The Abraham Accords a year later: Challenges and hope
August 12, 2021
The Abraham Accords were announced a year ago, in August 2020. Since Washington helped broker normalization between the United Arab Emirates and Israel there have been many new milestones in relations between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and continuing milestones with the UAE. Some of these have come about recently, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s frenetic pace of travel to various countries and discussions with foreign delegations.
When I set out to write an article about the Accords, I immediately discovered how much people wanted to speak about the last year. There are many elephants in the room and looming shadows that have been cast over the peace deals or normalization agreements. I wanted to both get personal anecdotes from people who had been involved in crafting the agreements and also from those who had worked on coexistence and connections for years. Anyone covering the Middle East over the last decade who has focused a lot of attention on Israel and its relations in the region, has known that Israel and the UAE had been growing closer. Shared interests that intersect with the views of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as the UAE, have made a bond possible. That is not as simple as it may look on the surface. Some Israelis and pro-Israel figures tend to see this through a lens of the Iranian threat to the region. In this narrative the rise of Iran means Israel and the Gulf must cooperate. But this mistaken understanding of the paradigm misunderstands the UAE’s interest in peace and stability, rather than any tensions with Iran. It also fails to realize the important focus the UAE and its friends have on concerns over the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists in the region.
This complex framework, in which Israel is also fighting Hamas and Hamas is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is linked to the leadership of Turkey and sometimes to Qatar, is part of a larger regional puzzle. The Brotherhood was pushed from power in Egypt in 2013 shortly after taking power. But it has not gone away and some of its key proponents and friends in the West have sought to push agendas that are against the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Those are broad brush strokes, and the relations that underpin the Abraham Accords are not one specific thing. They are not just about Iran or the Brotherhood, or the economy, or the shared interests that the UAE and Israel have in relations with Greece and India, or close ties to the US, or even the Trump administration’s unorthodox policymaking. It’s a complex tree with deep roots, and no single branch or root explains everything.
One expert I spoke to was Mohammed Baharoon, director-general of the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre. Baharoon is well respected among those who have been involved in US-UAE relations and who have paid close attention to the new era of normalization. He made many key points that are worth considering. He said that the regional potential of the Accords has not even been “scratched” yet; COVID has led to setbacks because bilateral aspects have not been realized; and that when the Accords were signed it felt like a kind of scientific experiment and being on the verge of a discovery that could end well or badly. “The agreement tackles the concept of identity struggle and hopes to defuse that aspect in what is called the Israeli-Arab conflict that became a Jewish-Muslim conflict. The conflict calculus has governed the dynamics of the region and needs to be changed. [That] can’t be achieved without addressing the Palestinian issue.”
This last point is important because the UAE has wanted to see progress on the Palestinian issue, not just Israeli lip-service. After the Accords were signed some voices in Israel and abroad interpreted them not as a way to address the Palestinian issue, but as evidence that the Palestinian issue could be ignored, because Israel could not get peace without doing much in the West Bank. The concept of the Arab Peace Initiative, developed in the early 2000s, was that Israel would get peace for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and even the Golan Heights.
By the summer of 2020 Israel was talking annexation. However, the issue here is that the UAE likely wanted Israel to do more than just cancel talks of annexation. That was one reason Abu Dhabi gave for making peace in the summer of 2020. But that was the immediate method by which the UAE could show it received something. The larger picture was that Israel should do something positive on the Palestinian front.
The crafters of the agreement had foreseen some progress on the Palestinian issue. The Americans I spoke to tended to argue that they had wanted to help with normalization as a way to get back to the Palestinian peace deal using an “outside-in” approach. That means that since the Palestinian leadership, aging and divided, wasn’t going to take any chances, they had to be given a fait accompli with Israel reaching new peace agreements. That means they can’t hold normalization hostage.
I reached out to Moroccan Chama Mechtaly, who lives in Dubai and is the founder of Moors & Saints, a fine jewelry start-up committed to tolerance, pluralism and sustainability. Her views reflect and channel the frustrations that I heard from others in the UAE. She said that “we’ve seen some considerable rapprochement between Israel and the UAE in the last year. However, things are very challenging and somewhat fragile at the moment especially after the freezing of the pipeline agreement.” She also refers to tweets Israel’s new ambassador made prior to his appointment which stirred up some controversy in the UAE. “In this last year, both the US government and the Israeli government changed radically, war broke out between the Israeli government and [Gaza]… in May reminding the region that the “Deal of the Century” won’t bring peace to the region,” referencing Trump’s Middle East plan for peace.
Asked about the expectations, she says that the peace deal has not met expectations in the UAE. “There have been so many missed opportunities on both sides. However, the UAE has repeatedly demonstrated good faith and that it delivers on its promises. Israel, on the other hand, hasn’t been meeting the UAE with the same amount of dedication and risk-taking. In fact, Israel has so far over promised and under-delivered. While normalization between Israel and the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan was a calculated risk and took into consideration potential political and economic gains, it also took tremendous courage to pull it off. This courage is often overlooked and under-appreciated by Israelis. Economic benefits will take a long time to show.”
She points out that while the agreement can benefit trade and innovation, “its real value and incentive lies in a political and ideological agenda. The Arab Spring exposed the danger of Islamist groups.” This means that many countries in the Gulf and officials in Egypt realized the threat of the Brotherhood. “We are already starting to witness the largest effects of the normalization deals and to witness Islamist delegitimization and the dismantling of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist ideology in the region.”
I also asked Dan Feferman, communications director for the organization Sharaka, which has been helping advance person-to-person connections in the wake of the peace deals. “Looking back one year, I could not have imagined that the relationships would have moved this quickly across all issues. I am so impressed and surprised by the scope and pace of normalization… I don’t know what the expectations were. I can only imagine they exceeded them. There are still many challenges ahead... There were and will be again policy disagreements.” He pointed to major trade implications. He says the new path with the Gulf will “reshape the Middle East as we know it. I believe this is the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A path to taking extremism head on, a path to diplomatic engagement and cooperation in the region. The regional implications in fighting extremism are the most important here.”
These contrasting views share some commonalities but also point to some major conceptual differences between the Gulf and Israel. In Washington the change in administration has created a mixed bag of results. While there is hope the new administration will continue to stick with the Abraham Accords, and build on them, there are some who wonder if the administration will indeed do that, or will it put an emphasis on a new Iran deal and other agendas.
David Weinberg, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, points out that the “real shadow hanging over the future of Abraham Accord-type peace treaties in the region comes from the incipient reconciliation between Washington and Tehran in the form of a renewed nuclear deal.” He pointed out that while the Gulf states could seek closer ties if they see instability in the region, they could also “hedge their bets by minimizing open ties to Israel and their full alignment with the United States. To a certain extent, this process may already be underway. For the first time in many years, the Saudis and Emiratis recently held direct and public talks with Iranian leaders.”
This leaves many questions about the challenges and hurdles that lie ahead for the Abraham Accords. While much has been accomplished, and the current Israeli government is hosting delegations and taking positive steps, there are complex hurdles. For instance, the pandemic has papered over questions about when Emiratis will get visas easily. If and when Israel opens to tourists, people from the Gulf will want the same ability to travel to Israel as Israelis enjoy going to the Gulf.