Last week, Israel and Jordan signed an energy-for-water deal in Dubai that provides for Israel to swap desalinated Mediterranean water for solar electricity generated in the vast Jordanian desert. It’s the biggest deal of its kind since the two countries signed a peace agreement 27 years ago. A UAE government-owned company, Masdar, is scheduled to build a large new solar power facility in Jordan, which should be ready by 2026.
At the signing ceremony in Dubai, U.S. Presidential Envoy for the Climate, John Kerry said the deal would be transformational. He’s not wrong. There are, of course, environmental and economic benefits. It will play a large role in helping Jordan adapt to climate change and boost its water supply. And the electricity sold to Israel for $180 million a year, will make a contribution to Israel’s goals of diversifying its energy sources and building the renewable component of its energy mix.
The diplomatic significance of these measures is hard to overstate. During his term as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Kerry had dismissed the possibility of Israeli-Arab peace accords without first satisfying the Palestinian demand for an independent state. “One thing we do know, and I can say with certainty,” he once told an audience at the State Department, “the Arab countries have made clear that they will not make peace with Israel without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That, it turns out, was overly pessimistic.
The Biden administration clings publicly to dogma that no Arab-Israeli peace can be made without first satisfying Palestinian demands. The deal in Dubai, however, shows that practical cooperation can be decoupled from the Palestinian conflict. Water is an existential need for the Hashemite Kingdom and its citizens, even those who hate Israel. Desalination is energy intensive and expensive, but a capability Israel has invested in heavily to meet its own water needs. It makes more sense for Jordan to purchase desalinated water from Israel than to build up its own desalination capacity.
The deal is apparently based on a proposal put forth in a December 2020 paper from a Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli environmentalist team. Only in its final iteration, there is no Palestinian component. That may be a missed opportunity (as authors of a Brookings Institute paper suggest), but it says something about the current state of play in the Middle East that old ideological narratives are now being overturned.
One good deed also tends to beget another here. Two days after the UAE-Jordan-Israel agreement was signed, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, accompanied by senior military officers arrived in Rabat to conclude an unprecedented memorandum of understanding with his Moroccan counterparts.
The implications of that agreement are also considerable: sales of Israeli weapons and technology to the Moroccan military, more intelligence cooperation and, perhaps, advice in conducting Morocco’s ongoing battle over Western Sahara. Israel has an estimated 700,000 citizens with roots in Morocco. The Abraham Accords have made direct flights between Tel Aviv and Casablanca an everyday occurrence, and Israeli television commercials tout Moroccan vacations as the next new tourist destination.
Before the accords, some Arab countries had clandestine security contacts with Israel. In the new diplomatic climate, these are increasingly emerging from the closet. In late October, the Israeli Air Force invited the UAE’s Air Force commander to attend a biennial war games exercise, which included the U.S., France and five other official participants. Unannounced, Jordan also took part in the exercise. A German photographer posted unauthorized pictures of the Jordanian F-16’s taking off and landing at an Israeli airbase in the Negev.
Sudan, the fourth member of the Abraham Accords hasn’t really done much to participate, largely because it is in a state of political chaos. But Israel and Sudanese leaders are also well connected; indeed, following a military coup in Sudan, the Biden administration reportedly asked Israel to convince the new military dictator, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to restore civilian government in Khartoum.
The Biden administration has wisely pressed on with the objectives of the accords. They demonstrate that warm relations and strategic cooperation between Israel and Arab countries are both attainable and desirable. Most importantly, the accords offer a template for what peace in the wider Middle East might eventually come to look like.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.