Last August, energetic Trump administration diplomacy brought Bahrain’s foreign minister, the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, and Israel’s prime minister to the White House to sign and to celebrate the Abraham Accords. The agreements offer unprecedented opportunities for the parties to the accords, for the broader region, and for the international order. Over the last seven months, the focus has been on cooperation in national security and commerce. That’s understandable. More attention now should be given to education initiatives, which can serve the shared interests of Abraham Accord nations by opening minds and hearts, promoting mutual understanding, and forging the lasting bonds that are among the long-term benefits reaped by those who learn together.
The Abraham Accords are not the first agreements establishing normal relations between Israel and Arab countries. The 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt brokered by President Jimmy Carter brought dramatic security gains to the Jewish state by removing the threat posed by the region’s most populous country while restoring the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. The 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan — facilitated by the 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization at a White House ceremony presided over by President Bill Clinton — formalized a longstanding working relationship between Jerusalem and Amman.
Advantageous as the 1979 and 1994 treaties have been to the signatories, the countries have not progressed beyond cold peace. While the formal agreements took war off the table, established embassies, and instituted regular diplomatic channels of communication, commerce remains limited and tourism in both directions, especially from Egypt and Jordan to Israel, is meager.
The Abraham Accords are different. They normalized relations but did not need to end hostilities since Israel was never at war with Bahrain and the UAE. At the same time, like the 1979 and 1994 peace treaties, the Abraham Accords are grounded in national-security calculations. Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel have long shared a vital interest in countering the Islamic Republic of Iran’s funding of terrorism, pursuit of nuclear weapons, and imperial ambitions. Indeed, the Abraham Accords build on years of behind-the-scenes security cooperation. But in contrast to Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the agreements with Bahrain and the UAE have unleashed a keen desire among the parties to cooperate in the commercial sphere and to visit one another’s countries.
The excitement is palpable. Governments eagerly prepared for the exchange of ambassadors and brought friendly relations out into the open. Entrepreneurs rushed in to invest and strike deals. Israel and Bahrain, and Israel and the UAE launched commercial air travel between their countries, and, notwithstanding the pandemic, tourists leapt at the opportunity.
Educators should build on the momentum. By bringing students and scholars together, cross-cultural education initiatives do more than serve the high purposes of transmitting knowledge, encouraging the search for truth, and cultivating independent minds. They also have far-reaching ancillary effects — fostering the exchange of outlooks and experiences, enriching appreciation of the complex interplay of tradition and common humanity in the formation of peoples and nations, and building networks of life-long friends and colleagues.
Israel and the UAE have taken the first steps to create what should become a variety of vibrant student-exchange programs. Much more can be done. Universities should establish visiting professorships to bring Israeli scholars to teach in the Gulf, and Bahraini and Emirati scholars to teach in Israel. And they should provide financial incentives to encourage faculty members to devise proposals for academic conferences that focus on issues of special interest to all three Middle East countries as well as to the United States — from desalination and the environment to comparative religion and religious freedom.
Universities, however, are not the only source of educational initiatives. In recent years, the United States has witnessed the growth of a new model rooted in the private sector. The new model revolves around seminar study of classic books supplemented by a variety of guest speakers and cultural excursions. It gathers students — for a few days, a week, a month, or a summer — to explore big ideas with a small group of peers. Such programs encourage students to continue classroom discussions on walks, over meals, and late into the evening. Instead of disseminating a single approved set of policies, such programs create a community devoted to joint inquiry and the lively exchange of views based on shared respect for fundamental freedoms and basic rights.
Over the last decade and in the United States and Israel, I have been involved in several of these privately financed undertakings — through the Tikvah Fund, the Hertog Foundation, the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and The Public Interest Fellowship. The model could easily be adapted for a variety of educational programs that brought together, say, 25 or so Bahrainis, Emiratis, Israelis, and Americans for intense study and leisurely conversation.
The first program might be called the Principles of Freedom Seminar. Intended for promising 20-somethings and 30-somethings, it would draw participants from government, business, journalism, security, medicine, and the academy. It could be easily adapted to students of many ages, from high school to accomplished senior figures across many professions and disciplines. Its curriculum would consist of seminal works from the tradition of modern freedom, featuring renowned thinkers such as Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Madison, Burke, Tocqueville, and Mill. By setting aside the political controversies of the moment and instead focusing on pivotal writings on a topic of abiding importance, such a seminar enables students to engage robustly while avoiding the most divisive issues. At the same time, thoughtful examination of the principles of modern freedom is bound to illuminate controversies students encounter in their own countries.
The second program could be named the Common Traditions Seminars (an approach developed by my friend and former Policy Planning colleague Andrew Doran). It, too, could be designed for students of quite different ages. Its point of departure is that Jews and Muslims as well as Christians share a common biblical heritage, and that great philosophers in all three traditions undertook enduring efforts in the Middle Ages to reconcile their faiths with the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle. The first half of the seminar would concentrate on Biblical passages of surpassing importance to the three Abrahamic religions. The second half would explore influential arguments from the outstanding medieval philosopher of each of the traditions: Al-Farabi, Maimonides, and Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The third program might be titled the Law, Nation, and Faith Seminar. It would bring reporters, columnists, editorial writers, and editors together to undertake in-depth study of a select aspect of one of the large forces influencing regional politics. Journalists from the four countries would enhance one another’s appreciation of the issues by sharing their experiences regarding, and perspectives on, matters of common concern. They would return home with ideas for stories, unexpected angles on familiar controversies, and a host of new contacts, sources, and colleagues.
These three seminars — and variations that could follow on their heels — needn’t remain restricted to original Abraham Accords signatories. As soon as is practically possible, citizens from Sudan, Kosovo, and Morocco — which also recently normalized relations with Israel — should be invited to join. The same goes for Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. And why not reach out to the Republic of Cyprus, a vibrant democracy in the eastern Mediterranean eager to contribute to regional stability and prosperity?
Of surpassing value in itself, education can play a vital role — along with the advancement of shared interests in security and commerce — in bolstering the Abraham Accords.