long had their own secret arrangements with the Israelis, are inspired to sign similar pacts.
These tangible changes are small potatoes, of course, besides the geo-strategic shock waves that have just hit Tehran, its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, Syria’s Bashir Al Assad and some Iraqi Shias. It is also a setback for Iran’s old friends in Moscow and its new friends in Beijing.
An added benefit is that this is bad from the perspective of Shia and Sunni terrorist groups such as Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, Islamic State, the Houthis in Yemen and the Taliban, who often despise each other but are usually unified by the idea that Israel is their eternal enemy.
The deal the Trump White House brokered makes the differences between those who are with or against Iran starker than ever. It should at least for a time also check Iranian ambitions to stir up trouble on the western side of the Persian Gulf.
But it is the changes that this produces for travellers will be the most obvious, tangible result of the agreement for most Israelis and for especially those travel a lot.
There is a little something in this for the Palestinians and something more for the Jordanians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has abandoned — at least for now — his ill-considered plan to annex the West Bank, though Israel does get to keep the 30 per cent of that territory where most Israelis settlers are already ensconced.
Jordan and its King Abdullah, for now, will not have to worry about another exodus of Palestinian refugees that might tip the precarious balance between native Jordanians and the large number of restive Palestinian exiles who have already lived there for decades.
The Palestinians — who did not have a seat at the table with the Americans, Israelis and Emiratis — have lost again and nobody more so than their leader, Mahmoud Abbas. He and other Palestinians condemned the deal as being badly skewed in Israel’s favour. But if they were betrayed, it was by their Arab kin, not the Israelis.
On the other hand, the UAE and the U.S. have stopped Netanyahu’s larger land grab in the West Bank, which was a total non-starter with every Arab state, and which would have been a far worse result for the Palestinians than the 70 per cent that they are getting. At least this way there remains a pathway to Palestinian statehood.
Moreover, if other rich Gulf states follow the UAE and establish relations with Israel — and some are expected to — and the Palestinians try to tilt against this huge windmill, they will be more isolated than ever and lose a chance at getting big aid and infrastructure money from their Gulf brethren.
A small consolation for the Palestinians is that hardline Israeli settlers and their backers in Israel and the U.S. did not get nearly as much as they had demanded. Strong backers for years of Prime Minister Netanyahu, he betrayed them with this deal.
The settlement between Israel and the UAE represents another potential lifeline for Netanyahu, who seems to have an infinite number of political lives no matter how often he blunders. Bibi faces serious corruption charges and is deeply unpopular at home. Nor have many Israelis much faith in how he has handled his country’s battle against the coronavirus.
But Netanyahu will get kudos from many Israelis for getting a peace deal with the UAE that is a direct result of his original gambit to annex all of the West Bank. In the narrow worldview of some Israelis, the prime minister scored a rare triumph without giving up anything that Israel already had. They will also not be displeased to see Iran put in more of a straightjacket, though the UAE, more than the other sheikhdoms, does a lot of business with Iran.
I lived for six years in the Middle East, travelling widely almost everywhere there. It was seldom a happy experience. Almost everyone grieved, was unforgiving and carried big chips on their shoulders. Many Israelis, and lots of Palestinians, will welcome this development. They are fantastically weary of the political, military and tribal quagmire that they have been stuck in forever.
It would be prudent, however, to remember that this is still the Middle East. Everything could devolve into tit-for-tatism again at any moment. Nevertheless, for now, the portents for peace are better than they have been for a long while.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas