While there is reason to be pleased and relieved by the Abraham Accords, it is also wise to curb one’s enthusiasm.
The Abraham Accord between Israel and the UAE brought many of us a much-needed sigh of relief. The pressures for unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, which seemed imminent and would have been extremely costly — to moving toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to Israel’s own self-understanding as a democracy and to Israel’s standing internationally — have been averted for now.
It should be clearly stated that Israel deserves diplomatic recognition by other states; it should not be one of the only states in the world upon whom conditions are set for normal relations. All the Arab states in the region refused to recognize Israel upon its establishment, even before its post-1967 occupation of the West Bank. Meanwhile, other states with disputed or occupied territory and who refuse independence to ethnic populations are not similarly ostracized: Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran refuse independence to Kurds; Morocco occupies Western Sahara; Turkey occupies northern Cyprus and settles Turkish citizens there. There should be no double standard when it comes to Israel.
Having said that, the recognition of Israel by the UAE is praiseworthy on several fronts. It solidifies the growing relations between Israel and several Gulf states over the past decade, partially motivated by a common interest in balancing Iran. Security and intelligence relations began between the Mossad with their counterparts in the 1970s. Relations strengthened after the Oslo Accords and came into public view in the past few years.
For instance, the Israeli anthem, “Hatikvah”, was played when an Israeli won the gold medal at Abu Dhabi’s international judo championship in 2018. The Bahrain National Orchestra played the Israeli national anthem at an interfaith gathering in 2017 at the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. King Hamad of Bahrain also denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and said his subjects were free to visit Israel. In this way, official recognition by the UAE is the culmination of a process growing over several years in the region.
While there is reason to be pleased and relieved by the Abraham Accords, it is also wise to curb one’s enthusiasm. While it is possible that other countries such as Bahrain or Sudan may follow suit, most countries in the region will not until Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The Saudis and the Moroccan prime minister have reiterated that their normalization with Israel will depend on such an agreement. The main internationally recognized paradigm for normalization, ratified repeatedly by the Arab League, is the Saudi 2002 land-for-peace plan. The 2013 version was based on 1967 borders with swaps.
Therefore, the Abraham Accord is not a substitute for the land for peace deal with the Palestinians. The Accord itself, while motivated by the UAE’s desire for scientific and economic cooperation with Israel and to balance Iran, was also partially intended to leave the door to a two-state solution open by averting unilateral annexation. This is not a “peace-for-peace” deal; it is conditioned on no annexation of land.
The UAE views its support of a two-state solution as not only ultimately supporting Palestinian statehood, but also weakening Iran and its bloc, including Hamas, which is also supported by the UAE’s rival Qatar. The UAE has heavily supported Mohammad Dhalan of Fatah’s Democratic Reform Bloc, some of whose members were expelled from the West Bank in 2011. Dhalan is an adviser to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and rumored by some Fatah leaders to have sanctioned the Abraham Accord to facilitate his succeeding the 84-year-old Abbas. Dhalan, however, does not have broad support among Palestinians.
In order to capitalize on the Abraham Accord, other states in the region should play a more constructive role, providing incentives for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to move toward a genuine, negotiated peace. These incentives can make compromises more palatable for the respective domestic audiences and can also provide cover for leaders, who can point to those external pressures to explain their compromises. In the long term, extensive real normalization will still ultimately depend on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations.
We will also see in the coming months whether the UAE will receive F-35 fighter jets from the United States as a possible dividend from this deal. The U.S. recently removed export restrictions on armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and the UAE would be interested in varying its armed UAV fleet. Apparently, Netanyahu did not consult with his Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi or his Defense Minister Benny Gantz on the agreement; thus the military establishment never weighed in on what appears to be a link to the UAE receiving F-35 jets.
White House Special Advisor Jared Kushner said that “this new peace agreement should increase the probability of [the UAE] getting F-35s.”
The perceived danger of Iran, shared by Israel and other states in the region, facilitates opportunities for further cooperation. But it is also makes clear the need to include the Palestinians in the process: such a peace agreement will further diminish Iran’s influence as the leader of the “reject Israel” camp, as well as recognizing the right to self-determination and peace for both peoples.
Leaders in each country will make the crucial difference in deciding whether this peace deal is capitalized upon to move toward genuine acceptance of Israel in the region and, necessarily, Palestinian statehood.
Yael Aronoff is the director of the Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel,Serling Chair of Israel Studies, and associate professor at James Madison College and the Serling Institute at Michigan State University.