(L-r) Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan during the Negev Summit, hosted by Israel on contested Bedouin land, in Kibbutz Sde Boker, on March 28, 2022. (ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTRY/HANDOUT/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES).
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 2022, pp. 26-27
By Mustafa Fetouri
SEPTEMBER 15 MARKS the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in what is seen as a breakthrough in the region. Morocco and Sudan followed suit later in 2020.
All four Arab countries are members of the League of Arab States (LAS) whose policy toward Israel has evolved over the years but kept its basic position as agreed in the LAS’ 1967 Khartoum summit, famously known as the “Three Nos;” no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. The 2002 Beirut LAS summit refined this position, leading to the adoption of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, essentially offering Israel peace and recognition in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, among other demands. In this sense all four countries have broken with agreement they signed onto decades ago.
Israel rejected the Arab Peace Initiative but the new wave of normalization now seems to have buried it altogether.
Each of the signatories of the Abraham Accords has its own agenda but they share one belief: that the regional dynamics have changed requiring new approaches in which enemies do not stay enemies forever.
In this case, Iran has become the enemy others must confront, particularly for the UAE and Bahrain—Iran’s Gulf neighbors. Both see Tel Aviv as a natural ally against their common enemy Tehran. They are supported, however discreetly, by their big sister Saudi Arabia, which has yet to make any public approach toward Israel. President Joe Biden’s trip to Riyadh and Tel Aviv is expected to lay the groundwork for another Abraham Accord agreement and a regional military alliance.
For Sudan and Morocco, each stand to gain little other than winning Washington’s favor over issues important to Khartoum and Rabat. It has long been understood in the region that being friendly to Israel is strongly encouraged by Washington and opens doors. In fact, former President Donald Trump made it clear when he offered Rabat recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for normalization with Israel. Khartoum, consumed by public discontent and a troubled economy, welcomed any positive nod from Washington and the Accords fit the bill.
For Israel the benefits of the Abraham Accords far exceeded anything the Zionist state had imagined in its 70-plus years. In a way it is even more important than the Camp David Accords signed with Egypt over 40 years ago.
When Israel welcomed the late Anwar Sadat of Egypt to Tel Aviv in 1977, and later signed the Camp David peace treaty, it brought the end of armed conflict with its bigger Arab neighbor with whom it fought four wars. Everything else that came from the deal was a bonus. Making peace with Cairo left the rest of the Arab world far weaker to mount any serious war against Israel even if the political will was there. It also helped end the Arab, African and Latin American boycott of Israel, as many recognized Israel and established links with Tel Aviv.
While the Abraham Accords benefit Israel more than the other signatories, they are creating new momentum in the region and leaving the fate of Palestinians on the back burner. This fact did not deter the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken from celebrating the Accords’ first anniversary last year, on contested Bedouin land in the Naqab no less, by saying the benefits of the Accords “continue to grow.” He argued that such “relationships and growing normalization [will] make tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians.” Two years on and the Palestinians are yet to see any benefits of this new wave of normalizations. Instead their overall situation is worse now than it was before Sept. 15, 2020. Israel continues to kill Palestinians, confiscate their land, demolish their homes and impose apartheid-like suffocating restrictions on them.
The Palestinian goal of an independent state has become even more remote. According to Israel’s Peace Now, an anti-settlement group, in May Israel’s Higher Planning Council gave its final approved for the construction of 2,791 housing units while another 1,636 received initial approval. In the previous year, another 3,000 settler units in the West Bank, an occupied area in the eyes of international law, got the OK despite objections from the U.S.
If the ultimate objective of the Accords, or any other normalizations between Israel and any Arab country, is peace in the Middle East, the Accords are not designed to do that. Unless the Palestinians’ aspiration for freedom and independence are met, peace will remain as elusive as it has ever been.
While the Accords are no more than a different version of Donald Trump’s failed “Deal of Century” in 2020—a winner-take-all for Israel which left nothing for the Palestinians—Israel stands to benefit even more from the Abraham Accords for the small concession of not “formally annexing” the West Bank.
ARAB PUBLIC REJECTS ISRAEL
With the Abraham Accords, Tel Aviv is seeking to overcome its longtime rejection by the Arab public and present itself as an ally against Iran, business partner and a technology oasis, although it’s more like a cyber security and weapons supplier.
According to a 2019-2020 survey by the Qatari Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 85 percent of Egyptians still disapprove of any diplomatic relations with Israel, even after more than 40 years since the Camp David Accords were signed. The recent case of Egyptian actor and rapper, Mohamed Ramadan, is a clear example. He faced public condemnation and contempt after he appeared in a picture with an Israeli singer two years ago. Egypt, today, has more economic and trade links to Israel but that is a government business having little impact on the minds of ordinary Egyptians. In fact, people-to-people links between Egypt and Israel are minimum and the peace between the two neighbors remains cold.
The most fertile ground for this long-term Abraham Accords project are found far from the borders with Israel, where the emotional, social and religious connections to Palestine are weakest. The UAE and Bahrain are just perfect grounds for such ideas to take root. The citizens’ attachment to Palestine is weak and their understanding of the Palestinian issue is framed by their government; if their leaders say Israel is a friend then it is a friend. They’ve never experienced war with Israel and the younger generations have lost touch with the history.
This, partly, explains the private investments by Emirati millionaires and businesses. Encouraged by their government, many businessmen have already embarked on joint ventures with their Israeli counterparts. This kind of people-to-people connection has been given another boost by the Free Trade Agreement Israel signed with the UAE on May 31, lifting almost all restrictions on bilateral trade facilitating the flow of goods, people and capital. Private businesses seek profit, regardless of whether it comes at the expense of Palestinians’ independence or Israel becoming an apartheid state.
This single-track strategy failed in Egypt decades earlier. Government business has not been embraced by either the elites or ordinary people in Cairo. The overwhelming majority of Arabs still reject Israel and believe it to be a nuclear-armed threat while their attachment to their Palestinian brothers grows by the day, thanks in part, to Israel’s own brutal treatment of Palestinians. Israel’s acceptance among the wider Arab public will not happen unless the Palestinian aspirations are achieved.
The last, and perhaps unintended, consequence of the “peace” Accords is the increased polarization and armament in the region as Israeli war technologies are the bounty now spreading across the region, further alienating Iran.
Mustafa Fetouri is a Libyan academic and freelance journalist. He is a recipient of the EU’s Freedom of the Press prize. He has written extensively for various media outlets on Libyan and MENA issues. He has published three books in Arabic. His email is email@example.com and Twitter: @MFetouri.