By Udi Dekel and Noa Shusterman
The Abraham Accords will ostensibly serve to inspire peace and normalization agreements between Israel and additional Arab states. Indeed? Which issues are included in the agreement, and why? Why did the UAE and Bahrain decide to establish official relations at this time? What are the implications for the Palestinian arena? And what new challenges are likely to emerge? Insights from a discussion of experts held following the festive signing ceremony at the White House
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) held a Cabinet meeting to analyze the peace and normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Researchers focused on the background to the agreement and its implications for Israel and the Middle East. Participants addressed several questions, among them: What is included in the agreement, and what was omitted? Which objectives of the Trump administration propelled the Accords? Why was the UAE in such a hurry to sign the agreement at this time? What are Jordan’s reservations about the agreement, and why did the Palestinians remain on the sidelines?
The Cabinet was moderated by INSS Managing Director Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel. Participants included Adv. Col. (res.) Pnina Sharvit Baruch, who discussed the legal aspects and structure of the agreement, compared to previous agreements between Israel and its neighbors; Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who considered the objectives of the Trump administration, versus the position of the Democratic camp; Dr. Moran Zaga, from the Mitvim Institute, who spoke on the UAE’s motives; Ambassador Dr. Oded Eran, who assessed the impact of the agreement on Jordan; Dr. Sarah Feuer, speaking on the possibility of other countries joining the trend of normalization with Israel; and Dr. Kobi Michael, who considered the significance for the Palestinian arena.
What is in the Accords, and What is Not
The title of the agreement – Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – attests to the parties seeking to see it as a historic move, beyond the immediate context. It was presented as a peace agreement, although there were never any wars or bloodshed between Israel and the UAE or Bahrain. The vision is of full normalization of relations, in contrast to the relations that currently exist between Israel and the pioneers of peace agreements in the region – Jordan and Egypt.
Indeed, the agreement contains clauses that concern cooperation in a range of civilian fields, including health, agriculture, tourism, energy, environmental protection, and innovation. This spectrum is intended to facilitate the establishment of warm relations between the peoples, and at the same time to overcome any political crises that may emerge, mainly surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The agreement does not include any of the issues in dispute – the two-state solution; suspension (according to leaks, for four years) of annexation/application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank; or agreements between the United States and the UAE on the supply of advanced offensive weapons (it will be interesting to see whether Israel uses its lobby in Congress to prevent the sale of weapons that undermine its qualitative edge.) Perhaps these subjects were addressed in confidential side letters, as is often the case in politically sensitive agreements.
In addition, there is no specific mention in the agreement of the challenge posed by Iran, notwithstanding the parties’ shared interest in blocking Tehran’s efforts to expand its regional influence and preventing it from obtaining military nuclear capability. And yet it was this that US President Donald Trump, the patron of the agreement, referred to at a press conference in the Oval Office, anticipating that he would also get a good “deal” with Iran on the nuclear issue if he is reelected in the forthcoming presidential elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who sat next to him during this statement, doubts whether it is possible to achieve, let alone implement, agreements with Iran that will limit its capabilities and ambitions, presumably was less pleased with this statement.
The Trump Administration’s Objectives
Apart from its desire to score a political achievement in advance of the elections, the Trump administration is interested in the application of its strategic approach to reshape the balance of power in the Middle East. The administration seeks to form a regional coalition of pragmatic Sunni Arab states close to the United States, to obstruct Iran’s ambitions and hinder the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the area. Presenting a new outline for a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was designed to promote the regional coalition while relieving Arab states from their traditional commitments to the Palestinian cause, which have so far proven futile, and to deny the Palestinians a veto over normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.
President Trump promised that five more countries were very close to establishing relations with Israel. There are a number of conditions that ostensibly must be met for another country to get on board with the normalization process: shared interests with Israel, mainly in blocking the Iranian axis; advancement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although this is not the leading regional priority; economic and military gains from the agreement with Israel; and the absence of political or religious commitments in the Arab and Muslim world to those countries.
Given these conditions, it is hard to identify who will be next in line. Oman already has close although unofficial relations with Israel and at this stage would probably prefer to postpone any decision and maintain its status as a broker between the United States and the Gulf states and Iran. Morocco is also expected to postpone its decision so as not to risk its position as chair of the Jerusalem Committee in the Organization of Islamic States. The success of the agreements will affect the decision of other countries regarding their entry into the circle of normalization, and they will examine what the UAE and Bahrain receive from the United States. However, it is highly likely that they will take steps towards normalization even without formal relations, such as Saudi Arabia’s opening its air space for Israeli flights to the Emirates.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden does not believe that the Trump plan will promote a reality of two states in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but he will probably use the normalization agreements to restrain Israel’s moves on the Palestinian front – in particular with respect to construction in settlements and distancing of the Palestinians from Area C – and renew the political process by means of direct Arab pressure on the Palestinians in order to relax their conditions for returning to negotiations, alongside similar pressure on Israel by the administration.
The UAE Urgency
In view of the approaching elections in the United States, the Emirates and perhaps also Bahrain have an interest in realizing strategic achievements with the Trump administration, specifically contracts for the supply of advanced weapons and economic agreements that may not be achievable if a Democrat enters the White House in 2021.
In strategic terms, the two Gulf states are very troubled by the growing strength of two rival axes in the Middle East. One is the Iranian-Shiite axis, which does not hesitate to challenge the Arabian/Persian Gulf economically and militarily, a challenge that has increased following the lifting of the weapons embargo from Iran, and the recent rapprochement between Iran and China. The other is the Turkey-Qatar axis, which seeks to establish influence from the Arabian Gulf to northern Iraq, through northern Syria, the eastern basin of the Mediterranean up to Libya (where UAE and Turkish forces are on the brink of military clashes). In the face of these two radical axes and in view of the US trend toward a reduced military presence in the Middle East, the UAE aims to set up a balancing axis of pragmatic and responsible Sunni states, which along with Israel will strive for regional stability. Strengthening ties with Israel expands the range of opportunities and influence for the UAE, which aims to consolidate and bolster its regional status, including by using military force far from home and serving as a broker in high-profile regional disputes. Diplomatic relations with Israel give it a foothold in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an opportunity to drive Qatar out of the Gaza Strip and Turkey from the Temple Mount, and thus to bypass Saudi Arabia, whose regional and international standing has weakened over the last two years.
The Abraham Accords pose a dilemma for the Hashemite Kingdom. On the one hand, Jordan would be expected to support other Arab countries joining the circle of peace with Israel, a choice that it made 26 years ago. On the other hand, there is growing concern in Jordan that normalization between Israel and another Arab state, without preconditions for a political process between Israel and the Palestinians, will hinder progress toward realization of the two-state vision and encourage Israel to see Jordan itself as the Palestinian state.
Moreover, the Hashemite royal family is worried about unrest among the Palestinian citizens of Jordan, who are the majority of the population, which could undermine internal stability. Jordan is also worried that security instability in the West Bank could spill over into its territory. Historically, Jordan perceives itself as a leading broker between Israel and the Palestinians, but it was pushed aside when the UAE and Bahrain received the credit for postponement of the annexation, and while the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative – Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines – are absent from the new agreement. In addition, President Trump stressed that normalization between Israel and the Gulf states opened the door for believers from all over the Muslim world to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque, thus damaging Jordan’s status as the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem. However, Jordan is dependent on aid from the Gulf states, and therefore cannot express strong opposition to the agreement.
The Palestinians on the Sidelines
The Palestinians are the party that is most injured by normalization between Israel and the Gulf states. Their leadership failed to have the Arab League condemn the Abraham Accords or to rouse the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest. Positive developments between Israel and the Gulf states emphasize the strategic crisis enveloping the weakened and humiliated Palestinian Authority, and could even be interpreted as evidence of the political failure of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas has identified the developments as an opportunity to strengthen its political position in the PLO leadership, by emphasizing the relevance of its policy – armed resistance as a means to promote Palestinian national aspirations. Abbas’s defeat was highlighted during a visit by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to refugee camps in Lebanon. The image of Haniyeh being carried on the shoulders of cheering crowds in the camps, considered a PLO stronghold, symbolizes the challenge to Fatah's control of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, given the closeness between Mohammad Dahlan, who is considered Abbas's nemesis and was pushed out of Fatah, and the UAE leadership, creates a severe crisis of faith between the Emirates and the Palestinian Authority leadership. The UAE tried to soften the PA’s opposition to the normalization agreement with Israel by promising generous financial and infrastructure aid, but Abbas refused to accept. The UAE is therefore expected to address the Palestinian public directly, bypassing the PA, for example with offers of jobs for young Palestinian academics and engineers.
However, Israel must not revel in the current Palestinian misery, because the crisis and weakness could actually spur the PA and Hamas to join ranks, promoting instability in the arena and contributing to the possibility of escalation in violence and terror.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The Abraham Accords, which breach the barrier to official relations between Israel and pragmatic Arab states, are a significant political achievement for Israel. For Prime Minister Netanyahu it is a significant personal achievement, reflecting his special relationship with President Trump. It is also a political achievement due to an absence of the term “two-state solution” from the text of the agreement. At the same time, Israel must recognize that signals from the Arab world that dilute its commitment to a solution to the Palestinian problem, and perhaps also its aid to the Palestinian Authority, mean that the solution to the problem rests solely on Israel’s shoulders, for better or mainly for worse. Therefore, in spite of the decreasing value of the Palestinian stock in the regional arena, Israel must avoid further weakening of the Palestinian Authority by stressing its failure. In addition, Israel would do well to promote the economic gains for the PA deriving from the agreement.
The agreement could serve as a source of inspiration for peace and normalization agreements between Israel and other Arab countries, and a platform for a regional multilateral alliance. The common interests of Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain on matters of security, economy, health, agriculture, tourism, transportation, and more, overlap with interests of other countries in the area. As part of a broad regional framework, based on mutual respect between peoples and leaders, countries could leverage their cumulative advantages; regional cooperation will contribute to economic prosperity as well as greater security and stability, while neutralizing the negative influence of Iran and Turkey in the area.
Israel must also examine the possible consequences following the agreement. Will its freedom to maneuver in the Palestinian arena be limited? Will an extended military campaign in the Gaza Strip lead to a freeze of normalization with Arab countries? What options will be available to Israel to respond to an Iranian decision to launch a military attack on countries that have signed peace agreements with it, or to send its proxies to commit acts of terror against Israeli targets within their territory?