The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel signed the Abraham Accords during a ceremony in Washington on September 15, 2020. The agreements were intended to establish official relations between the two emirates of the Arabian Gulf and the Jewish state, enshrining a diplomatic triangle. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) had initiated the process in August 2020, becoming the first Arab nation in decades to recognize Israel, and was followed by Sudan and Morocco shortly thereafter.
Despite the inclinations of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has not yet joined this initiative. Indeed, as “protector of the holy places of Islam,” his father – King Salman – is cautious. Riyadh also intends to keep this card to negotiate with the Biden administration.
However, there have been reports and speculations that Saudi-Israeli engagement is already taking place behind closed doors. Foreign policy journalist Natasha Turak argues this point in a CNBC article entitled, “Saudi Arabia is the ‘white whale’ of Israel’s Middle East peace deals.”
Alluding to the covert dealings, Turak writes: “Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the UAE-Israel news was initially muted, with the kingdom’s Foreign Minister later stating that it would not establish its own diplomatic ties with Israel until the country signed an internationally-recognized peace agreement with the Palestinians.” Adding: “Still, intelligence cooperation between Israel and the kingdom has been an open secret for some time as they share a common adversary in Iran.”
The “New Middle East”
For many observers it appears Israeli-Saudi convergences are effective, with discreet cooperation in intelligence and security. In fact, for several years now, a geostrategic axis between Israel and the Gulf states has taken shape. Its objective is to contain Iranian-Shiite ambitions in the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the Levantine basin, with implications in the Red Sea and as far as the western Mediterranean.
At first glance, the level of stakes and the gains made by the Arab states involved in this dynamic make it unlikely that the Abraham Accords will be called into question, provided that Israel succeeds in restoring civil peace in Jerusalem and the Jewish-Arab cities on its territory. A conflict limited to operations in the Gaza Strip against Hamas is not expected to arouse the hostility of its Arab partners, who are opposed to the faction and view it as akin to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In May 2021, the climate of Jewish-Arab civil war, Israel’s shelling of Gaza, and the firing of rockets by Hamas presented a problem.
The “New Middle East”, which was supposed to emerge from last year’s Arab-Israeli normalization agreements, had never looked so much like the old one. The return of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront has put those states that, without saying so, had bet on the erasure of this issue – or at least its definitive relegation to the bottom of the diplomatic and media agenda – in a difficult position.
The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, which one after the other recognized Israel between August and December 2020, at the urging of the Trump administration, must now engage in a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, they wish to secure the strategic dividends that the decision – richly monetized by Washington – offered them; on the other, they must manage the sentiments of their populations, which are largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause—a reality they cannot ignore.
Though it was the first to sign the 2020 Accords, the UAE is actually the third Arab country to take the step of normalizing relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Based on its unique domestic factors, the UAE should not have too much difficulty in managing these dynamics. The cyber-authoritarianism in force in this petro-monarchy leaves no room for protest among its nine million inhabitants, 90 percent of whom are foreign immigrants. The Emiratis are not very political by nature and are not used to questioning the choices of their leaders, an effect of the oil revenue that ensures them a very comfortable standard of living.
Nevertheless, the Arab signatories of the normalization agreements are likely not pleased with the return of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the fore, as it has taken away from the promising narrative surrounding the Accords.
The Palestinian Question Remains
On an occasion marking the first anniversary of the agreements, the head of American diplomacy – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken – spoke with his counterparts from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. During the virtual meeting on September 17, he pledged that the Biden administration would encourage more Arab nations to normalize ties with the Jewish state.
In reality, one year after the normalization agreements were signed— little has changed in the region except ever more prominent fears that the Palestinian cause is being eradicated.
The Abraham Accords are above all a major step forward for Israel’s diplomacy. The country has long aspired to normalize its relations with its neighbors, as the last agreement to establish relations with an Arab country was with Jordan in 1994, over a quarter of a century ago. Therefore, gaining recognition from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020 was a significant feat as it meant that Israel was no longer isolated.
The Israeli bombs on Gaza may have cooled down the ardor of the fall of 2020, but they did not stop the normalization process.
For all intent and purposes, the normalization agreements reached last summer have survived the recent war between the Jewish state and Hamas as well as the protests in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israel’s Arab towns. The Israeli bombs on Gaza may have cooled down a little the ardor of the fall of 2020, which was marked by the first Israeli flights to Dubai, but they did not stop the normalization process, nor did they trigger a reversal of the process. If anything, the conflict only delayed it. In terms of communications, it would have been complicated for the Arab countries to accelerate the rapprochement with Israel in the midst of a war with the Palestinians.
As the recent frictions between Israel and the Palestinians have quieted down, the signatories of the normalization deals are reiterating their stance.
On September 13, 2021 – on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords – the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, pleaded for a lasting peace in the Middle East. At a ceremony held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, he described it as a “strategic objective” to serve current and future generations.
Speaking in the presence of regional ambassadors, permanent representatives to the United Nations, and officials from Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, Hilale stated that the Middle East is tired of war and has suffered from all kinds of extremism, terrorism, and rejection of the other. He also reaffirmed Morocco’s long-standing commitment and unwavering dedication to peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East.
Last year when the Abraham Accords were made public, the Palestinian reaction was unsurprisingly outraged, denouncing the agreement as a betrayal of the Palestinian liberation struggle and a stab in the back. The official daily of the Palestinian National Authority, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, presented news of the Accords in angry red letters, portraying it as an aggression against the rights of the Palestinian people.
One of the fundamental principles of Arab diplomacy in the conflict with Israel had been the “land for peace” exchange.
One of the fundamental principles of Arab diplomacy in the conflict with Israel had been the “land for peace” exchange, whereby Israel returns the Arab lands it occupied in the June 1967 war, and in return is offered peace with its neighbors. It was on this basis that Egypt entered a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and Jordan followed in 1994.
However, when the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020 with the UAE and Bahrain, then-Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted that he had succeeded in getting an agreement with the Arabs where peace is exchanged for peace and not land.
Ultimately, although the Abraham Accords are still alive, no other Arab country has joined the agreement since December 2020. Furthermore, the latest round of fighting between Hamas and Israel in May 2021 has reaffirmed that without peace between Palestinians and Israelis, all other possible Arab-Israeli peace initiatives will remain marginal. Indeed, such efforts will not be accepted by the Palestinians, nor by the Arab and Muslim masses who consider the Palestinian cause to be a sacred covenant.