The ground in the Middle East continues to shift.
Naftali Bennett recently became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit the Kingdom of Bahrain. This followed an equally unprecedented visit to the United Arab Emirates in December and a visit by Israel’s defense minister to Morocco in November.
More important than these official visits have been the unofficial visits — the tourism that takes place in these countries. According to Israel’s Minister of Tourism, more than a quarter of a million Israelis visited the UAE between September 2020 and October 2021 – despite restrictions related to the COVID pandemic. Morocco says it expects hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists in 2022.
The starting point for this once unthinkable Arab-Israeli rapprochement was of course the signing in September 2020 of the Abraham Accords in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, after which Morocco and the Sudan quickly followed suit. The signatories pledged to “pursue a vision of peace, security and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world”. There is plenty of evidence that these nations actually meant what they signed.
The pursuit of prosperity is well underway. Over the past year, bilateral trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has increased tenfold, with forecasts of $1 trillion by 2031. Trade has also increased with Bahrain, and in February Israel signed a trade and investment agreement with Morocco with the aim of multiplying trade by five.
The pursuit of mutual security, once even more unthinkable than trade relations, is also underway. Last year’s visit by the Israeli defense minister to Morocco included the signing of a bilateral security pact. Following the missile attacks on the UAE by the Yemen-based Houthis in early 2022, Israel and the UAE reportedly intensified intelligence cooperation and the sharing of military technology.
But for the central promise of the Abraham Accords to be realized – the vision of lasting peace – more, much more needs to be done. As Arab and Israeli governments increasingly recognize their common interests, public attitudes shaped by years of conflict will inevitably take longer to change. Arab populations have learned for generations to reject the very right of the “Zionist entity” to exist, and accepting a rapidly changing reality will not happen overnight, especially in the face of extremist messages to the contrary. For their part, Israelis have become accustomed to tragically regular conflicts with terrorist groups operating from Lebanon and Gaza. During the most recent 11-day war with Hamas in May 2021, a spasm of Jewish-Arab communal violence rocked Israeli cities and showed just how fragile peaceful coexistence can be.
The United States has tools at its disposal to harness the favorable winds of Arab-Israeli reconciliation and to accelerate the healing of these divisions. For many years, the US Agency for International Development has funded efforts to foster partnerships between Israelis and Arabs, such as the Conflict Management and Mitigation Program and the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. Privately funded programs such as Seeds of Peace have helped strengthen ties between Israelis and Palestinians. These programs should be expanded.
But there is another idea we should embrace that would do even more to ensure that the spirit of the Abraham Accords lives on. It’s time to create a YALI for the Middle East.
Established in 2010, the Young Africans Leaders Initiative, or YALI, has been established as America’s flagship program for investing in the optimism and energy of Africa’s youth. Through scholarships and regional learning centers, YALI trains the next generation of African leaders in entrepreneurship, civic engagement and democratic governance, and today has a network of more than 700 000 people across the continent.
YALI is supported by the State Department and USAID, but is fueled by the participation of countless private sector organizations and groups. For example, the Wilson Center was proud to host YALI’s 10th anniversary, during which alumni shared stories about the businesses they had developed with US assistance, the policies they had helped adopt and the relationships they had forged across Africa. With the support of Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassPelosi backs Rep. Karen Bass in LA mayoral race Top Bass quits LA mayoral campaign Democrats hit 30-year high for retirements MORE (D-California), Sens. Chris CoonChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill’s Morning Report – Presented by Emergent BioSolutions – Ukraine aid and Russian oil top congressional to-do list White House hopes for light at the end of its tunnel Zelensky calls on Congress to put establish a no-fly zone and block purchases of Russian oil MORE (D-Delete), rounds of mikeMike RoundsLawmakers in both parties see limits on US aid to Ukraine Fight against Russia shows tensions between McConnell and pro-Trump wing Senate slips within 48 hours of government shutdown deadline MORE (RS.D.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOn The Money – US Suspends Normal Trade With Russia Congress Cancels DC Voters, Keeps Illegal Marijuana Sales In The District US-India Relations Under Pressure Over Russia MORE (D-Md.) and others, YALI is stronger and more ambitious than ever.
The United States has similar youth-focused efforts in Asia and Latin America, but no program as comprehensive in the Middle East, let alone focused on Arab-Israeli reconciliation. As the past few years have clearly illustrated, Israeli and Arab youth have many issues in common, whether they are battling the fallout of a global pandemic and climate extremes, or seeking economic opportunity in a world rapidly evolving. A “Middle East Young Leaders Initiative” should start with young people from the countries of the agreement, as a way to connect them to its vision, but then expand to other communities where there is fertile ground. .
The Biden administration’s foreign policy team is understandably strained these days by the many challenges it faces. Yet the progress made in many parts of the Middle East since the signing of the first agreements suggests that the prospects for lasting partnerships and lasting peace are real. The United States should marry a top-down approach of encouraging more governments to sign on to the Abraham Accords with a bottom-up effort to strengthen social and economic integration.
A Middle Eastern Young Leaders initiative will remind young people that they have much more in common than they were raised to believe – and give them the tools to build a better future based on those commonalities.
Ambassador green markMark GreenEquilibrium/Sustainability – Climate Change Could Ruin South Louisiana Lawmakers wary of potential oil talks with Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iranian Secretary Austin, stop letting Hollywood use our military for Chinese censorship MOREPresident and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars served as USAID Trustee from 2017 to 2020 and United States Ambassador to Tanzania from mid-2007 to early 2009. Prior to that, he served four terms in the United States House of Representatives representing Wisconsin’s 8th district. .