On September 15, 2020, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords on the White House lawn. Subsequently, Sudan and Morocco joined onto the accords agreeing to normalize relations with Israel.
A year later, from an Israeli point of view, the results are mixed in terms of the “fruits of peace,” as Israelis term the tangible gains of peace agreements. On the one hand, the Abraham Accords produced a series of precedents in bilateral relations and strengthened economic and business ties between the countries. On the other, the gains made on the political-military level, in strategic terms, fall short of Israeli expectations.
The Abraham Accords were a diplomatic breakthrough and historic milestone for Israel’s recognition and acceptance by its Arab neighbors. On the diplomatic level, the Abraham Accords breached the seemingly axiomatic principle that without first achieving a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Israel would not be able to reach any further peace agreements in the region.
Further, unlike Israel’s “cold” peace with Egypt and Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain have been proactive in establishing warm relations with Israel. Israeli tourists flocked to the Gulf on direct flights despite coronavirus restrictions and were received warmly on the streets of Abu Dhabi and Manama. Official government representatives on social media sent greetings to Israelis in Hebrew for the holidays. Ambassadors wrote articles praising the improved relations in the Israeli media. Think tanks and universities in Israel and the Gulf signed cooperation agreements. Israeli and Arab athletes competed against each other. And there were countless virtual Zoom meetings and personal initiatives.
In the economic sphere, too, the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain are a success story from an Israeli point of view. Israeli and Emirati entrepreneurs, with the help of their governments, established the Joint Business Council, and economic ties between the sides have been flourishing in technology, agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, tourism, and other fields. The volume of trade with the UAE soared from $50 million from January to June 2020 to $614 million in the same period of 2021, almost twice Israel’s trade volume with Jordan and Egypt combined. The pinnacle so far in economic ties has been the Emirati Mubadala Investment Company’s acquisition of part of Israel’s Tamar gas field.
And yet, one year after the signing of the accords, there seems to be a growing understanding in Israel that they have not yet changed the “rules of the game” on a strategic level in the region. The accords did not create a domino effect in Israel’s relations with Arab countries, and the anticipation of a breakthrough in relations with Saudi Arabia, the “crown jewel” as far as Israel is concerned, did not materialize. Despite significant interests in deepening ties with Israel, mainly in efforts to combat a similarly perceived threat from Iran and to help smooth relations with the U.S. administration, Saudi Arabia has hesitated to cross the Rubicon. As the sponsor of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and guardian of Muslim holy sites, it remains concerned with its status in the Arab world, given the extensive soft power and influence that goes with this position, and for stability at home.
Furthermore, while Israel was able to offer enticements to get the UAE to sign the accords – shelving annexation plans for West Bank territory and acquiescing to the United States’ sale of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi – Israel is having a hard time with efforts to offer equivalent incentives to the Saudis, who for their part are not likely to settle for less.
The Israeli security establishment traditionally fears arming Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in general with balance-tipping weaponry that could erode Israel’s qualitative military edge. Saudi Arabia’s looming size and proximity to Israel have traditionally sharpened those concerns. At the same time, the new government in Israel led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has declared that it will not hold negotiations with the Palestinians and is working to promote Israel’s ties with Jordan and Egypt, in part due to criticism that it neglected them in wake of the breakthrough with the Gulf states. Such a position, while it does not endanger existing Abraham Accords, makes it difficult for the Saudis to act on a new initiative. Also, in these circumstances, plans to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s custodianship status for Jerusalem’s holy places at the expense of Jordan as a potential incentive for the Saudis – if such plans indeed existed – are now completely out of the question.
Another aspect in which the normalization agreements apparently did not meet Israel’s expectations is the establishment of a unified front against the Iranian threat – a strategic vision that Bennett reemphasized in an interview in The New York Times on the eve of his August visit to Washington. Paradoxically, the Iranian threat and doubts as to the extent the United States can be relied on, which pushed the Gulf states toward Israel from the outset, are what now appear to be preventing the consolidation of a joint front to counter the regime in Tehran.
The perception of the United States seeking to reduce its presence in the Middle East has grown stronger in the past two years, with its failure to retaliate militarily against the September 2019 attacks reportedly conducted by Iran on Saudi oil refineries and its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran bluntly threatened the UAE and Bahrain to deter them from engaging in security cooperation with Israel in the Gulf.
Though security and intelligence ties between Israel and the Gulf states have likely grown over the past year, they remain beneath the surface, and the UAE has refrained from openly declaring any security cooperation with Israel, even in defensive aspects, such as missile defense. Moreover, in the face of Iran’s lengthening shadow, the Gulf states, led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have only stepped up talks with Iran in efforts to mitigate risks and reach security arrangements and understandings with Tehran.
Finally, Israel has been hoping to see the UAE (and Saudi Arabia) more involved in the Palestinian arena, by increasing support to the Palestinian Authority and replacing Qatar’s role in Gaza, especially after the last round of violence in May, which proved Qatar’s reluctance to leverage its assistance to restrain Hamas. But for their part, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh refuse to get dragged into the quagmire in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked organization.
While the Abraham Accords broke the Palestinian-driven Arab taboo regarding the advancement of relations between Israel and Arab states, the stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians is still a hindrance to expanding the circle of normalization. At the same time, the Iranian threat to the Gulf states, which drove their rapprochement with Israel, is also an obstacle to enhancing the strategic cooperation between the countries. Finally, the change in administration in Washington – President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s more cautious approach to the Gulf states and his desire to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, in tandem with long-standing sympathy among administration officials for a two-state solution – is forcing the parties to adopt a wait-and-see approach.
Under these circumstances, a year after the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel needs to augment its public and quiet political efforts, while leveraging its economic and diplomatic successes so far, to renew the momentum in its relations with the Gulf states.