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Winners take all in the Abraham Accords

Winners take all in the Abraham Accords

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Politics Basic Rights

Tuesday 2 May 202305:06 pm
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الاتفاقيات الإبراهيمية... الفائزون يأخذون كل شيء

The Abraham Accords, a series of peace treaties and agreements that normalized relations between Arab signatories and Israel, have been celebrated as one of the few foreign policy achievements of the Donald Trump administration.

A month and a half before the 2020 US general elections, leaders from Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates signed the celebrated peace agreements into effect (despite the fact that none of the signatories had ever been in a serious state of warfare). Shortly thereafter, Morocco and Sudan joined the agreements on October 23 and December 22, 2020, respectively.

The Trump re-election campaign quickly claimed that Mr. Trump had “achieved peace in the Middle East,” and some Republican members of Congress even declared that Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ushering in what was claimed to be an unprecedented era of peace in the region.

Although the Trump administration’s foreign policy could be characterized by many labels, Trump’s approach to the Middle East kept returning to a vague pursuit of enacting “peace” in the Middle East. After winning the US general election in 2016, Trump expressed that he was interested in tackling the Middle East problem head-on and would appoint Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, as special envoy to broker Middle East peace.

In 2017, Trump famously went on to say that “there [was] a very good chance” his administration would create peace between Israel and Palestine, claiming peace was “maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” As time went on, Jared Kushner began bouts of shuttle diplomacy throughout the Middle East to accomplish this, and Trump ultimately unveiled the widely derided and dead-on-arrival “Deal of the Century” Israel-Palestine peace plan. At the same time, the United States under Trump’s leadership took an exceptional series of steps of hardline support for Israel’s government, such as moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and cutting all US aid to the Palestinian Authority.

While the Abraham Accords ultimately did little to help Mr. Trump win the election, they fundamentally impacted how regional powers interact with Israel and deal with Palestine, furthering the United States’ already unquestioning backing of Israel and lack of support for Palestinians.

With Saudi Arabia now naming its price for normalizing relations with Israel, it appears that the Abraham Accords are no dying vestige of the Trump administration. Rather, it seems that more and more Arab states are publicly considering the benefits of a positive relationship with Israel. Although normalizing relations with Israel is a highly unpopular policy and Arab states have traditionally leveraged normalization on the status of the Palestinians, Arab leaders are increasingly looking toward pragmatic political outcomes rather than virtue signaling on behalf of Palestine.

Although the Accords pushed multiple Arab states into unprecedented alliances with Israel in the name of peace, they did little to decrease any conflict any signatory is, or was, involved in, and did nothing to ease ongoing violence against Palestinians

Moving toward normalization

The Abraham Accords officially introduced Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, and Sudan as the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel, following Egypt in 1978 and Jordan in 1994.

At face value, the Accords represent a major foreign policy about-face for Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the UAE, which in the 20th century were vocal opponents to Israel’s existence. On September 1, 1967, after the Six-Day War, all four countries voted in the 1967 Arab League Summit to adopt the Khartoum Resolution, which famously positioned the Arab states’ collective view toward Israel as “The Three No’s”: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with it.”

For decades, Gulf relations with Israel were defined by this, symbolized by actions such as the globally disruptive 1973 Arab oil embargo and the Gulf’s provision of billions of US dollars in aid to the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 70s and 80s.

Major peace agreements and negotiations between Arab states and Israel in the 20th century became defined by the “land for peace” interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, demanding Israel give up occupied land in exchange for peace.

Most Gulf countries eventually moved from open hostility toward Israel to cautious regional acceptance to tacit cooperation, particularly after 9/11 — a marriage of convenience predominantly founded on security coordination and opposing Iran.

Before the signing of the Accords, Israel and Morocco also developed a clandestine, decades-long relationship defined by under-the-table cooperation on assassinations, intelligence, military matters, and Jewish migration. In many ways, the Accords solidified already present historical trends toward normalization, albeit in a newly conspicuous way.

In the name of peace, defense, security, and trade deals abound

The Abraham Accords vary in their length, contents, and specificity, with the agreements between Israel and the UAE being the most comprehensive and Israel and Sudan being the vaguest. The agreements establish multiple new areas of cooperation between each signatory and Israel, primarily revolving around cyber and physical security and the establishment of various types of economic ties.

From a security perspective, the Accords are highly advantageous for the signatories. For its new Arab partners, Israel offers a very sophisticated military and surveillance apparatus and is a major supplier of advanced weaponry. By forming a physical security alliance with Bahrain and the UAE, Israel profoundly strengthened the regional coalition of countries aligned against Iran — a country that has traditionally been considered Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, and the UAE’s premier rival. In the cyber realm, the Accords allow for an unprecedented level of cyber cooperation between Israel and the signatories. Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE have all already begun implementing sophisticated Israeli cyber tech to surveil dissidents, ironically using the very same spyware Israel uses against Palestinians.

The Accords also paved the way for multiple new arms deals between Israel and signatory countries. The UAE has since purchased Israeli-made Barak and Spyder air defense systems, and Morocco also purchased Barak interceptor weapon systems. In 2022, former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed that Israel had signed around $3 billion in defense export deals to Abraham Accord signatories since 2020.

Despite Arab states’ growing trend toward normalization, official statistics prove that Arab public opinion remains overwhelmingly unified in opposing normalization with Israel

Following the Accords, the United States provided most signatories with attractive gifts for normalizing relations with Israel. The United States agreed to sell the UAE Lockheed Martin’s highly coveted F-35 Lightning II fighter jets in a deal worth $23.3 billion (although the UAE temporarily suspended the deal, talks are reportedly still ongoing). The United States also agreed to recognize Morocco’s disputed claim over Western Sahara and remove Sudan from the US State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which enabled Sudan to regain access to global financing opportunities and debt relief.

In addition, one of the clearest benefits Arab leaders gained from the Accords is economic. Morocco and the UAE have quickly moved to expand trade with Israel, with Emirati officials signing a free trade agreement in 2022 worth an estimated $10 billion over five years (about 30 times greater than the annual trade volume between Egypt and Israel). In less than three years, Morocco and Israel signed a trade agreement worth $500 million, Emirati investment and venture capital funds invested over $1 billion into Israel, Israel and the UAE created a $100 million research and development fund, and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed promised $10 billion in investments into Israel.

In total, according to Israeli government figures, Israel imported $2.57 billion from all Abraham Accords countries in 2022 (including Jordan and Egypt). In addition to trade, the agreements also led to increased regional tourism. Although the number of Arabs visiting Israel hovered around 5,000 in 2022, nearly half a million Israeli tourists visited Abraham Accord countries in 2022 alone.

Did the Accords accomplish peace?

The official Abraham Accords Declaration centrally claims that the signatories “believe that the best way to address challenges is through cooperation and dialogue and that developing friendly relations among states advances the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world,” adding that they “seek tolerance and respect for every person in order to make this world a place where all can enjoy a life of dignity and hope, no matter their race, faith or ethnicity.”

Although the general trend of violence across the wider Middle East is downward — and despite claims that the accords catalyzed some sort of “Middle East peace process” — multiple conflicts have persisted in Arab countries in 2023 that the Abraham Accords did nothing to address. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker and the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, conflicts of varying degrees of intensity continue in Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. And while important developments are emerging regarding a potential cease-fire in Yemen, ongoing talks have no identifiable link with the Abraham Accords or their signatories.

The number of conflicts in major regions throughout the world. (Source: Davies, Shawn, Therese Pettersson & Magnus Öberg (2022). Organized violence 1989-2021 and drone warfare. Journal of Peace Research 59(4))

In addition, the Accords do not address any signatory’s human rights record or history of conducting intrastate violence. Perhaps most unsurprisingly, they failed to address the most salient and bloody conflict any Accords member is involved in: Israel and its ongoing violence against Palestinians. Until this year, 2022 was recorded as the deadliest year for West Bank-based Palestinians on record since 2004, and, in response, attacks launched by Palestinians have also increased. In 2022, Israel initiated “Operation Breakwater,” a ten-month-long intensive military campaign to disrupt alleged militants in the occupied West Bank in 2022, with almost nightly raids uprooting the lives of thousands of Palestinians. In August 2022, Israel launched a three-day military operation on the Gaza Strip, constituting what Amnesty International called a series of “apparent war crimes.”

Continuing the trend in 2023, state violence against Palestinians and civilian attacks on Israelis have skyrocketed. According to Palestinian health officials, 2023 started off as the deadliest year since the early 2000s for Palestinians, and there have already been countless deadly raids on Palestinian villages in 2023. Furthermore, after Israel conducted a widely condemned assault on Palestinian worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan this year, the largest uptick in violence between Israel and Lebanon since 2006 took place, with Israeli security forces and Hamas or Hamas-suspected militants exchanging rockets and air strikes between Gaza, southern Lebanon, and Israel.

Consequently, although the Accords pushed multiple Arab states into unprecedented alliances with Israel, they did little to decrease any conflict any signatory is, or was, involved in, and did nothing to ease violence against Palestinians.

Leaders and their supporters in Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the UAE have received considerable defense, economic, security, and political benefits from the deals, catering to the foreign policy preferences of elites within signatory states and the US

Arab public opinion toward normalizing relations with Israel

Despite Arab states’ growing trend toward normalization, Arab public opinion remains overwhelmingly unified in opposing normalization with Israel. According to the Arab Opinion Index 2022, an opinion survey of 33,300 Arabs across 14 countries, 84% of respondents disapproved of recognizing the state of Israel. 95% of Palestinians, 72% of Sudanese, and 67% of Moroccans who were surveyed opposed their countries’ diplomatic recognition of Israel, with 46.7% of respondents highlighting Israel’s occupation of Palestinians as the primary reason.

Polling by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that around 66% percent of citizens in Bahrain and the UAE view the Abraham Accords unfavorably, and 58% of Bahrainis and 55% of Emiratis disapprove of building business or sports ties with Israel. In a move personifying this on the ground, during the first official visit of an Israeli cabinet member to Bahrain, former Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was greeted with rare protests on the streets in Manama against Bahrain normalizing ties with Israel. Lapid was also welcomed by over 240 Bahraini Shia clerics signing a petition vehemently opposing “normalization with the Zionist enemy.”

Lacking any substantive peace efforts, the Accords have succeeded in helping exacerbate the increasingly dire state of Palestine

Winners take all in the Abraham Accords

Functionally, it does not matter if the Abraham Accords are popular. Leaders in autocracies maintain power largely by distributing resources to themselves and those who help them remain in power, which is not necessarily the broader populace. Although normalizing relations with Israel is categorically unpopular in Arab countries, leaders and their supporters in Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the UAE received considerable defense, economic, security, and political benefits from the deals, catering to the foreign policy preferences of elites within signatory states and the United States.

In the name of peace but lacking any substantive peace efforts, the Accords have systematically helped entrench Israel’s position of power over Palestinians, building ironclad ties with some of modern history’s (formerly) most vocal supporters of Palestine

Lacking any substantive peace efforts or demonstrable positives for everyday Arabs, the Accords have phenomenally succeeded in one major respect: helping exacerbate the increasingly dire state of Palestine. Most disappointing for Palestinians, in the name of peace, the Abraham Accords have systematically helped entrench Israel’s position of power over the Palestinians, building ironclad ties with some of modern history’s (formerly) most vocal supporters of Palestine.

Arab leaders, through signing the Abraham Accords, have symbolically abandoned the very principles of supporting Palestinian self-determination that they claim to hold dear. Unfortunately for them, truly supporting a solution to Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians would require a thorough reckoning with the very country they made lucrative agreements with. At the same time, this supposes that the Accords actually had peace in mind when they were written.

With enough power, or the support of those who could keep them in power, Arab leaders could move to implement wildly unpopular policies. The cost of cooperating with Israel necessitates on some level sidelining the Palestinians. It doesn’t need to be that way, but if the carrots are tempting enough, suddenly apartheid and occupation don’t seem so bad after all.

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