The Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the United States have been either touted as a game-changing peace deal between Israel and two allegedly hostile Arab countries or merely a regional re-alignment of Sunni Arab states with the country against expanding Iranian influence. Both these views are inaccurate.
While these accords are certainly not a peace deal, they are also not fully a re-alignment against Iran, but rather a fractured and incomplete realignment with major benefits for its signatories. However, without any conclusive solution to the roots of conflict in the Middle East, namely the Palestinian conflict and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the likelihood for a conclusive peaceful solution is ever more distant.
To begin understanding the Accords and their implications, one must look at the motivations of the Trump Administration in brokering them. US President Donald Trump is facing a stiff re-election campaign against Joe Biden, best by few foreign policy successes to boast and a hailstorm of domestic criticism. The closest he has come to leaving his mark before, with his outreach and summits with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, has been ultimately inconclusive and engendered no regional paradigm shift.
Furthermore, his son in-law and main Middle Eastern diplomat, Jared Kushner, failed to gain much of any support for a resolution to the Palestinian conflict heavily slanted towards Israel. What President Trump once advertised as the “deal of the century” didn’t even receive a week’s worth of news coverage domestically and seemingly discredited his administration as a reliable mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Israel is hugely popular amongst much of his evangelical base, who firmly support the policies of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To placate their desires, Trump previously announced the transfer of America’s embassy to Jerusalem, but had been unsuccessful in brokering any significant agreements. Thus, a success on that front was urgently needed both in order to consolidate America’s position against Iran and to rally Trump’s base behind a President who didn’t seem to interest himself in foreign affairs.
For Israel, however, normalization of relations with its Arab neighbors was its main diplomatic ambition since 1948, but the preconditions set by Arab states that normalization can only follow an equitable resolution to the Palestinian question has been a long-term impediment to its possibilities.
Historically, the conditions for accommodation demanded by the Arab states have been far too restrictive for the Israeli right, meaning that such diplomatic initiatives have long been the hallmark of the Israeli left. Yitzhak Rabin famously normalized relations with Jordan in 1994, supported the Oslo Accords, and signed the Sinai Agreement with Egypt in 1975, committing the countries to peaceful resolutions of conflicts. The right, meanwhile, has focused on taking a harder line towards Palestine, thus alienating many Arab states.
Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, the right has been in power for over a decade under various coalitions. It has taken a policy firmly in favor of expanding settlements in Palestine, even announcing in late May 2020 that he would be annexing the West Bank by July 1. Abroad, it has aggressively combated a potential Iranian ascendancy, whether by conducting airstrikes in Syria, encouraging sanctions against its nuclear ambitions, or assassinating Iranian scientists and supporting anti-Iranian groups. Iran, after all, is the most firmly anti-Israel country in the region and a supporter of Hezbollah and the Syrian government, both of which are hostile to Israeli interests. In short, Netanyahu and the right’s diplomatic ambitions have been commonly seen as limited, and his policies have been both supported and limited by the Trump Administration, Israel’s main international backer, which supports the role Israel plays in combating Iran while paying lip-service to peace between it and the Palestinians.
Domestically, however, Netanyahu faces two opposing forces. While his policies have made him a darling of the right, other hardline rivals have made gains against him. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, members of the far-right Yamina party, as well as David Elhayani, chairman of the settler umbrella group the Yesha Council, have consistently criticized him for not taking militant enough stances on issues such as settlement annexation, tacitly discouraged by the US. Netanyahu has long tried to outflank the positions of these forces by swinging to the right, and after Netanyahu’s May announcement of annexation by July 1, Yamina and the settler groups behind it largely muted its opposition.
On the other hand, he faces the Israeli center-left, led largely by former IDF chief Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party, who after Israel’s September 2019 elections almost succeeded in driving him out of office. However, in a desperate attempt to form a government after the elections, Gantz has consented to a coalition government with Likud in May of 2020, seeking to check some of Netanyahu’s more extreme policies as well as his appointment as Minister of Defense.
The record of their new government has been lackluster. The government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic was widely criticized, and inconsistent policies have resulted in a serious economic downturn and almost 2,000 deaths. Furthermore, many left-wing Israelis have been energetically protesting throughout the summer of 2020 against Netanyahu, incensed at police brutality against Palestinian civilians as well as longstanding corruption allegations.
Corruption allegations against Netanyahu have been widespread since 2016, when investigations were launched into illicit gifts obtained by him and his wife, who is well-known for her expensive tastes and spending habits. Since then, new scandals have taken shape regarding Netanyahu’s relationships with prominent Israeli tabloids and telecommunications firms, with prosecutors alleging corrupt business deals and conflicts of interest.
The government has not been united in facing these crises, as Gantz, once in coalition, proved to be politically inept. In disagreement with many of Netanyahu’s aims, he was kept in the dark about official decisions while his party collapsed in the polls. In May, Blue and White was at 17%. By July, it was at 10%.
However, Likud also faced a serious drop in the polls since April, as the combination of corruption allegations with pandemic mismanagement has led to a significant decline in approval, with Likud dropping from a 40% high in May to 33% in July. Furthermore, with the two parties at odds over the ratification of a state budget, the potential of new elections which Netanyahu was likely to lose was a looming possibility.
Then, when July rolled around, no attempt was made at fulfilling Netanyahu’s promise. No matter. This promise was always more than a cheap attempt to mute Yamina and settler groups’ enthusiasm for greater militancy against Palestine. It was a crucial piece of leverage against neighboring Sunni Arab states, largely Saudi Arabia and the oil and gas-rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf, which Israel tacitly cooperated with against Iran, and who had abandoned their stated support for the Palestinian cause in all but name.
Netanyahu’s plan then sprang into action. His Mossad chief and widely-rumored heir Yossi Cohen, admired for his diplomatic skills and charismatic demeanor, had been secretly working closely with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner on developing a parallel foreign policy with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia for years. Speaking at the Herzliya Conference in July of 2019, he described how he had been secretly laying the groundwork for peace with those states now that their interests aligned against Iran, with the largely ultraconservative Sunni gulf states fiercely opposed to Iran’s militant Shia Islam and ambitious foreign policy.
“There are common interests on one hand, and a struggle against rivals like Iran and jihadist terror on the other. These…come together to create what could be a unique window of opportunity.” Cohen revealed, “The Mossad had identified what may be the first opportunity in the history of the Middle East to reach the kind of understandings which would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement.”
Previously, those states would have been opposed to cooperating with Israel openly, despite shared geopolitical interests. After all, the Palestinian cause was the passion of many Arabs since the Jewish State’s founding in 1948, exerting considerable influence on their image and policies. For decades, Saudi Arabia declined to let Israeli commercial jets fly over its territory and held firm to peace with Palestine as a precondition for normalization of relations with the country.
However, over the past decade, younger leaders have taken control of those countries either openly or behind the scenes. They were less attached to Palestine, more attuned to the new geopolitical realities of the Middle East and the changes they implied. Those leaders, such as Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) of the United Arab Emirates, saw the potential of normalization of relations with Israel without substantive resolution of the Palestinian issue and subtly hinted at their openness to it publicly. Secretly, however, they were more enthusiastic, welcoming Cohen’s outreach behind the scenes and eager to find a way to normalize relations without having to explicitly abandon the Palestinians.
In June of 2020, the Emirati ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, penned an opinion piece in Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot criticizing the planned annexation of the West Bank. Kushner quickly saw that as an opportunity to facilitate negotiations between Israel, the Emirates, and other Arab states, informing the Emirati government of the idea.
With the threat of annexation, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash immediately jumped on the opportunity for normalization.
“I think this sort of brought our plans forward and gave us a reason, a clear reason and clear rationale, why a decision that we would have taken in 2021 or 2022 should be taken now,” Gargash told the BBC.
The possibility to appear to heroically save the Palestinians from Netanyahu’s unfulfillable designs for annexation was too good to pass up. The United States, furthermore, mentioned the possibility of overhauling the Emirates’ dated air force with coveted F-35 fighter jets, making normalization even more attractive, despite Israeli opposition to preserve its mandated Qualitative Military Edge (QME).
By August 13, it was announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had reached a deal, negotiated and facilitated largely by Cohen and Kushner and to be finalized with the glowing supervision of Donald Trump, eager for a foreign policy victory to flout on the campaign trail. The matter of the F-35s endangering Israeli security was also largely resolved in subsequent meetings between Gantz and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who allegedly agreed that the UAE’s new equipment would partially come from Israel, thus ensuring that its arms industry would benefit.
As part of the deal, Netanyahu had notably given only one concession: a promise to suspend Netanyahu’s plan to annex the West Bank. As he later took explicit care to explain to the Israeli press and his far-right rivals, it did not mean that it was off the table, but rather postponed in order to gain concessions from even more eager Gulf States at a later date.
Among them was Bahrain, an authoritarian Sunni state with a majority Shia population whose acceptance of the deal indicates tacit Saudi approval. Bahrain’s delicate domestic situation, caused by the starkly different interests of its Sunni monarchs and Shia subjects, has made it the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country most loyal to Saudi interests and aggressive towards Iran. Its ruling dynasty owes its survival entirely to the Saudis, who intervened militarily during the country’s Arab Spring to crush the protests, which were led by Bahrain’s disenfranchised Shia populace, probably supported by the Islamic Republic. Thus, it could count on Israel to support it against the country while also healing its ailing economic situation. Despite being incredibly prosperous, COVID-19 took its toll on the Bahraini economy, resulting in unsustainable spending which caused Fitch’s to downgrade its credit from B+ to BB- in mid-August. However, despite its economic reasons for desiring normalization, Bahrain’s acceptance of the deal on September 11 could only have been done with the approval of MbS and Saudi Arabia, thus making it the best indicator of how he views the Accords.
When the deal between all four states (the US, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain) was finalized in the White House on September 15, it was christened the Abraham Accords, ostensibly recognizing “that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham.”
Domestically, Netanyahu hoped to use this deal, which he and his partners described as a “peace plan,” to distract the public from mismanagement and corruption at home and establish an enduring legacy in Israel’s foreign policy. With an agreement to delay elections which could jeopardize his premiership reached with Gantz, the threat of falling out of power was neutralized. Furthermore, he hoped to outflank the Israeli left which always assumed that normalization of relations with Arab states would never be done under a right-wing government which had consistently taken a hard line on Palestine. Modestly successful, the left responded to the announcement of the deal with muted praise and some criticism. Gantz, meanwhile, was humiliated, caught completely by surprise by a deal he had no idea had been negotiated.
The question of the Israeli right was another matter, and despite praise in many quarters, Elhayani and Yamina protested that he gave up their long held ambition to officially control much of the remaining West Bank in exchange for normalization of relations with a country which Jerusalem had never fought.
Tweeting immediately after the Emirati deal had been announced, Yamina’s Bennett lamented “It’s unfortunate that Netanyahu has squandered a once-in-a-hundred-year chance to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, Ma’ale Adumim, Beit El and the rest of the settlements.”
In the Arab world, reactions to the deal were also split. Predictably, protests followed from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who used the outrage caused by the deal to unite with Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh on holding new elections and furthering cooperation, presenting a rare instance of unified Palestinian resolve.
However, at September’s UN General Assembly, Qatar and Algeria largely distanced themselves from the Accords, hoping to maintain their credentials as supporters of the Palestinian cause against Israeli aggression. Qatar, despite being Sunni and a Gulf state, is largely opposed to the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia and its allies while also countering Iranian influence in Syria, largely channeling its political power through the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations opposed to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has also reached out to Iran for diplomatic negotiations and now trades extensively with the Shia theocracy while maintaining cordial diplomatic ties. For this independence, it was expelled from the Gulf Cooperation Council in 2017 by Saudi Arabia and has been the black sheep of the Gulf ever since.
Meanwhile, Turkey strongly condemned it, lambasting the UAE and Bahrain (and implicitly Saudi Arabia) as sell-outs to Israel.
“The dirty hand that breaches the privacy of Jerusalem, where the sacred places of the three great religions coexist is constantly increasing its audacity,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated, even threatening to cut ties with the Accords’ signatories. Turkey, in a similar position as Qatar, has interests independent of the Iranian bloc while harshly condemning normalization with Israel and Saudi Arabia’s policies in Yemen and Libya.
However, Egypt and Jordan expressed positive reactions, with Egypt’s military strongman and Emirate ally Abdel Fattah El-Sisi tweeting his support for the move.
Saudi Arabia, who despite the de facto leadership of Crown Prince MbS, is still technically led by King Salman, an 84 year old member of the country’s old guard who is reluctant to openly support a deal which, despite the UAE’s and Bahrain’s claims, clearly relegates the Palestinian matter to secondary importance. Thus, despite encouraging the process behind the scenes and reversing its ban on Israeli flights, full normalization will most likely only come with Mohammed bin Salman’s ascension to the throne.
Morocco and Oman notably had positive reactions to the deal. Oman in particular expressed enthusiasm, with its foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah stating as early as 2019 that “everything is on the table” with regards to normalizing relations. Both countries are expected to finalize their agreements with Israel fairly soon.
However, under the leadership of Pompeo’s State Department, both Qatar and Sudan were approached with potential benefits in exchange for normalizing relations with the Jewish State. In Sudan’s case, Pompeo reportedly offered to remove it from the state sponsors of terrorism list late August, while on September 17 a senior State Department official offered to upgrade it as a US non-NATO ally. However, neither country accepted the offer.
The implications of this deal are numerous. For one, many Western commentators have simplified it as being representative of a regional re-alignment of Sunni states against Iran, and this is largely true. However, it also ignores the variety of reasons which Arab states have decided to normalize ties, as the UAE and Bahrain had many other reasons beyond uniting against Iran which do not guarantee full diplomatic alignment.
For example, the UAE, despite being a loyal member of the GCC and a friend of Saudi Arabia, is actually fairly conciliatory towards Iran on certain fronts. In fact, since 2019, they have normalized relations with the Iranian-aligned Syrian government and pulled out of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War against the pro-Iranian Houthis. In May and June of 2019, when attacks on oil tankers spiked in the Persian Gulf, the Emirates studiously avoided provoking Iran by blaming them for the damage, remaining silent on the issue. This is largely due to the fact that unlike Saudi Arabia, which is willing to promote and cooperate with Sunni Islamists when it is to their advantage, such as in Yemen (with Al-Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood’s regional affiliate), the United Arab Emirates is fiercely opposed to political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, since 2011 viewing it as a terrorist threat to their authoritarian state. When political instability arises in the Middle East, such as in Syria, Egypt, or Yemen, the possibility of Islamist groups rising increases, worrying the Emirates. Thus, it is willing to co-exist with Iran and cooperate on fronts where it is viewed as a stabilizing, and not a disruptive, force. Syria is chief among them. As such, the Emirates can be expected to be a moderating, somewhat independent force in the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, abstaining or even opposing aggressive Israeli actions such as airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria or even serious Saudi action against the Houthis in Yemen.
Despite the fact that there was no complete re-alignment against Iran amongst Sunni states, one can, however, expect a resurgence of economic activity between the Accords’ signatories. The Israeli Minister of Economy estimated that bilateral trade between the country and the Emirates would be worth a significant $500 million. Among that sum is likely to be Emirati investment in Jerusalem’s soccer club and thriving tourism. Bahrain, on the other hand, hopes to gain Israeli investment for its state-of-the-art financial technology centers. Even agricultural and energy sectors could benefit, with Jerusalem hoping to export its advanced energy and biotechnology to the Gulf to help reduce its dependence on fossil fuel production.
Some observers, furthermore, have speculated that maybe the Jewish State’s newfound economic and diplomatic partners could use the significance of their relations as leverage in order to negotiate a final settlement to the Palestinian issue. However, all evidence points to the opposite, and with such clear economic and diplomatic gains to be had from relations with Israel, it is unlikely that any new Arab allies may want to risk that for a cause which has become so unimportant in their strategic calculations.
However, despite the signatories touting it as such, it is abundantly clear that the Abraham Accords are not a “peace deal.” Not only were the countries which signed it not at war, but more broadly speaking it does not guarantee any solution to the Palestinian conflict and rather prepares the region for even more serious conflicts between the Iranian and Saudi blocs, with states like Turkey and Qatar somewhere in between.
Although this deal is clearly geopolitically significant, whether or not it benefits Netanyahu in the long-term is to be seen. As of right now the deal has largely not affected his support at home, which has been at a steady 30% since its announcement. Yamina, however, gained sharply during that time, probably due to backlash against Netanyahu by settlers and the far-right, which can only mean that as Israeli politics drifts further in their favor, the likelihood of equitable, sustainable peace grows ever dimmer.