The Gaza war has demonstrated the strategic utility and resilience of the detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, its longer-term sustainability may depend on unpredictable regional dynamics or other outside factors.
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For Israel, the Abraham Accords were a monumental milestone. Not only did the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan agree to normalize relations with Israel, but the Abraham Accords embodied a peace-for-peace formula that bypasses Israeli concessions. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in June 2021, the “Abraham Accords enabled us to get out of the equation of land for peace to peace for peace, and we did not give up a span.” In addition to the strategic calculus that led key Gulf countries to join the Abraham Accords, the accords represented a strategic victory for Israel, helping to mold an Arab-Israeli political landscape that facilitates engagement with Saudi Arabia – its core diplomatic target. Keeping the accords alive may also be a way to try to alleviate some domestic political pressure resulting from judicial reforms advanced by the right-wing governing coalition.
However, following the rise of extremists to top positions in the Israeli government led by Netanyahu, and intensifying Israeli military raids in the West Bank, there has been speculation that Abu Dhabi and Manama could cut ties with Israel. The collapse of the Abraham Accords is unlikely but so too is the prospect of other Gulf Cooperation Council states joining the accords. The Israeli government has its hands full trying to maintain its newly forged official relationships, and Israel must keep the accords alive if it wants to keep the peace-for-peace paradigm alive. To keep the accords alive, Israel is employing three strategies.
Gulf States Aren’t Joining, but Other Muslim States Are In
Given the unlikelihood of other GCC states entering the Abraham Accords anytime soon, Israel is attempting to bring other Muslim-majority states into the “circle of peace.” Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister, is reportedly working to normalize relations with Mauritania, Somalia, Niger, and Indonesia. However, there have been few public signs of progress. Israel’s ambitions to expand the Abraham Accords to Indonesia – the most populous Muslim-majority country – were set back when the governor of Bali refused entry to Israel’s under-20 national football, or soccer, team, a local government decision that nonetheless suggests Indonesian reluctance to normalize relations with Israel.
Following an April 19 visit to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, two Muslim-majority countries bordering Iran, Cohen said, “In the past, we at the Foreign Ministry emphasized the Persian Gulf countries in an effort to expand the Abraham Accords, as well as African nations … With this visit … we are expanding into the Eurasia region.” Beyond indicating Israel’s pivot to Muslim countries outside the Gulf, Cohen’s statement suggests that Israel views the Abraham Accords as encompassing two spheres: the core, dominated by Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, and the periphery, non-Arab Muslim-majority states. Since normalization with Saudi Arabia is not likely anytime soon, Israel’s diplomatic effort to preserve the accords is focused on the periphery.
Amplifying People-to-People Contacts
Israel’s second strategy for preserving the Abraham Accords is expanding tacit Israeli-GCC cooperation. While official relations between Israel and the GCC states that have not signed the Abraham Accords remain distant, Israel will likely attempt to expand people-to-people engagement and media outreach in the Gulf.
Israel’s effort to amplify these interactions will be helped by the push by Gulf states to become an international hub hosting global events that Israel and Israelis are bound to participate in. An Israeli athlete competed in a triathlon in Saudi Arabia in October 2022, a judo match between Saudi and Israeli women at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics received significant attention, and, most recently, an Israeli team was in Riyadh for the FIFAe World Cup.
Israeli television channels frequently host Gulf academics and analysts (typically Emirati based) to discuss the potential for the Abraham Accords to thrive with the UAE and Bahrain and the prospects for the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. For example, in an interview with i24news, a UAE-based “peace activist” said, “I think normalization is a matter of time.” Notably, Israeli media outlets amplify Gulf supporters of the Abraham Accords but allocate far less airtime, if any, to Gulf skeptics of the accords. Israeli-centric discourses often portray interactions with these Gulf supporters as signs of imminent normalization between other Gulf states and Israel, likely overstating their significance; nonetheless, they are still meaningful in the effort to build people-to-people ties. Amplifying Israeli-Gulf interactions will only become more important for Israel going forward, as the Israeli government works to advance its announced strategic objectives in the face of domestic political turmoil and increased violence with the Palestinians.
The third Israeli strategy for keeping the Abraham Accords alive is inducing strategic speculation. Israeli officials (and others) do so by suggesting that more official cooperation or “breakthroughs” with Gulf states are on the horizon. In turn, such speculation can be politicized or even framed to inaccurately portray the Abraham Accords as vibrant and expanding. While business between the countries has continued, the Abraham Accords have become increasingly unpopular in the Gulf streets, and doubts over the merits of the Abraham Accords as a framework for regional peace have also increased.
When Netanyahu delivered his first speech as the head of the current coalition, he identified four overarching policy objectives, one of which was to “dramatically expand the circle of peace,” an implicit reference to normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia. In March, Saudi Arabia effectively blocked the Israeli foreign minister’s planned trip to a United Nations event hosted in the kingdom, which Israel would have likely framed as historic had it occurred. Nevertheless, while in Azerbaijan weeks later, Cohen claimed that a visit to Saudi Arabia “is on the table,” keeping speculation around a visit to Saudi Arabia alive despite Israeli officials admitting that Riyadh prevented Cohen’s trip in March.
Israel’s strategy of creating speculation received a boost after Senator Lindsey Graham’s April meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which he made despite promising after the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to never visit Saudi Arabia as long as Mohammed bin Salman was in power. Graham added to the speculation about Israeli-Saudi normalization when he justified his about-face by saying, “I’ve been talking with the Biden administration about working with Saudi Arabia … to build on the Abraham Accords.”
The small wave of speculation set off by Graham’s comments served as an opportunity for Cohen to claim the issue of direct flights for Muslim Israeli pilgrims to Saudi Arabia was “under discussion” – despite Saudi Arabia giving no signs that an agreement was forthcoming – and he said that he was “optimistic that we can advance peace with Saudi Arabia.” Israeli officials were hopeful that the U.S. government would help facilitate flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Israeli Muslims and Muslims from the West Bank. This attempt to politicize the hajj and use it as a milestone to get both countries officially closer was not accommodated by the Saudi government. Nevertheless, Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi said, “Perhaps in the next Hajj we will be in a position for this to happen.”
Future visits by U.S. officials to the kingdom may similarly be framed as a push toward advancing the Abraham Accords. Such visits will likely be accompanied by a flurry of speculative reports regarding the expansion of the Abraham Accords, irrespective of the likelihood of Saudi Arabia actually joining the accords in the near future. For example, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gave a speech May 4 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy shortly before traveling to Saudi Arabia. Sullivan stated that “getting to full normalization” between Israel and Saudi Arabia “is a declared national security interest of the United States,” spurring a flurry of speculative headlines regarding Sullivan’s trip to the kingdom and U.S. efforts to facilitate Israeli-Saudi normalization. But despite the media hype, the White House readout of Sullivan’s meeting in Saudi Arabia did not even mention Israel.
U.S. officials have acknowledged the trend of reports about the expansion of the Abraham Accords to other Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, containing more speculation than substance. On May 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said there is “a lot of misreporting and hyperventilation in the press … especially in the Israeli press” about a supposedly imminent Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement. Likewise, an anonymous U.S. official reportedly called Israeli reports about normalization negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia “laughable.”
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia recently signed an agreement permitting Israeli officials to attend a UNESCO event to be held in Saudi Arabia in September. While some Israeli officials are still worried that Saudi officials may try to make it difficult for Israeli officials to visit, this nevertheless speaks to a process of more Saudi-Israeli interaction and subsequently likely more sensational headlines. Since Saudi Arabia is growing in agency and striving to become an international hub for events and commerce, it cannot officially boycott an Israeli presence, so this then begs the question of whether these Israeli-Saudi exchanges are due to Israeli diplomacy and growing bilateral relations or if they are just an effect of globalization that Israel is benefiting from. Either way, such exchanges will be spun and framed as a success of the Abraham Accords by Israeli officials.
Israel’s Core Diplomatic Target Remains Out of Range
Since the ushering in of the current Israeli far-right government, violence between Palestinians and Israelis has increased and will mostly likely continue. This may be the most significant test that the almost three-year-old Abraham Accords have faced yet. While Gulf governments have issued statements of condemnation, there have yet to be any indications that either the UAE or Bahrain is rethinking its strategic decision to join the accords. Nonetheless, given tensions inside Israel and the West Bank, this Israeli government will have its work cut out for it to preserve the peace-for-peace foundation of the Abraham Accords and find ways to persuade other key Gulf and Arab-majority countries it is in their interest to join the accords. Meanwhile, formal diplomatic engagement and normalization with Saudi Arabia, Israel’s core diplomatic target, remains out of range.
is a Saudi researcher and fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project.
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