uch has been written about the sham of a “peace deal" that President Trump and Jared Kushner claim to have brokered in the Middle East—it’s but another false jewel in Trump’s fake-news crown. In fact, when we take a closer look at said deal and its impact on the region, the façade falls away to reveal a sharp underlining of the status quo at best, and a slap in the face to minority groups in the region — particularly the LGBTQ+ community — at worst.
This is not to say that the deal doesn’t mean anything. The Abraham Accords have a few key roles in restructuring the power structure of the Middle East, namely by aligning Gulf states with Israel and against Iran in an explicit way. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few years. It’s also the first time that one of the Gulf states has taken a pro-Israeli (read: anti-Palestinian) stance. That’s no small gesture and is sure to reverberate in major ways for Palestinians who have thus far relied on unyielding support from these countries in their fight for independence.
All that being said, the purported brand-new era of regional commerce is not new at all — Israel has long been doing hush-hush business, especially in arms sales, with Gulf states. Everyone knows about it, it’s just been tacky to politically tacky to about until now because doing business with Israel would mean acknowledging the state’s right to exist. The UAE and Bahrain have — so far — been comfortable working with Israel economically as long as they didn’t have to admit it to the other Middle Eastern countries.
So, yes, we’ve pulled back the curtain on this particular charade, letting everyone glimpse the wizard that we already knew was skulking there. Big deal.
In addition to being economically redundant, the agreement (poetically entitled the Abraham Accords, in deference to the biblical forefather of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is also offensive. For one, it neglects to mention the plight of the Palestinians, beyond a very pallid and evasive statement:
“The parties discussed their shared commitment to [...] continuing the efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Considering that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of untold death and trauma throughout the region and has been one of the main sticking points that stands between Israel and its various neighbors in the region, this can be interpreted as a profound understatement or a brazen falsehood.
But this is not the only grievous omission in the Abraham Accords. A quick search of the document will show that the phrase gay rights, LGBT rights, or anything of the sort appears precisely zero times. To me, and my fellow gay Israelis, the silence is deafening and the message is clear.
My homeland has such little respect for the LGBTQ+ community that it never occurred to officials that the human rights violations of the UAE and Bahrain should even be addressed in the Abraham Accords. It’s insulting enough to the international community that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict got a scant paragraph. Us gay folks didn’t even get that much.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are not known for their tolerance when it comes to gay rights. In fact, their renown for quite the opposite. In the UAE, consensual sex between same-sex adults is illegal and can result in fines and imprisonment. As recently as 2013, two men in Dubai were jailed for ‘cross-dressing’ and offering same-sex sexual services. The country even went so far as to sentence a Belgian tourist to a year in prison and deportation for a consensual same-sex relationship in 2012. (Although the sentence was later reduced to six months.)
According to Refugee Legal Aid Information, the penal code of the UAE isn’t clear on whether sodomy is punishable by death or not, but that doesn’t really make me feel better.
In Bahrain, the situation is mildly better. Equaldex (a crowdsourced site that provides information about LGBT rights worldwide) shows that attitudes towards homosexuality are ambiguous, with no protections when it comes to employment or housing discrimination.
Both countries do allow LGBT+ folks to donate blood and serve in the military, however. So there’s that.
As for Israel, the country is a bit different, or at least it claims to be. Plenty of money goes into portraying Israel as the gay capital of the Middle East. After all, it’s in the country’s interest to seem tolerant; this nod to Western values more than pays off in financial support from allies around the world. As a gay Israeli ex-pat, I can attest that it’s not all untrue. Tel-Aviv Pride is an absolute par-tay. It’s a lush, week-long festival of sweat and glitter and rainbows and drag queens making out in the streets of one of the country’s sole liberal enclaves.
But it’s not all queer bliss and feather boas. The truth is that daily life for gay Israelis is rife with challenges. We are not allowed to marry (although if you have the privilege to marry abroad, your marriage will be sort-of recognized), not allowed to adopt, and we don’t enjoy the financial spousal benefits that our hetero counterparts do. We are faced with constant discrimination, both in the form of microaggressions and in the form institutional homophobia.
For example, a major party campaign in the most recent election ran huge billboards along the highways with the slogan “Israel chooses to be normal.” The billboards depicted someone ostensibly voting for ‘my son marrying a woman’ instead of “Pride and buying children.”
The vice-chair of the Israeli parliament is an abhorrent man named Bezalel Smotritch — in 2006 he organized a “Beast Parade” of livestock to march alongside the Jerusalem Pride parade. The idea being, of course, to draw a bright line connecting homosexuality with bestiality. Twice now, people have been stabbed to death at Jerusalem Pride events, by the same man. The last time he attacked Pride Parade attendees, it turned out that he had been released from prison—where he had been serving a sentence for the same crime—just three weeks before the parade.
I’m not naive. The pinkwashing that Israel has participated in for decades, without providing any financial support for queer communities or denouncing homophobia within the ranks of its own government, has not gone unnoticed. But reading the Abraham Accords felt like the administration was taking this denial and sanctioned homophobia to a new level.
It seems that the curtain has been pulled back on more than one cloaked reality. If we look closely we’ll see that the message of the document is very simple. It could be more simply stated thus:
We, the parties in this agreement, agree that we care more about commerce in the region and money than we do about human rights. We would very much like to sell our goods to more people, regardless of the human rights violations that are perpetrated on the Palestinians and on the LGBTQ+ communities in our countries.
At least it’s good to know where we stand.
It’s also crucial to note that there hasn’t been much of an outcry. In a country plagued by a corrupt government, rampant COVID-19 outbreaks, massive wealth and class gaps, and an ongoing violent conflict, the lack of any statement by the government about UAE’s attitude towards LGBT+ folks is not exactly at the top of anyone’s list of problems.
Nevertheless, I continue to hope. I hope to see more of a stand being taken by the LGBT+ community in Israel and around the world against institutionalized homophobia. I hope for the Israeli government to leverage its economic power to further human rights ideals in other countries. Hell, I hope Israel advances human rights ideals for the myriad downtrodden communities that suffer various injustices and oppression, small and large, within (and nearby) its own borders.
I dream that one day, my homeland will have a government that I can be proud of, that is a “light unto the nations” (as they proclaim to be now) in a real, meaningful way. For now, the Abraham Accords seem to be just one more nail in the coffin that capitalism, racism, and homophobia are building around a country that, maybe, could have been great.