By Rebecca Roth
Just over two months ago, the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations with Israel. Bahrain followed suit shortly thereafter. Analyzing the accords, it is clear that Israel is the winner of the deals. The Abraham Accords, named after the Patriarch Abraham—who is the father of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—differs from the peace deals signed by Israel with Egypt and Jordan. Those were, in essence, cease fires. The countries had fought wars against each other and those accords led to a “cold peace” where the physical conflict ended but the countries did not work together. The Abraham Accords are different as Israel is not in, and has not previously fought, a war against the UAE or Bahrain. The accords will likely lead to a “warm peace” full of trade, tourism, and shared intelligence—specifically, against Iran.
Historically, the peace deals between Israel and Egypt and Jordan were ceasefire agreements which the Arab countries responded negatively to. In 1979, Egypt was the first Arab state to recognize Israel and, in response, the Arab League suspended the country until 1989. Despite the negative response from Arab countries, Jordan signed a nonbelligerency agreement with Israel in 1994—which ended the state of war between Israel and Jordan. The Jordanian people protested the agreement, and a cold peace began.
While all countries involved gain from the Abraham Accords, Israel gains the most. Yes—all participants gain access to trade and tourism, and they are all allied against the threat Iran poses to the region. And, as a result of this agreement, the UAE and the USA are now on better terms—which should result in the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE. But the UAE and Bahrain shared credit for causing Israel to stop the annexation of areas of the West Bank by Israel—neither state’s leadership can fully capitalize on the political victory. While it seems, on the surface, as though Israel only received the normalization of relations with Arab countries, it actually symbolizes much more. First, Israel was “forced” to stop its annexation plan—a plan that faced massive backlash both domestically and internationally. In truth, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu never intended to proceed with the annexation of about 30% of the West Bank. By claiming that they would, it put a bargaining chip on the table that they were willing to give up. A US Diplomatic Official said that “It gave everyone involved — Israel, the UAE, and the United States — something to hold up as an achievement.” Second, in 2002, the Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, offered a peace deal to Israel which stated that the Arab countries would only normalize relations if Israel gave up the territories conquered during the six-day war, dealt with the Palestinian problem, and allowed Palestinians to create their own state (with East Jerusalem as their capital). The Abraham Accords undermined this and showed that Israel has the right to exist and the Palestinians are no longer in control of the conversation. Israel only had to suspend annexation, but not give anything up, proving that large concessions are not needed for there to be peace in the Middle East.
The Palestinians lost in this deal. They lost their leverage and their backing by the complete Arab League making them more hesitant to fight against the Israelis. The Palestinians are not strong enough to beat Israel without the help of countries in the Middle East. The Arab League did not oppose the accords, suggesting that the relationship between Israel and the Arab world is changing. The Arab world is not allowing the Palestinians to hold them hostage any longer. The deal, in essence, signals to the Palestinians that it is time to move on and accept that Israel is here to stay. No longer is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict viewed as a necessary step to peace or the normalization of relations.The Palestinians would be further pushed aside if Saudi Arabia agreed to normalize relations with Israel. While the current king of Saudi Arabia is reluctant, the heir to the throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is more modern and connected to the Western world, and may already be the one in control. Additionally, the Saudi’s opened their air space for commercial flights from Israel signaling an acceptance of the deal. It is possible that Saudi Arabia is waiting to see if there are repercussions to the accords before taking any steps toward their own deal. While the Palestinians and some of the more extreme Muslim countries spoke out against the Abraham Accords, no significant actions were taken by any country against the UAE or Bahrain. This is a good sign for countries leaning towards normalizing relations with Israel.
The UAE and Bahrain did not pay for these accords, signaling that the Arab world understands that the time has come to recognize, trade with, and build a mutual defense relationship with Israel. The more countries that normalize relations with Israel, the more cemented this idea becomes. This will make it easier for the international community to move forward from a Middle East revolving around the Israeli-Palestinain conflict to a Middle East united against Iran.
While Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain all gained economically from the Abraham Accords, the main goal of the accords is to solidify, and bring to the open, opposition against Iran. While Iran is currently suffering economically from U.S. sanctions its policies pose a threat to the entire region. As a result of the accords, the U.S. and the region now have a regional ally with geographic proximity. While Israel is geographically closer to Iran than the U.S., the UAE is right across the gulf.
Iran poses a real threat to the stability of the Middle East and the safety of the entire world. While Israel has long had reason to fear, moderate Muslim countries now do as well. Israel’s new partners view the U.S as a general ally against Iran, but realize that Israel would be a better geographically-located ally. Israel has a strong military, an impressive intelligence organization, and it would be fighting for its survival. This motivation ensures that Israel will do anything it must to defeat Iran.
The Abraham Accords, while not truly a peace deal, highlight the shift in relations and priorities in the Middle East. The Gulf countries now recognize that Israel does not pose a threat to them and can actually be a friend in the fight against Iran.