Normalized ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain raise hopes in Israel that it is finally gaining acceptance in its volatile neighborhood.
By David M. Halbfinger
JERUSALEM — Since its founding, Israel has seen itself as a modern-day Sparta, a tiny fortress nation-state in a hostile desert, whose survival depended on its internal cohesion and sheer military strength.
All around it were Arab and Muslim enemies who denounced the Jewish state as a colonizing interloper, an outpost of foreign intruders who were bound to be evicted, sooner or later, like all their predecessors back to the Crusaders.
But Israel’s back-to-back agreements to normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to be marked in a signing ceremony at the White House on Tuesday — and the much-buzzed-about possibility that other Arab nations could follow suit — are causing some Israelis to ask whether a deeper shift may, after years in the making, finally be underway in the Middle East.
Could their country at last be gaining acceptance in the region as a legitimate member of the neighborhood?
Formal diplomatic relations will mean a great deal to Israel after its long wait in isolation: the exchange of ambassadors, establishment of direct flights, new destinations for tourists once travel becomes possible again and the start or acceleration of a host of other commercial, cultural and scientific endeavors that until now could be conducted only in the shadows.
But Dr. Yitshak Kreiss, director general of Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital, and a former military surgeon general, said that the biggest impact could be in changing the way ordinary Israelis think about their place in the region.
A chartered El Al flight completed a symbolic first journey last month from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
In an interview, Dr. Kreiss recalled setting up a field hospital in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. It could treat only a small fraction of the injured, but it had a great impact because “the most important thing for nations in a crisis is hope, the feeling that there’s a better future,” he said.
“When Israelis see the region opening, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Emirates or Bahrain, and next are Chad, or Oman, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia,” Dr. Kreiss continued. “It’s the understanding that this can be a better region, that we should not accept things as they are. This is the strongest feeling Israelis can take from that.”
“That’s a tremendous change for people of my generation,” Dr. Kreiss added. “Our existence here is no longer a function of how strong we are militarily. It can be, how many neighbors and peace treaties we can bring together.”