The Abraham Accords: a new page for the Middle East?

The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates back to 1947. In 1947, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181, which sought to divide the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was created, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. The war ended in 1949 with Israel’s victory. 

Despite Israeli victory, tensions rose in the region, particularly between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, leading to the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. After the Yom Kippur war, in 1979, representatives from Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Accords, a peace treaty that ended the conflict between Egypt and Israel. Israel’s historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt retains its status as a major milestone on the road to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without this change, no subsequent agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbours might have been possible.

That peace agreement and its 1994 successor with Jordan remains a cold one, confined to strong security coordination and a smattering of economic deals. These deals mainly operate at the governmental level. There were agreements between governments to end military conflict, despite leaving the Palestinian issue unresolved.

New Battle Lines in the Middle East Source: ECFR

In 1979, with the fall of the Pahlavi regime in Iran early in the year, a profound change in the regional balance of power took place with the ongoing clash between Shia and Sunni Muslims. 

In the opening months of 2011, the world witnessed a series of tumultuous events in North Africa and the Middle East that soon became known as the Arab uprisings. Mass protests, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt and a succession of other Arab states, all challenged the repressive, anti-democratic nature of these regimes.

Nevertheless, these protests quickly turned into uprisings and civil wars, which have heightened the decades-old divisions between the competing sides in the Middle East and gave rise to a more genuinely regional geopolitical order, defined by mutually hostile nationalisms and sectarian identities.

During the past years, during these uprisings and civil wars in the Middle East, ties between Israel and the Gulf states have grown exponentially. There are several likely reasons for this regional shift.

Iran is the most obvious rational, given that both Israel and the Gulf states view Tehran as an existential threat. Both Israel and the UAE were known to have been dismayed by President Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran and especially the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action may have unintentionally brought Israel and the Gulf nations together. What began as whispers of covert intelligence cooperation gradually transformed to increasingly public signs of amity. Gulf leaders have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and defend itself.

Secondly, the United States, starting during the Obama years, has made no secret of wanting to downsize its military commitments worldwide, including of course in the Middle East. This message has been accentuated ever more dramatically during the Donald J. Trump administration.

Thirdly, the spectre of a post oil future is as equal an explanation. The oil price collapse, in fomenting the feelings of international insecurity harboured by the Gulf States, likely kick stated a rethink of the Gulf’s traditional foreign policy. This pushed Gulf States to establish new regional relationships. Relations with Israel have simply become more urgent than the Palestinian question.

There is another potential actor that might have helped Israel and the UAE to collaborate: Turkey. Both Israel and the UAE have had their share of problems with Ankara.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and then Egypt have imposed a blockade on Qatar on Doha’s rapprochement with Iran and its foreign policy agenda. Meanwhile Turkey has emerged as the single most important supporter of Doha. This dispute also extends to the Libya war.

The Israelis have also clashed with the Turks. Turkey and Israel are mired in a series of disputes over the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara has criticized with the Egyptian, Cypriot, Greek and Israeli partnership.

These agreements gained significant momentum, when Israel did not begin the process of annexing West Bank territory on July 1st. The Emiratis reportedly took the opportunity to promise full normalization of relations if annexation was taken off the table.

On September 15th, Israel signed agreements at the White House with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations and normalize ties.

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A delegation from the United Arab Emirates arrived in Israel on October 20th 2020, to participate in the signing ceremony of four agreements as part of the Abraham Accords. From left to right: U.S. Special Representative Avi Berkowitz, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Minister of Finance Obaid Humaid Al Tayer and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at Ben Gurion airport.

The Emiratis have followed through with a flurry of steps to deepen relations with Israel. Abu Dhabi have concluded an agreement on medical research and development related to COVID-19, sent direct flights to Tel Aviv, and allowed open visits by Israeli journalists. There is great interest in expanding tourism, but that will depend on Israel lifting its coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

Bahrain sounded a similar note, casting its normalization decision as something that would “strengthen Bahrainis’ security and their economic stability. This was accompanied with the signature of several memorandums of understanding on trade, air services, and telecommunications and so on.

For Israel, normalization allowed it to achieve a longstanding goal of opening relations with the Arab Gulf states, without paying a price in terms of concessions to the Palestinians.

The Abraham Accords break a long-standing taboo in the Arab world. Moreover, the accords reframe the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of Arab-Israeli relations. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been downgraded to yet another topic alongside other standing issues. The needs to counter Iran’s regional ambitions or utilize economic opportunities have all become alternative frames of reference to Israeli-Arab relations.

Trump administration officials have suggested Oman, Sudan and Morocco are among countries that might agree to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, although Saudi Arabia remains the big prize.

On October 23rd, Sudan and Israel have announced the establishment of formal bilateral ties; time will tell if other Arab countries will join UAE, Bahrain and Sudan recent deals to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Another question that time will tell is how this normalization could change Middle East dynamics.

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