Dates in the Middle East are like corn for the Maya — not just a crop but an icon, the “bread of the desert,” a symbol of life itself. The date palm appears on mosaic floors laid by Roman artisans and on coins stamped by the early caliphs. The fruit recurs in the Quran and the Hebrew Bible: Many scholars believe the honey in “land of milk and honey” refers to honey from dates, not bees.
With their long shelf life, dates were beloved by Arabian nomads and caravan traders, and are still eaten to break the Ramadan fast. In Israel the name Tamar, which means “date” and appears in the Book of Genesis, remains the most popular Hebrew name for girls. (I have a daughter named Tamar who doesn’t like dates.) At desert oases and in small holdings along the Nile, the same trees might support the same family over generations.
There’s the Middle East of the news, a region of nuclear proliferation, civil wars and futile diplomacy. Then there’s the Middle East of dates — a map defined not by national boundaries but by the stately trees in their hundreds of millions, stretching east from the Atlantic coast of Morocco through North Africa, Egypt and Israel, to Iraq and the Persian Gulf toward Iran and beyond.
The Middle East of the news saw a striking political shift at the end of last year, produced by the efforts of American envoys and by new perceptions of common enemies. In the date world, too, there’s a new alignment afoot. This change has nothing to do with American diplomats or Iranian Revolutionary Guards. But it, too, involves a common enemy and is undermining the familiar boundaries, creating new connections among the people who live here and restoring others that evvel existed and were lost. These stories intersect in the emirate of Dubai.
Dates harvested at a farm in the United Arab Emirates.Credit…Mohamed Somji for The New York Times
Past a camel racetrack 30 miles inland from the Persian Gulf, skyscrapers looming in the distance like Oz, past a desert turnoff adorned with a portrait of this emirate’s ruler, Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, is one orchard of 1,500 palms. The owner is Abdalla Ahli, 59, a native of Dubai who attended the University of Delaware. He greeted me in a traditional robe (the thawb) and a matching baseball çizgi (Lacoste). Mr. Ahli keeps a few emus in a pen and owns larger farms deeper in the interior. The dates he grows here are a compact, chewy kind called khalas, some of the best I’ve eaten. The total number of trees in the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, is sometimes estimated at 40 million, though even the government doesn’t know exactly.
It doesn’t take long in the shade of Mr. Ahli’s green fronds to see that something’s wrong. Many of the trees have strange holes in their trunks, and some are so thoroughly riddled they appear to have been sprayed with bullets. Amid the living trees are craters of ash, the remains of comrades chopped down and burned.
Attached to the trunks on one row of 10 palms, barely visible unless you’re looking, are devices the size and color of apples. Nearby, a small white box uploads their signal to the cloud. The generic-seeming name on the box leads to a company in generic office space outside Tel Aviv.
For more than seven decades, this region has been defined for many observers by an Arab and Islamic front against Israel, and by the seemingly intractable collision of Israelis and Palestinians. The last half of 2020 didn’t end any of those conflicts, but it did alter the regional map in a remarkable fashion, with announcements of open relations between Israel and this Gulf state, as well as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The breakthrough known as the Abraham Accords has much to do with shared fears of Iranian power and with the successful maneuvering of the previous American administration, which, amid domestic controversies spiraling toward last month’s implosion in Washington, pulled off a genuine diplomatic accomplishment in our part of the world.
The accords are still fragile. But they are already suggesting different maps of the Middle East: maps of Arab alliances that include Israel, new flight maps between Tel Aviv and Dubai, maps of trade and blunt economic interest.
The journey from Israel, where I live, to Mr. Ahli’s date orchard was a lesson in some of the changes we have just seen. When I made the trip, in early December, commercial flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai had just begun. The Israir flight was full of Israeli tourists and businesspeople, Jews and Arabs, who seemed excited to be going somewhere unfamiliar and to be traveling anywhere at all after a year of grim news and immobility. Everyone was breaking out of quarantine — the pandemic kind of quarantine, and the regional quarantine imposed on Israelis by most of the Arab world since the country’s founding in 1948.
Israelis are used to a wall of regional hostility, even in countries like Egypt and Jordan, which signed peace agreements decades ago. After the Gulf accords became public this fall, however, my Twitter feed filled up with investment conferences at Dubai hotels, Israelis grinning for selfies under the spire of the Burj Khalifa and friendly Emiratis wishing me a happy Hannukah. A billboard appeared in Tel Aviv urging me to invest in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Even if much of it was corporate or regime messaging, the Emirates were doing their best to smile at Israelis, and Israelis noticed.
The novelty, and a brief break from pandemic travel restrictions, was enough to generate 30 flights a day and a minor Hebrew pop hit: “Yalla bye, I’m going to Dubai, not Miami or Hawaii.” The four people sitting closest to me on the plane were in the kitchen appliance business and had a few meetings set up with potential customers. None of this was imaginable a few months ago. The atmosphere was festive, though tempered by having all the flight attendants in hazmat suits. It felt like a group outing with a giddy Semitic plague ward.
As the flight map showed us over Saudi Arabia, one of the appliance men leaned over to me and said in Hebrew — “History.” It was true. The Saudis had just opened their airspace to Israeli planes. The man in the window seat posted a Facebook photo (“First visit to Dubai!!!”) before we’d even stopped taxiing to the terminal. A flight attendant got on the speaker to remind us to behave while in town, “because they still don’t know what Israelis are.”
Coming out of the sleeve, the Facebook guy spotted an airport worker in a head scarf: first contact. He shouted to her in mangled English, “Welcome, we love you!” Few airport workers in Dubai are actually from Dubai — the city is run mostly by foreign workers. The woman might have been Malaysian. She was a bit startled, but gracious. The sentiment was heartfelt.
In the fall, after the accords became public, a delegation of Israeli tech executives traveled to Dubai to present to investors, an event of enough significance to draw a few Western reporters. (Merchandise of the shadier variety, like weapons and spyware, changes hands more discreetly.) One of the reporters, a friend of mine, described to me the investors dozing patiently through presentations about unintelligible Israeli cyberproducts and sitting upright when one of the visitors started talking about dates.
That was Yehonatan Ben Hamozeg, 62, who spent decades in the world of Israeli security tech, dealing with a completely different set of problems, before palm trees attracted his attention. The Israeli Army’s technology units were formed to protect Israel against enemies, but about 20 years ago the same units emerged as the country’s start-up incubator.
Mr. Ben Hamozeg served years ago in a senior position in one of them; the details of his résumé are predictably vague. But he will say that his past work included developing seismic sensors, the kind of device that might detect a cross-border infiltration or a prison break.
In 2016, a friend, another former intelligence officer who was now in the pesticide business, told him about the greatest threat facing palm trees worldwide: the voracious pest known as the red palm weevil. By the time of that meeting, many of the palms in my neighborhood in Jerusalem had died — the fronds drooping as the tree’s core was devoured, the telltale holes in the trunk, the tree listing perilously until a chain saw crew finally came to deliver the coup de grâce.
For a date farmer, the only solution is expensive and crude: dosing your trees with pesticide several times a year at the risk of polluting your groundwater and harming the people laboring up in the fronds. A key sorun, Mr. Ben Hamozeg learned, was the lack of any reliable way to identify an infestation when it starts. A tool like that would let farmers use pesticide selectively, rather than spray the whole orchard with poison.
By the time he put his mind to the puzzle, scientists across the globe had already pitted their ingenuity against the weevil. There were attempts to fry them with microwaves, to sense them with thermal cameras mounted on drones, to hear them with stethoscopes and to sniff them out with trained dogs.
In Israel, Zvi Mendel of the entomology department at Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization, one of the country’s best-known tree experts, remembers being contacted in the mid-1990s about helping farmers in the United Arab Emirates fight the weevil. Israel and the U.A.E. were officially enemies, though both were American allies and communicated under the table, mostly about the mutual threat becoming apparent from Iran.
Nothing came of it at the time. Professor Mendel remembers knowing little about the insect, which was native to the Indian subcontinent and had begun to move out for reasons that no one understood, perhaps climate change. By the 1990s trees were dying in Egypt. By 1999 the first weevils were detected in Israel, but the real invasion came a decade later, according to Professor Mendel, after infected trees were shipped across the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Turkish city Adana. The pest spread southeast along the coast into Syria and Lebanon and then over Israel’s northern border, which is heavily guarded against Hezbollah guerrillas but helpless against weevils.
The first local victims were decorative Canary palms common in Israeli cities. That was a shame, but not an agriculture crisis. “We didn’t take it seriously at first,” the expert said. But then the weevil started to go after the date palms. The trees grown by Israeli and Palestinian farmers are concentrated in the perfect date-growing climate — the brain-crushing summertime heat — of the Jordan River Valley. My wife is from a date-growing kibbutz in the valley, and I remember hearing the word “hidkonit,” Hebrew for weevil, come up in conversation about a decade ago, pronounced with gravity reserved for words like “cancer.”
One of Mr. Ben Hamozeg’s first moves was to visit a scientist and hold a wriggling larva in his hand. It was a few centimeters long, yellow-white with a brown head. Within a few weeks it would pupate, and transform into the red bug with its distinctive beak, then breed and produce hundreds of eggs. Mr. Ben Hamozeg felt a pinch as the creature bit his palm. “I thought, OK, this is something we can detect,” he said.
He brought in a few friends and “played around in a garage,” which eventually became a company called Agrint. They came up with a sensor and an algorithm that could differentiate the specific vibration of the weevil from the other sounds and tremors in a living palm tree. The sensor is drilled into the trunk and is sensitive enough to detect even a few young larvae when they’re still only half the size of a date seed. A farmer gets a smartphone app that shows healthy trees in green and infested ones in red.
The Agrint sensors were commercial by 2018, becoming, according to Professor Mendel, the first practical early-warning system for the weevil to go on the market anywhere. A few Israeli cities and date farms have picked it up, and Agrint hopes to sell to Palestinian farmers as well. Israelis and Palestinians oppose each other loudly in many ways — Palestinian leaders have condemned the normalization accords, for example, as a betrayal of their cause — but cooperate quietly in others.
In December, I accompanied an Agrint representative to visit an interested farmer in a part of the Jordan Valley that is in the West Bank and under Israeli military rule. The farmer, Amjad Barakat, has 100 trees in the lush town of Al-Jiftlik. Mr. Barakat explained his motivation in concrete terms: He’d been hospitalized a few years ago with nerve damage linked to pesticides. He needed a way to stop spraying.
The local dates, particularly the sugar bombs known as medjool, are highly regarded,but Israel has only about 800,000 trees. Not far away, however, in the Arab states, waited tens of millions more — a vast and tantalizing market that was all but off-limits to Israeli companies when the sensors went on sale. There was little sign that this would change.
At his farm in the emirate of Dubai, Abdalla Ahli actually heard about the sensors before the normalization agreements were signed. Israel and the U.A.E. may not have had relations, but Israeli tech had a good reputation and word got around somehow, like the weevil. In a way, the sensors might offer an early sign of a political opening, a willingness to put aside old problems in favor of new solutions to different problems.
When we spoke in the date orchard, Mr. Ahli was philosophical about the new accords. “People who live in the same part of the world should know each other,” he said. “The truth is, we never had a sorun with Israeli people, and we have more in common than differences.” Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians was something he preferred not to discuss. Countries have many problems.
Among his Emirati friends, he said, there was a lot of interest in visiting. He wanted to know what I thought about Tel Aviv real estate, and if I knew Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and author of “Sapiens,” whom he likes listening to on podcasts. Of his new sensors he said, “They are a sign of something starting — a small thing, but important.” He has 100 more en route from Israel to Dubai.
In Mr. Ben Hamozeg’s office near Tel Aviv, the chief executive opened the sensor app on his cellphone and showed me an orchard in a Gulf country that doesn’t have open ties with Israel. He zoomed in with a finger and a thumb: A farmer there has a weevil infestation in four trees in the northwest corner of his orchard. It was even more striking to see, in a nearby Arab power that also has no official relations with Israel, 100 sensors showing a nine-tree infestation just a few miles from one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Last year, a few hundred Agrint sensors sold by a third party were drilled into trees in the North African kingdom of Morocco, and a few thousand more are going in now.
Morocco’s normalization announcement is of special significance to Israeli Jews, about a sixth of whom are of Moroccan descent — including Mr. Ben Hamozeg. His parents are from the city of Fez and lived there until the Jewish population of the Arab world left or was driven out after the creation of Israel. In recent years, Morocco has allowed Israelis to visit with special permission, and when Mr. Ben Hamozeg arrived and had to request a visa, he told me, he joked with the clerk that he shouldn’t need one. He should be a citizen. The clerk, it turned out, was also from Fez, and he waved Mr. Ben Hamozeg through.
In that personal anecdote is a story of reconnection, one that’s missed if these new accords are analyzed solely through the lens of American policy and the Iranian threat. Jews have always been around this region, farming and trading like everyone else, and it’s not the past few months of renewed contact that are the anomaly, but the past seven decades of isolation.
David Ibn Maimon, brother of Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher who lived in Cairo, was on a business trip not far from Dubai when he was lost at sea in the 12th century. Some of the sixth-century Jews around Arabia in the time of Muhammad were date farmers. The capital city of another date-palm power, Iraq, was about one-third Jewish into the 1940s. Most of those people’s descendants are now Israelis.
The sensor is a feature of the present moment, as are the normalization agreements, but much about this story seems Ottoman: A Jew from the Levant with roots in North Africa is doing date business with Arabs on the Persian Gulf. They agree about some things and disagree about others. They have a complicated past.
Matti Friedman (@mattifriedman) is a contributing Opinion writer based in Jerusalem who covers Israeli politics and culture. He is the author, most recently, of “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel.”
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