That Arab-Israeli relations are historically marred with hostility and violence is hardly contestable. This is evidenced by a series of wars from the Palestinian civil war of 1947, which engendered the long-standing Palestinian refugee problem, to the Yom Kippur War of 1967 and the Lebanon War of 1982. The past few decades, however, have witnessed a significant strengthening of ties between Israel and the Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf. Although there exist no formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia and comprising Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, the former signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 following the 1993 Oslo Agreement signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Trade relations established between Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, and Morocco and Israel during the mid-1990s, under the assumption that a peace process was underway between the latter and the PLO, were dissolved subsequent to the Second Intifada in 2000.
The launch of the Arab Peace Initiative by the then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in March 2002, at the high point of the Second Intifada, marked a watershed moment in contemporary relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states. The Initiative offered recognition to Israel by the Arab League under the conditions that Israel would completely withdraw from the 1967 Israel-Palestine borders, a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital would be established, and a concerted solution to the long-standing Palestinian refugee crisis would be reached. Convergence of views between the two continued to accumulate through the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, Obama’s second Presidential term, and Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPoA) in 2018.
It is, therefore, amidst this context of shifting priorities of Arab Gulf states, cordial bilateral relations between them and Israel, a collective hostility towards Iran, and the marginalisation of the seemingly endless Palestinian cause that the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 must be viewed. This paper thus seeks to appraise the implications of the newly signed agreement on the balance of power and alliances in the West Asian region. Its repercussions on the regional foreign policy of Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia will be examined. The paper also attempts to understand the impact of the Accords on the Palestinian quest for statehood.
The Abraham Accords: An Overview
A joint peace deal was signed between the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates on 15th September, 2020 proclaiming that the latter two would venture into a political process of complete normalisation of diplomatic relations. The peace deal expresses intent to work towards better security, prosperity, and stability in the Middle East region through cooperation and alliances and strive for consensus on such issues as investment, security, tourism, and technology, inter alia. It also paves way for Muslims around the world to pray at the historic Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and visit other historical sites in Israel. With the signing of this deal, which came to be known as the ‘Abraham Accords Peace Agreement’, the UAE became the first Persian Gulf state and third Arab state (after Egypt and Jordan) to normalise relations with Israel. A month later, Bahrain too followed the Emirates’ suit and ratified its pact with Israel through the Accords. This took place despite the fact that just days before the announcement of the deal, the Bahraini King dismissed Washington’s attempt for normalisation and articulated his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state. This underscores their willingness to establish strong relations with Israel amidst the rising threat of Iran even as they do not wish to forgo the Palestinian cause (elaborated in detail in subsequent sections).
How are the Abraham Accords different from peace treaties signed between Israel and Gulf Arab nations in the past? Firstly, the existing Israeli peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are between governments and are limited to mitigating military conflict. An improvement in people-to-people relations, tourism, and trade has been negligible between the parties. The Accords, by contrast, transcend the military preserve to emphasise a more general normalisation of relations on a societal level and strengthen economic and cultural ties. To this extent, civil society members, artists, businesspeople, and academics have equally expressed their intent to partake in the peace-making project. Secondly, Bahrain and the UAE lack historical baggage as opposed to Jordan and Egypt which, for instance, were involved in the Six-Day War against Israel. Given that the former two neither have waged war against Israel nor house a large number of Palestinian refugees, the enjoyment of warm peace between the nations is not impossible. It is also pertinent to note, however, that the very same lack of historical baggage betrays the two nations’ peripherality in the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict.
Thirdly, some scholars argue that, unlike the cases of Jordan and Egypt, an era of quiet diplomacy “just below the surface” was already underway between Israel and the Gulf states as evidenced by contacts and business dealings in the domains of security, intelligence, economics, and so forth and a channel to facilitate interfaith dialogue initiated by the UAE. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE in particular refrained from exposing their ties with Israel lest they receive backlash from the domestic Arab and Muslim population against normalisation or Tabti. In one sense, then, the signing of the Accords marks a shift away from this discreet position and towards formal, institutional recognition of their diplomatic ties.
Implications on Regional Dynamics in West Asia
Iran and Turkey
That Iran and Turkey denounced the announcement of the Accords hardly comes as a surprise in view of their emergence as revisionist powers in the region vis-à-vis the status quo powers comprising Israel and the greater number of Arab Gulf countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of a potential shutting down of the Turkish embassy in Abu Dhabi following the signing of the treaty and Iran regarded the Accords as a “knife in the back of all Muslims” alluding to the UAE and Bahrain’s disloyalty to both Islam and the Palestinian cause. On the other side, Iran’s abetment of terrorism, radical groups, and regional proxies and the recent escalation in its nuclear activities following the US’s withdrawal from the JCPoA played a crucial role in engendering this new-found Arab-Israeli alliance. This is evidenced by the Bahraini Interior Minister’s justification of the Accords as strengthening the alliance against Iran.
Equipped with Israeli anti-missile defense systems, exorbitant American and Israeli drones, and aerial stealth technology (through defense and security cooperation deals subsumed under the agreement), one must bear in mind that several consequences arise from the significant advancement in the UAE’s military capacity. For one, this could signal a shift in the regional balance of power towards the status quo alliance and particularly weaken Iran’s position, whose freedom of operation in the region has been subdued. The latter will therefore have no choice but to resort to nuclear measures, both defensive and offensive, effecting an additional dimension of contention between Iran and the UAE fraught already with religious, territorial, and ideological tensions. For another, the Accords equally exacerbate the long-standing hostility between Israel and Iran. Israel’s engirdling of Iran from both the North (Kurdistan and Azerbaijan) and the South (UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia) challenges the latter’s strategy of confronting the former from Lebanon and Syria in the North and Sinai and Gaza in the South. As a corollary, it would not be unreasonable to expect Iran to adopt a multi-pronged approach to the Israeli threat which includes increasing its support for such proxies as Hamas and Hezbollah.
That said, the UAE views Turkey and its alliance with Qatar (which is cemented by ideological and commercial ties and strained relations with the rest of the Middle East; Turkey relies on Qatar for financial support while the latter, given its small size, relies on the former for security and protection) as a more menacing threat than Iran in the short term. Turkey, through its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempts at destabilising Egypt, is increasingly posing a challenge to the Israeli front as well and stands a source of contention between Turkey and the UAE and Israel. Turkey’s condemnation of the Accords in specific and its revisionist undertakings are, however, irreconcilable with the fact that it has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel since its emergence in 1949. Nevertheless, Iran and Turkey converge both in their inclination for a government in Syria sans American backing and in their mutual pro-Qatar stance and strained relations with the United States. The signing of the Abraham Accords, then, formalises Israel and the UAE’s joint intention to confront this coalition. In essence, Israel, in breaking the taboo against cutting defence deals with Arab nations and normalising relations with Bahrain and the UAE, reinforces the Middle East’s status quo and revisionist alignments and the hostility between them.
The Lost Palestinian Cause
Even as Iran’s influence in the region is threated, the signing of the Accords undoubtedly strikes the largest blow for the Palestinian state and its people. The Palestinian Authority’s President, Mahmoud Abbas reportedly stated that “normalization with the Zionist entity is high treason against Palestine.” The blatant neglect of Palestine in the formulation and signing of the deal is highly telling of the stakeholders’ priorities in the region. Palestine has long hinged on the realisation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood and its withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for normalised relations with the Arab countries, for any kind of liberation from Israeli shackles. Bahrain and the UAE, however, went so far as to not only deviate from the Initiative but also circumvent the Arab interdiction against normalising relations with Israel to sign the deal. This implies that, for the Gulf Arab states, amidst threats from the Muslim brotherhood, Turkey and Iran, strengthening ties with Israel has simply become more pressing than the issue of Palestinian autonomy. The Palestinian question is no longer an indispensable part of the Arab world’s religio-political identity. Concomitantly, it also illustrates that Israel need not resolve the Palestinian issue or seek its approval to normalise relations with other countries in the region, amounting to a crucial loss of diplomatic leverage on the Palestinian side.
The Accords make little headway in resolving the contended issue of the occupation of the West Bank, the situation in East Jerusalem, the question of Palestinian refugees, and the turmoil in Gaza. Although the normalisation deal was settled under the condition that Israel would discontinue its West Bank annexation plans, whether this is a temporary or permanent termination, remains ambiguous and unanswered. The English and Arabic versions of the joint treaty are incongruous, much like the UN Security Council’s Resolution 242 adopted in 1967 following the Six-Day War which too pertains to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. While the former pronounces that the accord “led to the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty,” the latter holds that the agreement has “led to Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped.” The Trump administration refused to clarify the ambiguity. The Palestinian people nevertheless have only to lose from this deal. Israel seems not to have deterred from the status quo on the West Bank; Jewish settlements continue to be built and expanded, Palestinian livelihoods continue to be distressed, and human rights continue to be transgressed. A PLO report observes that twenty five homes and facilities in Palestinian settlements were demolished in one month for no particular reason, starting from the very day the Accords were signed.
Palestine’s regional isolation is exacerbated by religious considerations. Given that the number of Muslim pilgrims from the UAE praying in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque (which has long been a contested religious site between Israel and Palestine) would now increase, Palestine’s clasp on the holy places would be undermined further. The Palestinian Authority’s fear, then, that Israel would now be able to construct its image as a benevolent, accommodating nation that allows religious freedom to thrive, thereby giving it a diplomatic upper hand in the region is not invalid. To this extent, Palestinian religious authorities held that non-Palestinian Muslims coming to the Mosque as a result of the normalisation accord would not be allowed to enter for they are “unwanted in the PA.”
Palestine’s neglect and subsequent repudiation of the Abraham Accords may well benefit the revisionist alignment in that the former could affiliate with the latter to collectively combat the Arab-Israeli threat, thereby legitimising their anti-Israel and anti-West narrative. This is evidenced, for instance, by the fact that the rival factions of Palestine, Fatah and Hamas, reconciled their differences and chose to meet in Istanbul, Turkey to deliberate forming a united Palestinian front, to confront the new-found Arab-Israeli alliance.
Yet, this is not to say that there exists a clearly delineated Palestinian strategy for the same. The country continues to grapple with corrupt and inefficient leaders who have been in power since 2006 sans the consent of the people, internal discord between the rival factions of Hamas and Fatah, and the lack of adequate military resources. Making any progress in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, therefore, necessitates reconciling internal differences, reassessing approaches adopted in the past, securing the support of potential allies, and formulating new and concerted strategies to negotiate a two-state solution with Israel.
The Saudi Angle
That Saudi Arabia has refrained from formally signing the Abraham Accords brings to light the dilemma it faces vis-à-vis its position in the conflicts and alignments of the Middle East. On the one hand, the country views Shiite Iran as a serious threat and enjoys close yet clandestine ties with Israel and the United States (an example would be Saudi opening its airspace for direct flights from Israel to the UAE and further). On the other hand, its historical position has been such that establishing formal relations with Israel hinges on Palestine being granted statehood. Days after the announcement of the deal, the Saudi foreign minister reiterated that Israel must work up a settlement with Palestine based on the Arab Peace Initiative. Unlike Bahrain and the UAE, Saudi Arabia has thus acted in accordance with the Initiative, which can be attributed to two factors.
First, the nature of the relationship between the Saudi royalty and the Kingdom’s clerical establishment is such that the former cannot afford to upset the majority of the latter who would deem the normalisation process as being a betrayal of the cause of Palestine. Moreover, although the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam is predisposed to establishing ties with Israel, his highly influential father, Salman bin Abdulaziz’s sympathies lie with the clerics in this regard. Second, as opposed to the UAE, signing the Accords would belie the considerable legitimacy the Kingdom draws through the safeguarding of Muslims and the promotion of Islam globally. Further, the common public in the country, which constitutes a much larger population than that of Bahrain or the UAE, perceives the Israeli threat to be more urgent than the Iranian one and is committed to the Palestinian cause. To this extent, normalising relations with Israel could evoke substantial backlash from the people of Saudi Arabia.
Scholars also speculate that it is likely that Bahrain obtained Saudi Arabia’s approval prior to its adoption of the Abraham Accords given the high degree to which it is dependent on the latter and its allies. If Saudi did indeed give the go-ahead to Bahrain, the act makes it clear that the country favours close ties between Israel and the Arab world and one could go so far as to argue that it, too, could normalise relations with Israel in the near future. In this context, it is also worth noting that even as Saudi underscored its commitment to the API, it never explicitly condemned the Abraham Accords. Given its substantial political and economic influence, this could provide Saudi Arabia - and by extension the other Gulf Arab states - diplomatic leverage: Israel can be persuaded into making further headway on the issue of Palestinian statehood in return for normalised relations with more Gulf Arab states.
The signing of the Abraham Accords further complicates the regional dynamics of what is an already heavily conflict-ridden Middle East. Hostilities between the status quo and revisionist alignments only seem to be intensifying since the signing. Following Bahrain and the UAE, Oman, Morocco, and Sudan too formally agreed to normalise ties with Israel in the same year. This throws up questions about the future prospects of the Abraham Accords and about whether it will spur other Gulf Arab countries to join the likes of the aforementioned countries. From the Israeli perspective, improving ties with the Gulf is favourable in that it can serve as a means to prove its merit to the United States and simultaneously understate the pressing Palestinian issue.
On the Arab side, it is pertinent to note that one, no Gulf Cooperation Council country has formally withdrawn from the Arab Peace Initiative and two, internal considerations and potential backlash from the common public continue to hold them back, particularly Saudi Arabia, from formally normalising diplomatic relations with Israel. Nevertheless and contrary to the historical understanding, the Abraham Accords are a clear indication that resolving the Palestine issue is not a necessary prerequisite for establishing peace between the Arab nations and Israel. Perhaps, then, it would not be unreasonable to argue that if not for official normalisation, links between the two could continue to grow stronger thereby keeping the era of “quiet diplomacy” alive.
While the Accords offer favourable prospects for the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states, the prospect of statehood for Palestine indubitably remains bleak. The treaty makes apparent not only the shifting priorities of the Arab states away from championing the Palestinian aspiration for nationhood but also the United States and Israel’s blasé approach towards the Palestinian people. It is these innocent people, trapped in an oppressive status quo of poverty, violence, gross human rights violations, and burgeoning Israeli settlements, who ultimately bear the consequences of such a deal and the subsequent loss of the Palestinian government’s diplomatic leverage. Perhaps then, the statement in the Abraham Accords Declaration that “we will pursue a vision of peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world” is less of a truism and more of a myth.
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