Discreet relations already existed between all three countries and the ceremony in the White House merely marked the consummation of the surreptitious camaraderie.
By Prasanna Aditya*
The reasons for the signing of the ‘peace deal’ between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, known as the ‘Abraham Accords’ can be summarised in a single word: realpolitik. Discreet relations already existed between all three countries and the ceremony in the White House merely marked the consummation of the surreptitious camaraderie. Despite the denunciation of the pact, amongst the Palestinians, it holds great significance for peace in the Middle East and prefigures the consolidation of an anti-Turkey-Qatar alliance in the region. This deal is also expected to herald in an era of greater economic and technological engagement between Israel, the industrialised Gulf and other Arab states. This essay analyses the impacts of the deal for the economy and security of the region and also looks at what it means for the Palestinian struggle.
Enhanced economic engagement
The first Arab state to establish full relations with Israel was Egypt in the Camp David Accords of 1978. Cairo, under President Anwar Sadat, drew a barrage of opprobrium for making peace with the ‘Zionist Enemy.’ Camp David resulted in a moral boost for Tel Aviv as its foremost Arab enemy decided to abandon aggression and embrace friendship. To Egypt, a vital strategic relationship developed with the US and Cairo received millions of dollars every year in aid due to this. A similar peace agreement was signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994, following the Oslo Accords that promised a reconciliation between Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the eventual realisation of the two-state solution.
While Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt and Jordan led to an enhanced security cooperation, failed to deepen economic and people-to-people relations between the two states. In contrast, one of the main reasons for ‘normalisation’ with UAE and Bahrain is greater economic and technological cooperation. As the global price of oil plummets and UAE’s reserves of the resource dwindle, Abu Dhabi and Manama are looking to diversify their economic base. They stand to benefit from Israel’s sophisticated technological industry and particularly the state-of-the-art seawater-desalination knowhow. UAE, in its capacity as the most industrialised Arab state, and Israel, with its impressive technical prowess, have a great deal to gain from a deepening of their economic ties.
UAE also hopes to bolster its standing in the United States where several Congressmen and Senators were calling to impose sanctions on Abu Dhabi for its involvement in the civil war in Syria. Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) hopes that, in case the Democrats win the presidential elections later this year, nominee Joe Biden would not be antagonistic to UAE’s interests in the region. A stronger bilateral relation between Israel and UAE, guaranteed by the US is what Abu Dhabi seeks.
The security dimension
On the security front, all three signatories to the pact aim for the continued presence of American troops in the region. Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Bahrain and others in the region are beneficiaries of American military deployment in the Middle East. It tilts the power balance in the region in their favour and its withdrawal would leave these states to fend for themselves, an ominous prospect that none of them desire. Already, talks are underway between the US and UAE for the selling of F-35 fighter jets. Interoperability between the Gulf kingdoms and Israel facilitated by their common benefactor America, entrenches America’s security alliance in the region and also gives fresh impetus to the emerging anti-Turkish-Qatar coalition.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed out that the deal may signify a growing cooperation between Arab states and Israel to counter the threat posed by Iran. However, what has been receiving lesser attention is the fact that the pact might mean a consolidation of an anti-Turkey and anti-Qatar alliance in the Middle East. The greatest threat for the Arab monarchies comes not from Iran, but from a clamouring for democracy within. Saudi Arabia and UAE hardly dread anything more than the rise of political Islam in their countries. Turkey and Qatar have over time become ardent supporters of political Islam and have liaised with one another to aid and assist Islamist political groups in the region. Though the Gulf states have staved off the threat from political Islam for the time being by brutally suppressing the Arab spring protests early last decade, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assiduous efforts to revive the Islamists have irked them no end. Ankara is at odds with the Gulf regimes in the conflagration in Libya and the prolonged civil war in Syria. The Gulf states along with Egypt boycotted Qatar in 2017 for Doha’s backing of Islamists.
Turkey has also been vociferously speaking out against Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, irritating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel also prefers to engage with the Gulf monarchies rather than with the democratic political Islamists due to the latter’s connections with Hamas in Gaza. This overlapping security interests between UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel, supported and aided by a generous America would strengthen the security cooperation of this alliance. The threat of Iran, whilst an effective tool to convince pro-retrenchment congressmen in Washington, may not be as significant a cause for greater security relations between Israel and the Gulf states as a common dislike for Turkey and Qatar.
The Palestine question
The Arab Peace Initiative spearheaded by Saudi Arabia in 2002 laid out that the Arab states would normalise relations with Israel only when an independent Palestinian state is established. The Abraham Accords clearly contravene the provisions of that initiative. However, MbZ did not want to come across as blatantly apathetic to the Palestinian cause and instead claimed that he had secured a promise from Netanyahu to drop his plans of annexing the West Bank. Subsequent statements by Netanyahu clarified that he had only committed to the suspension of annexation rather than the abandonment of the plan. With protests against Netanyahu just having ended and trial against him for corruption ongoing, he would be reluctant to make any move that only panders to his far-right base and fails to appeal to the majority of the population. For good measure, Netanyahu’s rival Benny Gantz is waiting in the wings to seize his opportunity to outshine him.
On the other side, even if Netanyahu had agreed to abandon plans of annexation, there would still be good reason for the Palestinians to call this agreement a betrayal of their cause. Middle East expert Avi Shlaim pointed out in a recent article that “the creeping annexation of the West Bank has been going on for the last 53 years and the accord can do nothing to stop it,” and that Netanyahu’s recent plan to “formally annex roughly a third of the West Bank, including the settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, would be a unilateral and illegal land grab; he deserves no reward for putting it on hold.”
As far as Palestine is concerned, the accord signifies a decoupling of UAE’s relations with Israel and its commitment, or the lack of it, to a two-state solution. The Gulf states are tired of waiting for the venal Palestinian administration to negotiate with Israel over a solution to their conflict. Moreover, the potential for economic advancement is too great for the Gulf states to pass over in favour of ersatz concern for the plight of Palestinians. Ergo, the strife between Israel and Palestine will be one that can only be resolved through internal negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Some argue that normalisation of relations with Israel would give Arab states greater leverage over Tel Aviv and enable them to push more effectively for an expeditious resolution of the conflict. This argument is flawed chiefly for two reasons: First, Egypt and Jordan could do very little over the past few decades to facilitate cooperation between Israel and Palestine, let alone help achieve a solution. Palestinian resentment has only deepened, their internal schism (between PA and Hamas) widened and settlements in the West Bank only expanded. Second, all signs are that the UAE and Bahrain do not really give much importance to the Palestine question and have greater priorities in mind with regard to their engagement with Israel. Therefore, it can be surmised that whilst the Arab-Israeli conflict has thawed considerably, it has had no bearing on the continued tensions surrounding Israeli-Palestine conflict.
*Prasanna Aditya is Research Intern at ORF.