In September 2020, to fanfare that included an outdoor ceremony at the White House, Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Three months later, Israel re-established diplomatic relations with Morocco after a 20-year break.
Known as the Abraham Accords, this public acceptance of Israel by the Arab nations was engineered by the Trump administration. Sudan signed onto the accords in January 2021 but normalization with Israel remains in limbo.
The Abraham Accords came 41 years after the groundbreaking 1979 treaty between Israel and Egypt and 26 years since Israel and Jordan signed a treaty in 1994.
Sharaka — an Arabic word meaning “partnership” — is a non-profit, non-governmental organization created to promote anticipated benefits of the Abraham Accords, primarily through people-to-people engagement of Israelis with Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Moroccans.
Delegations organized by Sharaka visited Atlanta in August 2021 and this past March. A third came to town on Nov. 1, facilitated by Israel’s Atlanta-based consulate in the Southeast.
In a meeting with the AJT, Dan Fefferman, an Israeli and Sharaka’s director of communications and global affairs, said that funding comes from private donors and foundations in the U.S. and Israel. The organization is registered as a non-profit in Israel and Bahrain and plans to register in Morocco. U.S. donations are channeled through the Central Fund of Israel, a Cedarhurst, New York-based non-profit with 501(c)3 status from the Internal Revenue Service.
Fefferman said that the Abraham Accords have created a “paradigm shift” in the Middle East, as Arab governments that in the past might have kept contact with Israel on the “down low,” appear more willing to extend a hand publicly.
“We need to give time, to see that this dynamic is real,” said Ibtissame Azzaoui, a member of Sharaka’s advisory board and a former member of the Moroccan parliament, who last year was elected to the city council in Rabat, the nation’s capital.
The past two years have seen a surge in Israelis — both for business and tourism — traveling to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, but “We have not yet seen tourism from any of these countries to Israel,” said Fefferman.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in September that, thus far in 2022, Israelis had logged some 500,000 passengers on round-trip flights to Dubai, the most populous UAE city. The Moroccan government reported that 15,000 Israelis visited during Passover in April and that 200,000 were expected throughout 2022.
On the other hand, the Israeli Tourism Ministry reported that since the signing of the Abraham Accords, only 3,600 tourists from the UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain combined had visited Israel. The ministry attributed the low number to Israel not reopening to foreign tourists until March 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If there is an obstacle to more widespread acceptance of Abraham Accords, below the level of societal elites, it is the issue of Israel and the Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza.
“The Palestinians have held back diplomacy across the region for too long. Elites in the region understand full well that there have been multiple peace deals on the table for over 20 years, that have been rejected,” Fefferman said. “There are too many interests at play to be held back.”
The Palestinians have held back diplomacy across the region for too long. Elites in the region understand full well that there have been multiple peace deals on the table for over 20 years, that have been rejected,” Fefferman said. “There are too many interests at play to be held back.
Fatema Alharbi, a Bahraini and director of Gulf affairs for Sharaka, is an author whose works of fiction focus on women’s lives. She estimated that 70-80 percent of Bahrainis initially opposed the Abraham Accords. “People are not comfortable because of the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” though opinions change as Bahrainis meet Israelis on an individual basis, she said.
Alharbi attempted to thread a needle, saying of Bahrainis in general (exempting herself): “We don’t have a problem with the Jewish people. We have a problem with the Israeli Jewish people,” stemming from the Palestinian issue.
Where Bahrain traces its Jewish population back several centuries, Morocco’s dates to 70 C.E., the time of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. During World War II, the late King Mohammed V shielded a Jewish population numbering more than 250,000 from roundups by the pro-Nazi Vichy government of France. Emigration began after Israel’s 1948 war of independence. Morocco’s Jewish population today is estimated at about 2,000, while more than 1 million Israelis are of Moroccan descent. Diplomatic relations severed following the Second Intifada in 2000 were re-established by King Mohammed VI.
Azzaoui and Alharbi proudly noted the advance of women into prominent roles in their countries’ governments. Ambassador Houda Nonoo not only was Bahrain›s first female ambassador to the United States (2008-13), but also the first Jewish ambassador from an Arab country to the U.S.
The Sharaka delegation visited Atlanta on the day that Israelis went to the polls for the fifth time in four years. The Times of Israel reported that on a recent visit to Israel, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that should he again become prime minister, the inclusion of far right-wing legislators Itamar Ben Gvir and Bazelel Smotrich in his government would strain the still nascent ties between the two countries.
“It’s a new relationship. They have to now engage with Israeli society, with Israeli politics. It’s the only fully vibrant, maybe too vibrant, democracy in the region,” Fefferman said. The current Israeli government has been supportive of the accords and, he added, “I don’t see this changing,” even if leadership of the government changes.
“There are a lot of challenges here. The public opinion in the Arab world is a big one,” a situation that will improve as “people see the tangible benefits,” Fefferman said. “We share the same threats,” he continued, citing Iran and extremism.
While in Atlanta, the Sharaka delegation also visited the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, the Hillel chapter at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Morehouse College. The group planted a “peace tree” in the city’s Freedom Park, joined by Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman and Justin Cutler, parks and recreation commissioner.
- Dave Schechter
- White House
- United Arab Emirates
- Abraham Accords
- Dan Fefferman
- Central Fund of Israel
- Ibtissame Azzaoui
- King Mohammed V
- West Bank
- Second Intifada
- Ambassador Houda Nonoo
- Itamar Ben-Gvir
- Bazelel Smotric
- UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam
- Hillel chapter at Georgia Institute of Technology
- Morehouse College
- Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman
- Justin Cutler