The recent thaw in relations seems to be a positive step for these former regional adversaries toward deepening ties, but unresolved political conflicts may continue to fester.
As the series of bilateral agreements that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan concluded with Israel in 2020 reach their first anniversary, analysts and key former U.S. government officials feel the Abraham Accords are durable because of their basis in sovereignty, national interest, and transaction. That focus “psychologically changed the discussion,” said David Welch, former ambassador to Egypt as well as a member of the board of directors of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He noted that it allowed individual countries, with the UAE in the lead, to reassess the hierarchy of interests that had previously guided decision making, shaped in particular by Palestinian interests unrelated to these countries, and enabled states to give primacy to their national interests. The agreements are likewise durable because they built on years of behind-the-scenes and multilateral activities with Israel, in some cases reaching near de facto relations.
Slow and Steady Progress
Former Ambassador to Egypt and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne W. Patterson expressed deep satisfaction with the Abraham Accords, as getting countries to establish ties with Israel had been a goal of U.S. foreign policy for years. However, regarding potential further development, Welch, also a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said he was not “wildly exuberant” but believed the continuing focus on individual national interests would allow each set of bilateral relations to continue developing organically, at its own pace. Progress would likely be slow and steady, in most cases, and would likely remain limited to the four countries in the current accords. Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel, did not see another country that seemed likely to follow suit.
Saudis Unlikely to Join
None of these former officials believed Saudi Arabia was likely to follow suit and start a process to normalize relations with Israel, in the short or intermediate term. Some pointed to King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s traditional Arab nationalist tendencies as a brake on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s room for maneuver on this issue. Others noted Mohammed bin Salman’s transactional leanings. “He will want something huge in return,” noted one former official, who continued “it’s difficult to see what that would be.” More tellingly, Gerald M. Feierstein, former ambassador to Yemen as well as senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, said the Saudis, seeing themselves as guardians of Islam’s holy places of Mecca and Medina, will be unlikely to jeopardize the extensive soft-power influence that comes with such a leadership position – or create openings for Turkey or Iran to usurp that role – in order to make an agreement with Israel. Nonetheless, below-the-radar cooperation with Israel, focused primarily on security, will likely continue.
Progress Durable Despite Gaza Violence
While there seemingly won’t be any new states signing up to the accords, the four states already party to the agreements seem poised to continue measured progress. They had faced a serious challenge from the violence in Jerusalem and Gaza in May, but the unrest seemed to have tested and tempered the agreements rather than weakening them.
Accords’ Impact on Palestinian Issue Assessed
Some of these analysts and former officials believe the agreements, particularly the UAE’s, will give these states a degree of influence on Israeli calculations and even decision making regarding the Palestinians. Several acknowledged, nonetheless, that Palestinians felt abandoned by these agreements and, as one former official put it, “furious” at how things had developed. Several expressed the view that, however difficult it would prove, Palestinians and their leadership in the coming months and years would need to absorb the reality of the Abraham Accords and reshape their struggle for an independent Palestinian state.
In the Gulf states, leaders who themselves might still harbor resentment at the Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein decades ago (in the run-up to the invasion of Kuwait) would need to take into account extensive, lingering public or “street” support for Palestinian aspirations for statehood, these officials asserted, support that could spike significantly in times of crisis in Israel and the Palestinian territories in ways that could erode support for the agreements. Kurtzer, now teaching at Princeton, expressed dismay at some of the strategic choices Palestinians had made over the years, which had put them in a weak position to absorb the realities of four additional states in the region making peace with Israel. He added that many Israelis, anxious to move past the Palestinian issue definitively, were trying to endow the accords with a strategic weight that could “change the essential nature” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He viewed such an approach as “mistaken and wrong.”
Biden Administration’s Cautious Support
Besides weathering the stresses from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Deputy National Security Advisor James F. Jeffrey noted the accords had weathered a change in U.S. administration, an indication of exceptionally broad bipartisan support in an otherwise highly polarized political environment in the United States that rendered it highly unlikely (but undeniable) that a flagship achievement by the administration of former President Donald J. Trump would be left intact. Patterson observed that the team of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., despite tacit support, had done little thus far to actually support the agreements, although she assessed the new administration had at least signaled to the Moroccans it did not intend to reverse the decision recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Important, But “No Camp David”
Asked to put the Abraham Accords in historical and regional perspective, analysts and officials offered a number of key points: First, in comparison with the 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accords, which were described as momentous and paradigm breaking (and which caused huge levels of “angst” and Arab states’ “vituperation” directed at Egypt), the Abraham Accords are seen as “more of an evolution,” as Gordon Gray, former U.S. ambassador to Tunisia and current chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress, put it. Ronald E. Neumann, former ambassador to Afghanistan and current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, noted that these agreements were not of the same order of magnitude as the Camp David accords; the current set of agreements “bring peace between states that were never at war,” unlike Egypt and Israel.
Impact in the Neighborhood
In terms of impact on the neighborhood, most analysts and officials assessed that chapter is still being written. Jeffrey suggested that with the Biden team stung over its handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would be motivated to counter any “cut and run” narratives as it moved forward with policies in the region. Working “by, with, and through” allies and partners in the region would be critical to that effort and the Abraham Accords would be a useful tool in this regard. Some analysts also see Morocco poised for trilateral improved relations with the UAE and Israel, in a manner that could impact regional alignments in ways that would benefit the three countries.
Kurtzer also saw the possibility the accords, or least the ones with the UAE and Bahrain, could be an asset in an effort for a broader “regional configuration” to deal with Iran. For now, Kurtzer thought the Biden team would be totally focused on “getting that Iranian nuclear program stopped in its tracks,” as it was before the Trump administration pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018, even if Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pitches such a regional configuration in current or future visits to Washington. But Kurtzer thought the Gulf-focused accords – with the UAE as the anchor and “perhaps the Saudis as a silent partner” could down the line serve as the basis for some creative strategic thinking about how better to manage Iranian influence and destabilizing activity, either as “an adjunct” to JCPOA 2.0 or “as a Plan B” if those negotiations foundered. Although he acknowledged it remained a bit unclear how such a configuration would work in practice.
UAE Maneuvering in the Region
AGSIW senior resident scholar Kristin Smith Diwan assessed that at least thus far the Emiratis had played – and would likely continue to play – a more subtle, or at least more multipolar, game. The UAE viewed Israel as a “big regional player.” Aligning with the Israelis enhanced Emirati deterrence of Iran, but this was not something the UAE had chosen – or needed – to highlight. This alignment with Israel, noted Diwan, also strengthened the UAE’s regional positioning. Ever “the middle power,” the UAE “was good at pursuing multiple partnerships” to put itself in the best position in the neighborhood, without being dependent on any one power, she observed. Welch made a related point, insisting the Emiratis would “stick to the Abraham Accords but will be quite resilient in the way they approach Iran.” He suggested the Israelis would have to understand the Emiratis may need to pivot dynamically, in diplomatic terms, given their proximity to Iran and the looming shadow the Islamic Republic casts over small Gulf neighbors.
Other Regional Impact, One Year In
Some former officials expressed skepticism that the accords could have a broader regional impact, given the mess the Middle East is in, as Neumann put it, ticking off trouble spots in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Yemen (as well as nearby Afghanistan). “Most Arab countries are self-absorbed with their own problems,” he noted. The level of conflict and dysfunction was so great, according to some observers, that it was difficult to see how even dramatic progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track – which these accords did not represent – would have broad regional impact, the way many believed it would just a few decades ago.
Gulf States’ Perennial Jockeying for Primacy, Influence
Some officials also found it helpful – in assessing the one-year anniversary – to view the Abraham Accords through the prism of Gulf states perennially jockeying for primacy, influence, and freedom of movement, and to protect each royal family’s hold on power. One former official noted, for example, Bahraini concerns about falling too much into the smothering embrace of the Saudis, as a continuing motivation for Manama’s outreach to Israel. Reaching an accord with Israel, in tandem with the UAE, also helped improve the Bahraini royal family’s ties with their royal counterparts in Abu Dhabi (and Dubai), a likewise persistent backbeat in Bahraini royals’ calculations. Diwan pointed to related Bahraini motivations stemming from concerns that planned Saudi economic moves could hurt Manama’s comparative economic advantage in specific sectors. Another discerned in Emirati actions an effort at quiet UAE distancing – particularly in Washington – from Riyadh, as Emirati leaders “read Hill sensitivities and those of the White House” in ways that allowed them to hedge their Saudi equities to enhance their influence.
Economics to Define Post-Anniversary Progress
Of the four agreements, the UAE-Israel accord attracts the most attention for its potential mutual economic benefits and congruences. Observers see the UAE poised to proceed in sectors where it sees economic advantage, such as health, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and other high-tech areas. Unlike the UAE, Morocco is less well positioned for such a technology focus or economic breakout, but hopes to benefit from ramped-up tourism, observed Gray. Some analysts and officials believe that in obtaining U.S. recognition of its sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, Morocco had obtained all that it really wanted from reaching an accord with Israel; any economic benefits were of secondary importance, at best.
Surveying the accords and the regional landscape, the interesting question that remains is how the focus in each on national interest calculations continues to enhance their durability, even as Israeli-Palestinian dynamics will continue to test them periodically. The next chapter, how they might be able to play a more extensive role in regional security, remains to be written.
is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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