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Balanced Vagueness: Abraham Accords

“We are here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we marked the dawn of a new Middle East,” Donald Trump (Twitter, Sept 15, 2020)

“I stand here today to extend a hand of peace and receive a hand of peace.” Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed

“We can see before us a golden opportunity for peace, security and prosperity for our region. Let us together … waste no time in seizing it.” Dr Abdullatif Al Zayani

In this week’s edition of “More than Meets the Eye,” we will look at the marginally publicized normalization of relationship agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Ostensibly, they are called the “Abraham Accords.” Word is, two interns at the White House came up with it and thought it was cool, so President Trump went with it. 

The signing of the “Abraham Accords” at the White House on September 15, 2020 between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a real game-changer for peace in the Middle East. It signals a strategic shift in Mideast politics. 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 for 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.

I have entitled this week’s edition, “Balanced Vagueness,” because, though the agreement might border on the stupendous for several parties, there are so many ambiguities within it that there is much room for it to mature. There is, what some authors have described as a “balanced vagueness” to the agreements. Certainly one of its strongest features is the reality that, now there are not merely two Arab countries, (Egypt and Jordan) who have recognized that Israel has the right to exist, there are in actuality, four countries. The stage is being set for other Arab states to enter into this kind of non-hostile agreement, much to the chagrin of the Palestinians. Up to this point, Hamas has insisted that Israel was illegally settled and obtained; therefore was to be considered an illegal entity, a non-state that needed to depart from Arab lands; and then the Palestinians would all go back to their ancestral homes.

One can imagine how Hamas leadership must feel, as they were unable to convince the Arab League of States to forbid any Arab nation from entering into this kind of official agreement. Though the words were never said straight out, the simple fact that they were signing a nation to nation agreement, tacit recognition to the Statehood of Israel was declared.

So what is not being said? How did these agreements come about? Are there elements here that contain more than meets the eye? I believe so. Let’s discuss what the “Abraham Accords” are and what they are not. What are some of the reasons this has come about? And what are some of the ramifications for conditions in the Middle East?

The review.

What are the Abraham Accords?

The Abraham Accords are named after the patriarch, Abraham, regarded as a prophet by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Abraham is traditionally considered a shared patriarch of the Jewish and Arab peoples (by way of Isaac and Ishmael).

According to Michael Stephens, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, “this normalization is based on concepts. It is a ‘peace’ built on shared views, understandings, and a belief in both UAE and Bahrain, that you don’t have to reject Israel and its presence in the region to have sympathy for the cause of Palestine. In other words, it’s the first admission by an Arab State that the two issues can be separated, politically, as well as emotionally. That is big because it formally begins a conversation across the region about Israel and its place in the region—a conversation that is not rejected out of hand due to a sense of offending Arab dignity because of the Palestinian question. It is a reflection also that the Arab world is fracturing; states are choosing their own pathways that suit their own interests and are rejecting larger Pan-Arabist or Pan-Islamic ideologies in favor of much narrower priorities.”

Who Benefits from the Accords?

For the UAE, the calculation is pretty simple: they lose very little from normalization. Mohammed bin Zayed is completely safe in his position as de facto ruler of the UAE—minor grumblings from locals on this issue are just that: minor. Another win for the UAE is a strengthened relationship with the two powerhouses in the region, the USA and Israel. There are some assumptions that there will be possible weapons systems upgrades as a gesture of good-will; namely the F-35 5th Generation Fighter. This would be a coveted prize for the Emiratis. Nothing in the skies today even comes close to comparing with it.

Bahrain’s modern history includes a small Jewish population who have freely worshipped and been recognized by the state, as achieving great success financially and politically. Bahrain is comfortable with Judaism, in a way that (let’s be honest) some other states in the region really haven’t been. This already gives the Bahrainis a huge head start as far as coming to terms with the normalization with Israel.

The Saudis view their position on Palestine through a political lens of self-interest. Their self-interest stretches to being an Islamic leader, a bastion of Arab identity and culture, and it’s just not that easy to make peace with Israel while the Palestinians are under occupation. It’s really a step too far to suggest that Riyadh would give up its leverage on this issue without getting something equally important in return. A promise that annexation may not happen is simply not enough. The Saudis have been clear for many years that they want to see a Palestinian State and that Israel needs to come to an agreement with the Palestinians before they can reach the stage where normalization of relations is possible. It will be at some stage in the future—who can say when—but that time definitely is not now. Mohammad bin Salman may well feel that he has space to maneuver on this issue when he becomes King.

Israelis can now travel to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and maybe, soon, to Morocco and Sudan and Oman). The crushing sense of isolation that Israelis feel in their own neighborhood may be partially lifted by this agreement. Israel will benefit from trade and shipping as well, as these doors open up. The economic impact of the agreement could be significant. The Accords could create wide-ranging opportunities for Israeli business in the Gulf states.

Netanyahu benefits in at least three ways: First, he diverts attention from his miserable handling of the coronavirus pandemic (Israel is moving into a new, three-week lockdown on Friday). Second, he manages to make “peace” with Arabs who are not Palestinians, the particular group of Arabs he’d most like to avoid. And third, he buttresses his reputation among Israeli voters as a statesman on the world stage.

On the first of October, hotels in Abu Dhabi got a letter from the Department of Culture and Tourism that advised them to start including kosher meals on their menus and to designate a separate area in the kitchen for the preparation of kosher food. The UAE-Israel deal will reportedly include direct flights, tourism, economic investments and more. This public statement would have been unthinkable not long ago. It’s one example of what normalization between Arab Gulf states and Israel looks like on the ground.

Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman, without whom these Gulf states, Bahrain in particular, would not dare make such a bold and public move, needs this agreement for much the same reason. He has to prove to Democrats (and to Europeans) that he is a constructive and moderate leader, and not merely a murderer of dissidents.

The United States under the Presidency of Donald Trump, because he can tell his constituents, that he has brokered peace to the Middle East. (Not that American voters reward presidents who bring peace to the Middle East; just ask Jimmy Carter.) 

At a time when it seemed Russian influence in the region was ascending and American influence declining, the Accords underscored that the US still plays a critical role in the region and that its influence is still paramount. The Accords reinforce Trump’s carefully cultivated image as “a dealmaker” who can get things done.

Who does not benefit from the Accords?

Iran is considered an existential threat to the very existence of Israel. These kinds of accords only weaken the Iranian position, especially in Bahrain which has a significant Shi’ite population. Iran is feeling a bit shut out right now. Their only hope was to ensure that Israel continued in its state of marginalization from the Arab States. One thing that can be expected is that Iran will do anything that it can to break up this formalized relationship. Iran hates Israel. Iran lost greatly in these Abraham Accords.

The implicit rationale in the Abraham Accords is that the threat posed by Iran supersedes the historic positions of the Gulf Arab states around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Accords, from Tehran’s perspective, are at the very least a diplomatic structure to coordinate a broad anti-Iranian coalition and, at worst, could over time evolve into a more unified anti-Iranian military coalition.

The Palestinian leadership is certainly feeling betrayed by these Arab State countries. They are holding their line that there is no Israeli State. They believe that it has no right to exist, therefore no agreement can be reached at this time. The Palestinians are currently in great confusion.

From the failed Camp David Accords initiated by Egypt in 1978 to the Oslo Accords initiated by Norway that was signed in 1993, the global effort to help achieve a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only managed to legitimize the Palestinian Authority as the government for the Palestinians.

These kinds of non-Palestinian involved agreements leave the Palestinians feeling abandoned out in the cold.  They are very nervous right now. The Accords are further proof that the principal axis of Middle East politics is largely transitioning from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an Iranian/Shiite-Arab/Sunni axis; not good for the Palestinians

The why.

The Abraham Accords break a long-standing taboo in the Arab world. The prevailing formula – as outlined by the Arab Peace Initiative (2002) – was that normalization would be granted to Israel in return for making meaningful political compromises vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The Accords have shattered this formula, as they have replaced the equation of “peace for land” with the Netanyahu-coined “peace for peace” approach, in which normalization is given almost unconditionally.

There are many reasons why this Abraham Accord is a really good idea. It does, however, have the potential to become a political football to kick around in order to satisfy different national and personal agendas. The Accords have the possibility to usher in serious deliberations for peace in the Middle East. They also have the potential to fan the flames of fear across the region, particularly among the Iranians and the Palestinians. Both of these parties were not mentioned in the agreements, but their presence in the discussions was very real. 

Overall, is it possible to succeed in the Middle East Peace Process solely on the basis of Arab-Israeli reconciliation? The answer is probably, no. Looking back at history, we already had such a period — the “Oslo Accords,” [4] when the Israelis and the Arabs worked together on achieving peace. Without a final solution for the Palestinian problem, however, the peace process was doomed from the start and brought the Second Intifada instead, as well as a degradation of the Israel-Arab nation’s ties. 

One can well conclude that the Accords became a real game-changer for the Middle East Peace Process, with their value being the precedent they created. This may be used by other countries wishing to normalize relations with Israel, thus setting a new trend in the Middle East.

Could the Accord be a way that the Emiratis and the Bahrainis are hedging their security bet, so that if the next US president decides to enter back into the JCPOA, they will have the capability to protect themselves against what would be an almost certain guarantee that the Iranians would begin openly building their own nuclear bomb (as opposed to building it currently in secret.) The Gulf Arab countries are terrified of this possibility, and of course, so are the Israelis.

The action.

Watch closely as this region finds itself back at the center of global politics. The Russians and the Chinese have been left out in the cold, and I can assure you they are posturing themselves to get a seat back at the table. They still believe that they have some chips to play. They benefit from Middle Eastern disruption. Don’t be surprised if they stir up some trouble to try to create the instability that they have relied on for years, to accomplish their purposes.

It will be interesting to see how this alters the landscape of Israeli actions within the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Will these kinds of agreements produce so much stability and wealth between these nations that it causes the Israelis to play nice with the Palestinians?  As I mentioned above, we can rely on the Russians and/or the Chinese to cause disruptive measures within Israel, seeking to cause them to overplay their hand and to create dissension between these fragile newly minted relationships.

The follow-up.

Russia to ‘assist’ Armenia if conflict with Azerbaijan spreads beyond Nagorno-Karabakh…

Pakistan to upgrade the status of Kashmir’s Gilgit-Baltistan region…

The feed-back.

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