On the face of it, there’s a great deal of merit to the argument that the Abraham Accords — the sparse documents signed at the White House last week that bind the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to formal relations with Israel — amount to nothing even close to the Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization as the arrangement’s grand-sounding title would have us believe.
It’s all well and good that the Hilton Dubai, the Habtoor Palace Dubai, the Habtoor Polo Resort and a few other swish locales in the Persian Gulf states will now be offering selections from a kosher menu. It’s handy that Israelis will now be able to make direct telephone calls to friends in Bahrain, and it can’t hurt that ambassadors from both of these small but well-to-do Arab countries will soon take up residence in Tel Aviv, and vice-versa. But it’s a bit too easy to poke fun.
It’s true that for the most part, the arrangements merely formalize ties that have connected Israel with the Emirates and Bahrain for some years now. So is this really a sign of Arab-Israeli normalization and peace? What’s the big deal?
Gilead Sher, who served as Israel’s chief peace negotiator behind the Camp David Accords in the 1970s and was a key player in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, would like to think it is a big deal, “but there was never a real conflict here. There were no combat zones, no territorial disputes, no violence. This isn’t a historic breakthrough after a long, drawn-out negotiation, but merely a normalization of relations already over 25 years old.”
And yes, the role played by Donald Trump’s White House, and notably by Trump’s annoying son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will feature prominently in the Republican party’s efforts in these final weeks of the U.S. presidential election campaign to cast Trump as a respected international statesman. Trump’s campaign machine will be sure to favourably contrast his Abraham Accords accomplishment against former president Barack Obama’s contributions to Middle East peace.
This shouldn’t be particularly difficult. The Republicans will want to hang Obama’s legacy around the neck of Democratic party contender Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice-president, like a rotting albatross. That’s because Obama’s legacy in the Greater Middle East consists mainly of two rotten things.
First was his catastrophic decision to outsource U.S. policy in Syria to Moscow and Tehran, leading to a half million Syrian dead, roughly 10 million people bombed out of their homes and a wave of refugees greater than anything since the Second World War. Second, the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Obama’s preposterous nuclear rapprochement with Iran’s ayatollahs, has allowed the Khomeinists to run riot and rampage across Syria and Yemen and Lebanon and back again.
The Trump administration bailed from the JCPOA two years ago, and now the United Kingdom, France and Germany are left to defend the deal, even while Iran has violated each and every one of its terms and nuclear-enrichment limits. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are amused by the way things are working out. They’re perfectly content with it.
The conservative Hudson Institute’s formidable Michael Doran is not wrong to describe the conclusion of the Abraham Accords as “the most significant development in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the last 25 years.” But that’s mostly because there have been no significant developments to report. It’s been like a malignancy to be endured, rather than a pathology that might one day be cured. But Doran argues persuasively that while you can still take Trump to be a vulgarian from Queens if you like, the thing is, the argot Trump speaks is a dialect intelligible to the political language spoken by the thug regimes that dominate the Levant, the Maghreb, and the Persian Gulf.
And the happy result is that the region’s crippling stasis may well be breaking at last.
It would appear, again on the face of it, that the deal commits Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon his reckless election campaign proposition to annex swathes of the West Bank to incorporate the dubiously legal and unambiguously unhelpful Israeli settlements in ancient Judea and Samaria.
The idea caused the Palestinians to fly into fits of rage, as might be expected, and annexation is also not particularly popular with Israeli Jews, either. Everybody’s far more concerned with the rise in COVID-19 cases at the moment to get excited about much else, and anyway, just how the accords deal with Netanyahu’s annexation proposal is disputed.
In the English translation, the accords stipulate that Netanyahu’s annexation plans will be suspended, but in the Arabic version, stopped. The matter has not been clarified by Trump explaining that the annexation plan is “off the table” while Netanyahu has said annexation remains “on the table.” In any case, annexation is not now proceeding, and likely won’t be for a while, if ever. That’s no small thing.
Setting aside the accords’ contents, their function presents a clearer picture of what’s going on here.
For years, the Arab League has insisted that there can be no normalization with Israel unless and until the Palestinians are satisfied with a state of their own. This has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum to fester and stymie and disrupt relations between Israel and the League’s 22 Arab states, with no Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation in sight. The Abraham Accords promise to break the deadlock.
Until now, only Egypt and Jordan have maintained formal diplomatic ties with Israel, and with two more Arab states in the mix, the powerful Saudis have given Bahrain and the Emiratis their quiet blessing and they’re making noises that sound like they’d rather like to sign on, too. Around the region, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose party is ostensibly allied with the fire-breathing militants of the Khomeinist-backed Hezbollah, says he’s generally OK with it. The Tunisians say they’re not displeased. Sudan seems happy enough. Mauritania is fine with it. And round it goes like that.
The Palestinian leadership is livid. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassam roared that the agreement “serves the Zionist narrative” and “encourages the occupation … to continue its crimes against our people.” In Ramallah, Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, was just as furious. Pro-annexation Israeli settlers in the West Bank are angry, too. Netanyahu has taken their hope only to “bury it in the ground,” according to the leaders of Yesha, an organization representing more than 100 settlements.
Because its leadership failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn the UAE and Bahrain, on Tuesday, in protest, the Palestinian Authority stepped down from its six-month rotation in the league’s presidency. In Tehran, the Khomeinist response to it all has been as lurid as you might imagine: the accords carry a stigma that “will always be remembered,” and any Arab state that signs on will be “disgraced forever for this treachery against the Islamic world, Arab nations and Palestine.”
It’s in Tehran’s response that the bigger story is told. The Arab states, weary enough with the Palestinian leadership’s habitual rejectionism, have had it up their eyeballs with Khomeinist mischief and mayhem in the region. So have the Americans. So have the Israelis. And at long last, something’s being done about it.
That’s what makes the Abraham Accords a big deal.