At new Israel office, Abraham Accords Peace Institute sees ‘explosive growth’ on horizon

January 14, 2022

By Mike Wagenheim

At new Israel office, Abraham Accords Peace Institute sees ‘explosive growth’ on horizon

“The scholars and fellows program that we’re working on—with a goal of having student and faculty exchange between universities in the region—is something that’s going to be a game-changer because this is bringing a peace between peoples,” said David Aaronson, deputy director of Abraham Accords Peace Institute’s new Israel office.

The initial excitement of the Abraham Accords was palpable. And while White House signing ceremonies and speeches by high-level dignitaries capture a snapshot in history, the process of continuing to move peace forward, while no less important, is often a much less glamorous, day-to-day process.

“There’s really no special envoy whose job is to wake up every morning and think to themselves, ‘What can I do to advance and help implement and expand the Abraham Accords?’ And that’s where we come in to sort of help work together with the governments here, with the U.S. and with the other countries in the region to help guide them in the right direction and facilitate that process. That’s our goal,” David Aaronson, deputy director of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute (AAPI) in Israel, told JNS.

Along with his director Asher Fredman, Aaronson leads the Abraham Accords Peace Institute’s new Israel office. They took on their strategic roles two months ago. Fredman got in on the ground floor as a founding member of the UAE-Israel Business Council, established months before the accords were announced. He also founded the Israeli-Emirati Forum and serves as CEO of Gulf-Israel Green Ventures. Aaron was the senior advisor to the-Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Ofir Akunis in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the agreement’s signings.

The AAPI, founded by Robert Greenway, Jared Kushner, Avi Berkowitz and Haim Saban, have a small team in place in Washington, with plans to open offices in each  member country.

“I think that enthusiasm is still there. We see it when we reach out to our counterparts, and their willingness and their openness to discuss and to move things forward. Every time we’ve asked for something or suggested something to the Bahraini Ministry of Finance or Education Ministry—whatever it might be—we’ve seen a lot of excitement,” Fredman told JNS.

As a two-person local staff—and the only AAPI personnel in place so far in the region—Fredman and Aaronson have been charged with advancing peace through the trade, investment, tourism, technology, educational and civil society sectors, working less with the world leaders grabbing the headlines behind the historic Israeli-Arab normalization agreements, but the bureaucratic and business leadership that has the know-how to keep advancing the ball. They say they’ve spent the bulk of their time so far connecting with public and private stakeholders in Israel to assess what is working and what isn’t, gathering suggestions for overcoming obstacles and developing plans and initiatives to put peace into everyday action. The mission is to create multilateral, large-scale, big-idea projects, including agricultural and tourism initiatives, new land and sea routes, new trade routes and infrastructure projects, bringing together high-level connections to make these things happen.

“I think that naturally, people say, ‘Why is it in year one when all these Israelis got on a plane” to visit the partner nations, “why don’t we see more happening now?’ Well, we saw almost a billion dollars worth of trade. And I think it’s a natural process with two economies, two societies that are different. It takes time for them to learn each other, to understand each other, to discover culturally and business-wise and legally and interpersonally how to work together,” said Fredman, who believes there is an organic process taking place within the context of the accords that will lead to explosive growth.

“We saw in year one tremendous excitement and a coming together. During the course of the year, we saw these natural processes of people just forming relationships, forming trust. And they’re learning how you do business, how you transfer money, how you set up a company, and how in the UAE and Bahrain, most things are connected to the government one way or another, while here in Israel, our private sector and civil society are independent of the government,” he explained.

“And now we’re naturally heading into the next stage where that initial excitement will be translated to concrete agreements and concrete cooperation. That’s already starting to happen, but we’ll see more and more of that,” said Fredman.

‘A very important premium on personal relationships’

Fredman and Aaronson say it was necessary to get an office set up in place in Israel first because the country is essentially the odd man out when it comes to the Abraham Accords in terms of how business is done.

“Here in Israel, we have a very big government and we have a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. There’s a lot of regulation. It’s important to help navigate our counterparts in the Abraham Accords countries and help reduce those barriers,” Aaronson told JNS.

“In the UAE, in Bahrain, in Morocco as well, with the king, the leadership really sets the tone. So, we’re just very fortunate and Israel’s very fortunate that the king of Morocco, the king of Bahrain and the rulers of the UAE have been really supportive of this process. That’s going to trickle down and allow us to do all these great things on the people-to-people and the business level,” added Fredman.

Like much of the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic has put a kink in their plans, especially due to the nature of relationship-building in the Arab world. In December, the AAPI held a forum in Abu Dhabi, with invitations extended to key players across the respective countries, plus Egypt and Jordan, allowing for some limited connection-building.

“In this region, there is a very important premium put on personal relationships—meeting people in person and seeing things in person. A lot of Israelis have gone out there, but only a few hundred Emiratis have come here. In cases like our trade investment forum, we were able to bring private sector Israeli actors, and they had some very productive meetings there. Certainly, if and when we have thousands of Emiratis coming here, then we’ll see much more business ties because it is important for the Emiratis, Bahrainis and Moroccans to see the country and see the people,” said Fredman, with Aaronson adding that the pandemic opened the door for cooperation in digital medicine and vaccine development.

“I remember after we signed the agreement with Morocco in December 2020, the first call I got from Morocco from our counterparts in their Ministry of International Cooperation was about Israel’s rollout of the Pfizer vaccine,” said Aaronson. “And the Moroccans were excited about that and said they wanted to learn from Israel about how we did the rollout so quickly and about sharing data related to the effectiveness of the vaccine. That’s something exciting that I think shows Israel can be a lighthouse to the Abraham Accords countries.”

Beyond that, Fredman said he was enthusiastic about some of the discussions taking place revolving around agricultural technology cooperation, while Aaronson points to a pet project outside of the business realm.

“The scholars and fellows program that we’re working on—with a goal of having student and faculty exchange between universities in the region—is something that’s going to be a game-changer because this is bringing peace between peoples.”

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