As most of the world celebrated the historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), many likely missed something even more historic: the praise or silence from a once anti-Israel Muslim world. Of the 51 Muslim-majority nations, only three (Turkey, Iran, and its client state Qatar) formally condemned it. In fact, more Muslim countries condemned their condemnation.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), for instance, which includes Qatar, decried what it called the “threats” by Iran against the United Arab Emirates for normalizing relations with Israel. When Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to withdraw its UAE ambassador; the Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash scoffed at the Turkish leader’s “double standard,” given Turkey’s peace treaty with Israel. Turkey also has a free trade agreement with Israel and imported over $2 billion USD in Israeli goods during the first half of an economically challenged 2020. Even two of the three previously named condemners then, are saying one thing and doing another.
Of course, the Palestinian leadership is beside itself. Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas called it a “betrayal,” though he conveniently avoided mentioning his own government’s extensive work with Israel against Hamas. Palestinians believed that no matter how much they rejected honest negotiations with Israel, Muslim nations would sublimate their own peoples’ interests to those of Ramallah.
Note to Abbas: this is what comes from decades of intransigence and terror, and of more recently angrily rejecting any engagement with the US, an important ally to Israel most Arab nations. You can refuse to recognize Israel but you cannot refuse the consequences of your actions. In fact, with this one deal that included Israel suspending its plans to annex much of the West Bank, the UAE has done more for the Palestinians than has Abbas, with his non-starter maximalist demands and angry propaganda. For decades, Palestinian leaders have attempted to use the Muslim world as leverage for their unyielding demands, but history is taking us all down a different—interfaith—path.
About 85 percent of United Nations (UN) members have diplomatic relations with Israel, one of six UN members without universal recognition; the other five being Armenia, China, Cyprus, and the two Koreas. Two non-UN members, Kosovo and Taiwan, are recognized by far fewer countries than is Israel. Of the 44 Muslim-majority nations with more than a million people, Israel has diplomatic relations with 20: more than 45 percent of those countries that PA leaders assumed would back any of their actions, including terrorism, incitement to hatred, and massive corruption.
Moreover, Bangladesh is one of only nine among the remaining 24 that have no relations with Israel, formal or informal. And even among that nine, Algeria and Iraq have had on again off again Israel contacts; Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are without acknowledged governments to continue talks that were once underway. That leaves Bangladesh standing with only Iran and Pakistan. Is that the company in which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would like the world to place Bangladesh?
Longtime observers of the Middle East also note that, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, the “pro-Iran….permanent-struggle-with-Israel camp [is] becoming more isolated and left behind.” I doubt that the Prime Minister wants Bangladesh to be “left behind,” especially as the decades-long process of normalization sees even more Arab and Muslim nations make peace with Israel. Even as this is being written, American and Israeli insiders are predicting that Bahrain and Oman are likely to take the same step soon; and in Africa, expect peace agreements with Sudan and with Morocco, which provides a cautionary tale for Bangladeshi intransigence.
Despite the international euphoria that has greeted the Israel-UAE peace deal, it was as the Begin-Sadat Center noted, an “unpleasant surprise to the Moroccan diplomatic and intelligence community,” which expected Rabat to hold the distinction of being the third regional power to normalize relations with Jerusalem. Unlike Bangladesh, Morocco had been working with Israel for decades. The countries had close defense and security ties that helped Morocco defeat multiple tries to overthrow the government. Tens of thousands of Israelis visit Morocco annually while thousands of Moroccans visit Israel each year. The relations also helped Morocco get US support for its Sahara autonomy plan; and otherwise increase Rabat’s influence in Washington.
More was on the way, but Morocco dithered. It shifted priorities and then deferred to the growing Muslim Brotherhood like group that gained power after the so-called Arab Spring. Not long after that, the growing relations between Israel and Gulf States started moving quickly, as national leaders saw their tremendous advantages. I do not want to be misunderstood. Israel’s military and security aid to Morocco never stopped, and neither did the person-to-person interaction between Israelis and Moroccans. There will be a great cry of joy when Israel and Morocco sign a peace agreement, especially given Morocco’s history and the fact that about ten percent of Israelis are Moroccan Jews or their descendants. But it will not have the impact of the UAE (or other GCC nations). International attention shifted to the Gulf, and that hurt the diplomatic status that Morocco sought for its African and Middle East policies.
Since early in this century, I have engaged with several Bangladeshi leaders about initiating discussions with Israel. The last time was in 2013, when Sheikh Hasina’s political advisor and confidant, HT Imam, invited me to Dhaka where he raised the subject. In keeping with how Israel engages, I made sure any overtures were respectful of Bangladeshi history and sentiments. As Israel has built relations with more and more countries, it has done so recognizing political and other challenges these different governments face. Hence, Israel and the UAE, have been building trade and security relationships for years. For much of that time, relations were built quietly; and at least 15 Muslim-majority countries are at different points on that continuum now. That is why by the time US President Donald Trump announced the UAE-Israel peace agreement, around 200 Israeli companies were already exporting goods to the UAE in the fields of in the fields of medical equipment, telecommunications, national security, and more. No one expects Bangladesh to abandon its principles.
When I first discussed the array of relations possible between Israel and Bangladesh, there was a sense of excitement at the prospect. During informal talks, Israeli officials indicated that they could offer Bangladesh direct help in a number of fields, including medicine and agriculture. The process could enable Bangladeshi Muslims visit holy sites in Israel. Why should misguided policy deprive Bangladeshi Muslims of that which most of their co-religionists can do?
There are other advantages. In 2003, I published an article in the now defunct Bangladesh Observer, in which I said that Bangladesh is uniquely positioned to help parties resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has built a higher international profile than what existed back then, and she has the ability to raise it further. This effort also will solidify relations with the United States as Bangladesh’s largest customer for readymade garments (a status now in jeopardy as others claim that market). Sheikh Hasina also has done a skillful job of building strong, positive relations with India, and relations with Israel would provide another positive element with that all-important neighbor. And I want to be clear, all of these things—from aid and joint ventures to investments to enhanced cooperation with the US and India—will be done to the advantage of the people of Bangladesh.
There are so many ways to begin. For instance, we once talked about a government sanctioned delegation of Bangladeshi journalists visiting Israel. Additionally, if cyclones, floods, or other natural disasters strike again, Israel has been a leader in helping similar victims in Haiti, Indonesia, Nepal, Japan, and so many other nations. It even offered aid to Iran after its 2017 earthquake and most recently to Lebanon after its massive explosion. As always, I offer my good offices to help with this difficult process.
So, I ask Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, if almost the entire Muslim Ummah recognizes that not engaging with Israel is an obsolete policy; that it hurts their people and does nothing to help the Palestinians; is it time for Bangladesh to explore relations with Israel, as all but the most radical of its fellow Muslim-majority nations have?
The writer is an American
scholar and a geopolitical
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