September 21, 2020 – Three of this century’s most destructive and devastating conflicts are playing out in the Middle East—in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. A peace-signing ceremony is held at the White House to mark, in the words of President Trump, “the dawn of a new Middle East.” So, some offering of hope for Syria, Yemen, or Libya? Sorry, got nothing at all for you (although the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, and Israel are between them active in all three of those conflict zones).
Since its establishment, Israel has fought in at least six wars involving various Arab states, with perhaps another five if one includes two campaigns against Palestinian intifadas and periodic escalations with Gaza and the devastation wrought there. These wars have, cumulatively, involved tens of thousands of casualties.
Did Tuesday’s ceremonial treaty signings at least lay some of that to rest? Er, hate to break it to you, but again, nada.
The UAE and Bahrain have now signed the so-called Abraham Accords on the White House lawn, committing to normalize and conduct mutually expansive relations with Israel that would far exceed the ongoing limited exchanges Israel has with Egypt and Jordan. But the UAE and Bahrain have never been at war with Israel, never so much as fired a shot in anger against Israel; they have no unresolved territorial or other dispute, and their capitals are 1,260 miles and 1,000 miles, respectively, from Jerusalem.
Yes, they are two Arab states, but they are also Arab states that have had long-standing and deepening cooperation with Israel; they are geopolitically aligned. To protest that such a characterization is curmudgeonly is to feign ignorance. It is to miscategorize the codification of an existing reality as being a breakthrough toward forging a new reality. More importantly, it misappropriates the very idea of conflict resolution and peace, applying it to a development that advances neither.
That Donald Trump was able to package and market as “peace” the upgrading of bilateral relations between countries not party to any conflict is galling; that leading Democrats parroted that spin is troubling.
Increasing dialogue and improving relations between countries is in general a good thing and should be encouraged. Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are certainly at liberty to do that. But in addition to the excessive extravagance with which an event of such limited consequence was inflated, it is the stated uses to which the key protagonists intend to put these new relations that should be a cause for concern.
In a region rife with conflicts, many of which the parties signatory to Tuesday’s agreement are involved in (less so Bahrain), these new deals do nothing by way of advancing peace in any arena.
THE UAE AND ISRAEL in recent years have carried out military strikes, backed or led coups and counterrevolutions, and undermined democratic transitions in the territory of at least ten other states that are recognized as members of the Arab League (Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Sudan, and Tunisia, in addition to Bahrain itself and arguably Qatar). In none of these do the UAE and Israel find themselves on opposing sides. None of these places will benefit from the agreements signed.
The Abraham Accords are best understood as reflecting and formalizing rather than changing realities in the region. In that respect, the repercussions emanating from these accords are minimal. But to the extent that the impact may be more widely felt, it is likely to be negative, both with regard to the deepening fault lines and conflicts in the region as a whole and vis-à-vis Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Israel’s relations with certain Gulf states are not of recent vintage. Already at the launching of the Arab-Israeli Madrid talks in 1991 there was a Gulf presence, and the Oslo process between Israel and the PLO added further momentum. In the 1990s, Gulf states were part of joint regional working groups and hosted official delegations from Israel.
Israel and the Emirates forged a particularly close, albeit mostly covert, set of working relations. Those relations took on added urgency and occasional visibility during episodic regional crises, notably after the 2011 uprisings put Israel and the UAE (as well as Bahrain and others) in the same counterrevolutionary camp, most prominently in supporting and even helping to engineer the 2013 coup in Egypt.
Israel has been conducting direct sales of military equipment to the UAE for approximately a decade; it has been active in providing the UAE’s leadership with state-of-the-art spyware (actively used against both domestic dissidents and foreign adversaries). The two nations conducted joint military exercises already in 2016 and in the last two years, prior to the formalization of relations, and at least three Israeli government ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party undertook public official visits to the UAE.
So, the newly signed accords should not really come as a surprise to anyone, least of all the Palestinians. The often-heard accusation of Arab betrayal may come from a place of genuine anguish, but it also implies a pre-existing condition of meaningful Arab solidarity in attaining Palestinian rights.
A pan-Arab approach to Palestine was always tenuous and definitively collapsed at least four decades ago when the most important frontline state, Egypt, went solo in reaching a peace treaty with Israel.
Since then, and with more intensity especially post-9/11 and again after 2011, the basic modus operandi for a cluster of Arab states has been to hide behind rhetorical consensus in the Arab League while pursuing bespoke bilateral approaches to relations with Israel.
Once it was clear that an Arab front was unwilling or unable to deliver a sufficient threat to Israel for it to move toward granting Palestinians freedoms, another tactic was used. That was the notion of offering Israel incentives around normalization in exchange for ending the occupation, as was ultimately set out in the Arab Peace Initiative adopted in March 2002. The Israeli response to that initiative proved that normalization was an insufficient incentive for Israel to be willing to pay a price in the currency of Palestinian rights and freedoms.
These new Israel-Gulf agreements undoubtedly feel debilitating for Palestinians and carry the threat of more subversive interference in Palestinian internal affairs. But if they inadvertently help lay to rest that zombie Arab politics of the last century, that could help nurture more effective future Palestinian political strategizing.
A Palestinian struggle focused on rights and equality could be successful where an increasingly technocratic state-building project under Oslo was not. While that is unlikely to find favor with regimes in the region set against those universal values, the notions of justice, freedom, and equality do resonate with Arab publics just as they do elsewhere on our planet, including for Palestinians. Israel’s collusion with Arab authoritarians brings together the denial of enfranchisement to Palestinians under occupation and in refugee camps with that of vast swathes of the Arab populace denied their own freedoms. As the Black Lives Matter movement is demonstrating in America, systems based on and entrenching injustice are inherently prone to fundamental challenge and upheaval. That is equally true in the Middle East and of the Palestine-Israel reality.
The current Palestinian leadership is undoubtedly divided and lacking in vision and strategy; but that should not be confused with a Palestinian willingness to accept a permanent second-class status. Palestinian resilience is real, which makes Israel’s evisceration of the two-state option a high-risk gamble.
The postponement by Israel of de jure annexation in the West Bank in exchange for Emirati normalization is nowhere referenced as a treaty commitment. The accords do nothing to address the ongoing entrenchment of de facto permanent Israeli control and occupation, the separate and unequal application of laws, and denial of basic Palestinian rights. There are simply no Israeli deliverables to improve the Palestinian situation. History does not support the idea that Arab states in peaceful relations with Israel are better placed to press the Palestinian case, or indeed to pressure the Palestinians into signing a deal for permanent subjugation.
A key domestic marketing point of this agreement inside Israel is its strengthening of Israel’s ability to never compromise with the Palestinians. It is designed (including in the actual text of the agreement signed by the UAE) to advance the Trump plan of January 2020, a plan conspicuous in its denigration of Palestinians and normalization of an apartheid project. The upshot of these accords: Israel’s extremists are being further empowered.
Netanyahu’s claim that “peace for peace” has replaced “land for peace” is not credible, but it is a powerful piece of spin, now difficult to dislodge in the Israeli narrative. Land for peace drove the first agreement between Israel and Egypt and, to an extent, Israel’s peace with Jordan.
Israelis may, over time, discover that the alternative to “land for peace” with the Palestinians is not “peace for peace” but “equality for peace.”
A prominent feature of the accords is that they guarantee, and are indeed predicated on, yet more significant sales of offensive weaponry, principally by the U.S. to the regional powers involved. In addition to further feathering the nests of the military-industrial complex, this will inevitably increase the appetite for more weaponry across the region and potentially for it to be put to use.
The accords risk accelerating zero-sum thinking and escalation in an already deeply conflicted region, rather than empowering problem-solving diplomacy and de-escalation. The only scenario in which this could conceivably advance a solution to the region’s various conflicts would be if this tips the scales in favor of a decisive victory by an American-backed Israeli/Emirati/Saudi camp. That is extremely unlikely to prevail and would entail war and bloodshed on an even more massive scale, with direct American engagement.
To imagine that the Iranian-led axis or Turkish-led axis would look at this week’s developments and conclude that they had better fold, withdraw, and pursue a Versailles Treaty of surrender is to be either Pollyannaish or plain ignorant of regional realities.
Far more likely, the Gulf partners to these deals and their Saudi ally are looking for an American-Israeli insurance policy, as their regional project appears to be flailing in the face of Iranian- and Turkish-led opposition. For the Trump administration, having tried and failed to conjure up an Arab NATO, these accords could be seen as helping to cement a local military alliance and deliver normalization for Israel in advance of a further American pivot away from the Middle East. By contrast, Israel and the UAE, in particular, are positioning themselves in relation to this wavering U.S. commitment to the region, probably under any administration, and are hoping that jointly they are better positioned to keep America knee-deep in the Middle Eastern quagmire.
Interestingly, despite being locked in this new embrace, both the UAE and Israel show at least some signs of maintaining their respective hedging strategies. The UAE maintains open channels to its powerful neighbor in Iran. Israel, for its part, maintains channels of communication to Qatar. The Qataris have been contributing to actual conflict prevention with their interventions in Gaza, something Israel has become somewhat dependent on. The new Israeli-Emirati partnership might find most to agree on when it comes to their shared antipathy toward Turkey.
IF THIS WEEK’S unmasked pomp and ceremony on the White House lawn was not driven by concerns for peace, what was it about? That at least is easy to answer. With under 50 days to go to an election, President Trump could notch up an achievement to his name and then magnify it out of all proportion, with a credible enough and very willing support cast. Netanyahu could escape COVID lockdowns, protests, and impending court trials at home to enjoy a moment of unalloyed adulation from his American fan club of conservatives, dispensationalist evangelicals, and right-wing Jews, and remind his domestic base why he is still their guy.
Why Democrats and seasoned commentators would want to be part of the chorus line for these shenanigans speaks to an enduring, albeit partly eroding, feature of American political life. Anything to do with Israel is too often still viewed through an exceptionalist lens, which can be as suffocating as it is jaw-dropping. Only that exceptionalism can explain Democratic willingness to give Donald Trump and Jared Kushner a free pass over a fake peace.
That is more than regrettable, for it ill serves both American national-security interests and Middle East peacemaking (the genuine kind). If anyone imagines they just witnessed a Trump-led ceremony ushering in a new, more peaceful Middle East, then I have a magical cure for COVID to sell you; it’s based on a recipe of chickpea, tahini, lemon, and olive oil …
Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project, established in 1994 by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) under the direction of Henry Siegman, a senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council. In 2006, the U.S./Middle East Project became an independent policy institute. Its mission is to provide non partisan analysis of the Middle East peace process and to present policymakers in the United States, in the region and in the larger international community with balanced policy analysis and policy options to prevent conflict and promote stability, democracy and economic development throughout the region. www.usmep.us
This piece was originally published in The American Prospect: https://prospect.org/world/missing-peace-in-abraham-accords-israel-uae/