The Abraham Accords give nothing to the Palestinians, whose only power in the matter was whether or not to attend the signing ceremony at the White House on September 15 as Israeli, Emirati, and Bahraini officials endorsed the so-called peace agreements, even though these states have never actually been at war against each other. Both Bahrain and the UAE are more “at war” against fellow Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state, Qatar, than they are with Israel.
There were some evident signs of unease during the event, as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have broken an unwritten rule, a veritable taboo, in the Arab world. They normalized relations with Israel without Israel having conceded anything. And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the ceremony in person, the Emiratis and Bahrainis only sent their respective foreign affairs ministers, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Abdullatif al-Zayani.
Netanyahu Emerges as Biggest Winner
The agreements, if any more evidence were needed, have clearly demonstrated that the Palestinian question has faded entirely from Middle Eastern politics. The present region-wide concern is the strategic realignment of countries to counter Iran. The UAE and Bahrain – and other Arab States courting with the idea of normalization – might be trying to sell their decision, noting that Israel’s sovereignty over the West Bank has been avoided as a condition of their diplomatic calculus.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had promised that starting in July 2020, he was ready to begin annexing territory that the international community has recognized as belonging to the future Palestinian state (but which Israel has in fact occupied for over half a century). Nevertheless, even for Israel – or for a certain section of Israeli society – the Abraham Accords are not without some uncomfortable compromises.
Israeli ultra-nationalists have had to set aside any presumptions that Israel might finally gain full sovereignty over the West Bank – at least in the near term. In that sense, more than benefiting the most Zionist elements of Israeli society, the Accords benefit Benjamin Netanyahu. He can renege the problematic annexation plans, distracting his critics with a major diplomatic achievement. And he can also continue pursuing a strategy of containing the Palestinian conflict instead of trying to secure an outright “military” victory, which would then create a major demographic and political problem.
Netanyahu, who remains in an intense political battle having to share his premiership with Benny Gantz, can exploit the Accords to gain capital with more centrist voters.
In that regard, Netanyahu, who remains in an intense political battle having to share his premiership with Benny Gantz, can exploit the Accords to gain capital with more centrist voters. He will need that support because the biggest critics of normalization with the Gulf Arabs in exchange for delaying annexation (the status-quo) have been representatives of the far right. They are angry that Netanyahu won’t deliver the promised full annexation of the West Bank.
The UAE and Bahrain can sell the Abraham Accords as a victory at home, framing it around Israel’s agreement not to annex the West Bank. And, while it’s clear the accords represent an abandonment of the Palestinian cause, few Bahraini or Emirati citizens will care. The Palestinians were seen with suspicion; especially after 1990, when many sympathized with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait. Accordingly, most of the foreign workers in Bahrain and the UAE are Pakistani, Indian, and South East Asian, who have replaced the Palestinians. Bahrain, however, risks potential unrest, given its majority Shiite population, which can be stirred up by Iran.
Still, it’s unlikely that Riyadh will also normalize ties with Israel, and officially “betray” the Palestinians in the process. The Saudis remain the guardians of Mecca and Medina and opening to Israel would give Turkey a grandstanding opportunity to pose as the actual protector of the Arabs and Muslims. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the Saudis have approved and encouraged the normalization formalized in the Abraham Accords, which are the direct result of a convergence of interests between Israelis and Saudis, united by their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The UAE and Bahrain certainly fall in Riyadh’s sphere of influence – as became clear in 2011, when the Saudis sent troops to Bahrain to quell demonstrations against the al-Khalifa princes, thus it would not be wrong to consider the state a veritable Saudi protectorate.
Whereas Egypt and Jordan made peace agreements with Israel, having fought directly against it militarily, in different contexts – Egypt regained territory in the Sinai, and Jordan normalized relations in 1994, at the culmination of the most optimistic period ever for Palestinian statehood – it was a given that no Arab country would ever normalize relations with Israel without a related process to establish a Palestinian state.
The idea that no Arab nation would ever roll the red carpet for Israel without first ensuring the fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations has been shattered.
The biggest losers are of course the Palestinians and their leaders, who were completely excluded from the negotiations. They were not even spectators – although they might have suspected the machinations behind the scenes. Still, it has become clear that the idea that no Arab nation would ever roll the red carpet for Israel without first ensuring the fulfillment of Palestinian aspirations has been shattered.
More Arab states will now be under pressure to open ties to Israel. Certainly, Oman, Morocco, Sudan, and Mauritania (which had already done so in 1999 only to rescind them in 2010) are ready to formalize relations. Meanwhile, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have also maintained significant ties to Israel. The Saudis cannot yet afford to formalize these dealings, and Israel needs Qatar to remain an “enemy” to ensure it has a reliable channel to deal with Hamas in Gaza – negotiating the end of military action from the Strip into Israel, as has happened in August and September of 2020.
Altering the Middle East’s Geopolitical Order
The new relationship between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain will likely establish a realignment of the Sunni Arabs, consolidating their anti-Iranian stance with the Jewish state – and with the United States. The perception that the era of big oil is coming to an end (and not because of a lack of resources) has been driving the Gulf states to look for alternatives. The Gulf wants deeper links to the Western alliance systems like NATO in order to ensure the level of protection and interest from those who have established a major military presence there to protect oil (i.e. the United States and Europe).
The Gulf Arabs understand that they can play this “card” now, appealing to the West’s concerns of a rising China, and Russia to a lesser extent. Iran is the biggest loser from one perspective (Iranian pragmatists have lost, but the ideologues have won, given they have a clear Manichean structure), due to the clear and exposed relationship between the Gulf Arabs and Iran’s archenemies, the US and Israel.
Iran had been able to maintain a working relationship with the UAE, which is now under threat.
Iran had been able to maintain a working relationship with the UAE, which is now under threat. It is also likely that the White House encouraged the UAE and Bahrain – and others, which may yet join the Abraham Accords ahead of the US election – by promising the Emirs the opportunity to buy advanced weapons such as the F35 stealth and EA-18G fighter jets and Reaper drones. Israel, which has objected to such transactions even in the recent past, may be persuaded because having thus equipped Gulf allies reduces its isolation in the region. And strengthening the alliance against Tehran becomes yet another point in Netanyahu’s favor.
Turkey has a chance to emerge as a “Muslim Phoenix” on one hand, but it will also be even more isolated in the Gulf – having only Qatar as a reliable ally. Nevertheless, the Abraham Accords have the ability to unravel any aspirations the Palestinians may still have of securing a state of their own. A more isolated Iran and a sidelined Qatar will be respectively prevented (through sanctions and economic warfare) to help key Palestinian allies such as Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which are already under pressure from significant internal political and economic problems.
Eventually, the entire Middle East may end up signing on to the Abraham Accords in order to survive. After all, even Syria was negotiating – in talks mediated by Turkey – a normalization of relations with Israel in 2009-2010.
Potential Spoilers: Few and Insignificant
The main spoiler comes from the Palestinian National Authority. Kept aside from these crucial agreements, it could literally implode under the pressure. The West Bank could either open the flood gates to Hamas and/or create another massive refugee crisis in the Middle East and beyond.
Russia has achieved a significant strategic victory in Syria, allowing it to return to the Middle East region after an absence going back to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. But that gain cannot produce any new dividends for Moscow, which has already established its position in Syria as one that will not interfere with Israeli objectives.
What may change, in fact, is Moscow’s relation with Tehran. The Russians will be under more pressure to help Syria fend off Israeli attacks (i.e. use of S-300 missiles) from Iran. But, ultimately, Russia is also held in check by sanctions and regular plots to undermine its international credibility; for instance, the latest Navalny “poisoning” with predictable consequences such as EU demands that Germany drop plans for the Nordstream pipeline. Russia therefore must maintain the policy of establishing as friendly relations as possible with all actors.
China may perceive the strengthening of ties between rich Sunni countries with Washington as a nuisance, given its own efforts to seduce them to its orbit. Yet China is above all patient. It doesn’t need to change its policies, given its strategy – similar to Russia – has always been to maintain close relations with all parties in the Middle East from Israel, to the Sunni states, to Iran and its Arab satellites.
The Abraham Accords may indeed mark “the dawn of a new Middle East,” as Donald Trump said. But not necessarily a better Middle East.
The Abraham Accords may indeed mark “the dawn of a new Middle East,” as Donald Trump said. But not necessarily a better Middle East. The Palestinians can justly interpret the agreements as a betrayal, as the Gulf states have opened a breach into what had been until recently a central point of Middle Eastern politics: no normalization without Palestinian statehood.
If Iran’s criticism was expected, President Erdogan’s more nationalist and Islamic Turkey has greater reason to distance itself away from NATO and Europe. Moreover, because the Palestinian question has always been a problem for Arab countries, the Abraham Accords might serve as the “leverage” many of these sought in order to finally leave it behind.
Until the 1980s, Palestinian refugees from Jordan (i.e. the 1970 Black September) to Lebanon (1975-1990 civil war) served to destabilize governments. Support for the Palestinians keeps Arab states like Syria enemies of Israel and the United States against their own interest – as the efforts to secure a normalization with Israel showed in 2010.
Now, because of the Abraham Accords, there is an increased, and tragic, risk that Arab countries may trade off the Palestinian cause for peace with Israel, which makes more economic and strategic sense in the long term. And the Palestinians know that.