One Year Later: Abraham Accords Revisited

Published September 14th, 2021 - 08:02 GMT
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official ahead of boarding the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat elbow bumps with an Emirati official ahead of boarding the plane before leaving Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 1, 2020. (Nir Elias/Pool/AFP)

It’s exactly one year ago since the Abraham Accords were signed on the White House lawn under the patronage of former president Donald Trump bringing together the now ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and both the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and the Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani.

This was the first time in a long while that two Arab countries signed a peace accord with Israel together. It also shortly paved the way for two other deals, one between Israel and Sudan and an accord between Israel and Morocco. Trump was in a bombastic mood. It was based on what came to be termed as “transactional interest” – you do this and I will do this in return! Sudan was promised its debt to the United States would be scrapped and Washington would recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the western Sahara.

And it looked like, for a minute, the Arab world was going to normalize relations with Israeli lock, stock and barrel. The name of Oman, a country that long paddled relations with Israel was going to be next. And the name of Mauritania kept cropping up as a possible candidate. But a didn’t happen. Muscat stated on numerous occasions it was satisfied with the relations it had.

Cold peace

A sort of cold peace dominated relations between the Arab world and Israel ever since Egypt took the first step to shake hands with Tel Aviv in 1978 through the Camp David Accords and when Jordan signed an agreement with the Jewish country in 1994 following the Palestinian Oslo deal the previous year. However, things sort of stayed as they are after that lounging in the dreary world of international politics.

Cold peace there was but no official steps existed, maybe behind door nods and winks with countries like Oman, Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco though nothing substantial out in the open. Relations with Israel had to take their toll and time. After all, Israel exists but there was still a major wrong done to the Palestinians even though the then PLO and later the Palestinian Authority set up its offices in Jericho in 1993 and shortly afterwards in Ramallah for more bounty and lots of hope for an independent Palestinian state that sadly didn’t come about despite endless talk and talks about talks.

In the late 1990s and the first and second decade of the new millennium there was Israeli-Palestinian “tolerance” but it didn’t go beyond that. Peace talks were deadlocked and stalemated and if anything, Israeli rode roughshod over the occupied territories and imposed an endless siege on the Gaza that began in 2007 with frequent and deadly wars on the Strip.

As such Arabs couldn’t outwardly move in this boiling situation. But when Donald Trump came on the scene in 2017 he sought to make an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that was laying in the doldrums. As a well-known businessman and a deal fixer, he wanted to fix the Middle East, something which no US president had done, really since the historic Madrid Peace conference of 1991.

A lot of water fell under the bridge since then, talks made, attempted negotiations carried out, shoulder-rubbing maybe, but Israel dragged its feet, didn’t want to talk, ignored Palestinian politicians and wasn’t interested in making peace other the filling the West Bank with more hardened Jewish settlers.

For their part successive US presidents starting from Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama weren’t especially interested if the Israeli and Palestinians didn’t want to talk to each other. This was left to Trump. Although he took his time as well, under the pretext that his son-in-law Jarred Kushner was studying and getting to know the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and reading lots of books about it, he was preparing himself to unveil the star-studied “Deal of Century” that would establish never-before peace between the Arabs and Israelis.

This Deal of the Century was unveiled partially in the final year of the Trump administration and provided “pointers” to how peace should be made between the Israelis and Palestinians and between the Israelis and Arab world. As a man known for fixing deals he sought to fix this by telling the two main protagonists to basically sit together and solve the issue between themselves.

There was really no detailed American plan in this respect and broadly, the present status quo would stay as it is with on-the-ground Israeli settlements remaining on occupied land where Jewish sovereignty would remain intact. The Palestinians would get their capital but this would be as near as Jerusalem as possible in tattered little towns and appendages. The Palestinians, off course, rejected the idea and said this was no deal at all, certainly not the deal of the century they’ve been long hearing about.

Arab normalization

Trump was more excited about the second aspect of the deal of the century however, which is normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states. To the surprise of many the first to normalize with Israel was the United Arab Emirates.  A while later, Bahrain did the same and both done with official agreements. It took 26 years since the Jordan accord was signed with Israel but it seems to be different now, glitzier. With Amman and Cairo, peace remained ‘stalemated’ and lost in time, disenfranchised from the rest society and economy.

During this latest period however, peace, and judging by the initial indications seems to be warmer, as a kick-start development between the Gulf and Israel. First thing that happened between these countries was the establishment of commercial exchange of air routes and regular flights. Discounting the bilateral visits, there was then the quick setting of diplomatic exchange and embassies.

Further to that, literally thousands and thousands of Israelis started to flock to the UAE for “hot” holidays. They were recognized instantly because of their caps. This was normalization Jewish-Emirati style underlined by the setting up of Kosher restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and talk about the establishment of synagogues and interfaith dialogue.

The same was happening with Bahrain but with the UAE, it was more qualitative because of the level of economic development. The visits and tourism gateway were not so much a one-way street. However, there were much fewer Emiratis who wanted to go to Israel despite the advertisements. The Arabs are not coming, not just yet!

If Trump had stayed on as president maybe, he would have persuaded other Gulf countries to normalize. On the cards Qatar’s name was talked about as well as Saudi Arabia. But now, as then, such steps are seen as naïve because of different political reasons. Under the new US president Joe Biden, no such pressure is being applied, not outwardly anyway, and since with Afghanistan, Iran and now Iraq, Biden has a lot on his plate and enough to contend with.

And so it would appear, Arab normalization with Israel has stopped in its tracks for a while anyway. Still four Arab countries – UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – is a lot. Israel should indeed be happy till its next opportunity and chance. On the UAE nexus as well, Israel is moving full steam ahead with economic normalization, cooperation and venture creation between the two countries. Let’s see what that brings.

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