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Abraham Accords a Year On: Israel's Biggest Challenges Remain

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords in Washington on September 15, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords in Washington on September 15, 2020.Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP

The Abraham Accords, declared exactly one year ago with much fanfare, are a far cry from the grandstanding and bombastic “deal of the century” in the Middle East that Donald Trump promised to deliver.

The Palestinian issue and the reality of 13 million people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, with a near demographic equilibrium without borders as one geopolitical unit, weren’t addressed by the accords.

While the United States and the Abraham Accords can’t be faulted for failing to achieve anything on the Israeli-Palestinian issue – because neither side seems interested, willing or capable of entering a diplomatic process – you can’t absolve a U.S. administration that grandiosely markets a “peace plan” that ends up being neither peace nor a plan.

In the same way that Jerusalem wasn’t taken off the table once the United States rightly moved its embassy to Israel’s capital, the Middle East didn’t change when Trump recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Similarly and more ominously, the Palestinian issue hasn’t been dealt with at all and certainly hasn’t faded as a result of the Abraham Accords.

Still, the way to assess such agreements isn’t to compare grand promises and lofty hopes to deliverable and tangible results, but to examine the alternative of never having the agreement and to evaluate the upside. In that respect, the Abraham Accords were beneficial to Israel, particularly the normalization and expansion of ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and the renewal of ties with Morocco.

Essentially, the accords were a barter deal: The UAE will establish diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for a mega-multibillion-dollar arms deal with the United States, including advanced F-35 jets. Morocco will gradually normalize relations with Israel if the United States recognizes Moroccan claims in Western Sahara. That the accords were transactional doesn’t diminish the benefits for Israel.

Commercially, Israel’s ties with the UAE, Bahrain and conceivably Oman have been estimated by the RAND Corporation to be worth $100 billion over 10 years for all the economies involved. The potential for cooperation and investments in agricultural technology, energy, water, food security and national security could possibly exceed that sum.

Geopolitically, however, the Abraham Accords changed very little. Effectively, with the Palestinian Authority treating the accords as a total nonstarter, the deal became a joint statement on Israel, the UAE and Bahrain formalizing ties. Sudan then joined and Morocco announced a thaw in relations, short of full diplomatic relations. Important as all this is, it has only marginal effects on the Middle East ecosystem.

The accords set out an ambitious, bottom-up economic plan for the PA and a vague pledge for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. The PA never bothered to respond to the United States and considered the plan dead on arrival, based on the unacceptable delineations of future borders.

The Palestinians could have easily accepted the accords as a basis for negotiations and for a process with a different U.S. administration and a new government in Israel. But to the delight of then-Prime Minister Benjamin “I told you so” Netanyahu and the indifference of then-U.S. President “One state, two states, whatever they decide” Trump, the Palestinians predictably refused.

In this respect, the accords failed to ignite any movement, and with the United States gradually disengaging from the Middle East, Israel and the Palestinians are left to their own devices. It’s doubtful anything good can come of this.

The Abraham Accords weren’t designed to address the Iranian issue: Iran’s nuclear program or its nonnuclear, destabilizing activities throughout the region. But underlining the accords was an idea that there really is an “Israel-Sunni” anti-Iran coalition and that the normalization of relations with some Gulf states would be a force multiplier. However many times this approach was hailed in Israel, it’s very doubtful there ever was such a coalition, and the accords did nothing to create or solidify one.

True, Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have common interests vis-à-vis Iran. True, the F-35s contribute to the UAE’s deterrent capabilities, as they do to Israel’s. But unlike Israel, the Gulf states are in Iran’s neighborhood and they maintain a dialogue and open channels of communications with Tehran.

A broad perspective of the Abraham Accords leads to the conclusion that they failed to live up to the hype Trump tried to generate, and their regional impact was minimal. A narrower, more modest vantage point shows that in terms of relations with the UAE and Bahrain, the accords remain very valuable to Israel.

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