Friends in Need Are Friends Indeed

Friends in Need Are Friends Indeed

One morning last week, as the sun emerged from the east covering the bright blue waters of the Ionian Sea, the tranquility of the shimmering waves was interrupted by the deafening roar of a flight of Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons—the thrust of their afterburners propelled the warbirds into hypnotic maneuvers, twisting and turning through the atmosphere. The aircraft took off from Andravida Air Base in southwestern Greece, but most of the fighter bombers didn’t belong to the Greek Air Force—they were part of Iniochos 21, a multinational exercise of Mediterranean powers honing their Mach 2 skillsets, preparing for operations together. Several of the F-16s belong to the Heyl Ha’Avir, Israel’s vaunted air force. Others belonged to the al-Quwwat al-Jawiyah wa al-Defa’ al-Jawiy al-Imaraty, the United Arab Emirates’ air service.

There was a time in the very recent past when the thought of the Israel and Emirati air forces participating in a joint exercise, let alone operating side-by-side, would have been considered sheer fantasy. But for a part of the world where history is everything, sometimes history can change in what seems like an instant. The Middle East has, indeed, changed in a flash and a series of handshakes. Israel, once an outcast shunned by its Arab neighbors, is not only accepted—either officially or still discreetly—by most of the Sunni Muslim world, but it is now welcomed as a patron, a partner, and even an ally.

For years, sometimes for as long as Israel existed, the Jewish state nurtured covert ties with some Arab nations. Officially, of course, the nations were in a state of war or a relationship of mutual hostilities, but even enemies can share mutual interests and want to thwart common enemies. While the premiers and emirs talked about conflict, the spymasters met secretly to discuss cooperation. Israel’s relationship with Morocco’s espionage service is now a matter of public record; so, too, is Israel’s historic cooperation with Jordan’s King Hussein and his intelligence service. It isn’t a secret that Mossad directors have interacted with their intelligence fraternity counterparts in North Africa, the Levant, and the Persian Gulf. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan ultimately enhanced Israel’s ties with many of its Arab and Muslim neighbors, and it allowed the covert ties with others in the Arab world to grow and flourish. Call it “spy talk” or “flag officer diplomacy” but the spies and military commanders of the Middle East’s moderate nations sought to develop a relationship that would be mutually beneficial and strategically prudent. The prime ministers and presidents, of course, like all politicians, spare no excuse to remind anyone within earshot that they were the ones responsible for the Abraham Accords breakthroughs, but this historic redesign of the region’s geopolitical and military paradigm was done by the men in the shadows whose faces we’ll never see and whose names we’ll never know.

The jubilation among Israelis and Arabs that followed the signing of the Abraham Accords—joy and promise felt in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manama, Rabat, and Khartoum—ushered in a new era and a future full of hope and promise to many in \the Middle East. Israelis and Emiratis have acted like long-lost relations finally permitted to have a reunion. But love thy neighbor had little to do with the new reality. The Abraham Accords were all about the establishment of a new front against the forces that plague the Middle East in the 21st Century: Iran and Hezbollah; the meddlesome aspirations of Turkey and Qatar; failed states in Syria, Lebanon, and Libya, fundamentalist Islamic forces like ISIS; diseases; hunger; and economic stability in a part of the world that is never defined by harmony and security.

The fact that Israeli and Emirati F-16s pilots training together is, of course, an extension of the aviation links established immediately after the signing of the Abraham Accords. Etihad, Emirates, and soon Royal Air Maroc and Gulf Air flights now crisscross the Arabian Peninsula heading to and from Ben Gurion International Airport. The fact that the men—and women—with the Right Stuff who fly the best fighters in the skies are working together in both Hebrew and Arabic should come as no surprise to anyone. Arab political clout and money when combined with Israel’s military and technology mastery create one hell of an obstacle to the most dangerous and fanatic of foes.

What took everyone so long?