By Muneer Ahmad*
On 13 August 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel signed the watershed Abraham Accord—the peace agreement to formalise bilateral diplomatic relations. It marks a major turn of events in West Asia. Washington announced the deal with optimism, and it drew strong criticism from Palestine.
The fundamental clauses of the deal include UAE recognising Israel as a state, and Israel halting annexation of parts of the West Bank. While the formal recognition clause is final, assurances on the halting of annexation are weak. The deal may have stalled immediate annexation but the status quo will persist in terms of a gradual annexation of the Palestinian territories. Sharp criticism from Palestinians was inevitable, but Washington’s optimism for broader regional peace is also overstated. The concrete benefits are likely to be bilateral, for the UAE and Israel, and will pertain to balancing Iran.
Israel and Palestine: No Change in Status Quo
The West Bank has been under gradual occupation via illegal Israeli settlements. This has reduced the chances of Palestinian statehood and realisation of the “two state solution” envisioned in the Oslo Accords to almost unlikely. The status quo of steady annexation may continue with ease despite peaceful proclamations made in the US-UAE-Israel trilateral joint statement. To illustrate, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) acceptance of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 and recognition of Israel as a state did not stop occupation in parts of the West Bank. Similarly, the Abraham Accord—which was finalised without Palestinian participation—will only temporarily halt annexation instead of preventing it in perpetuity. Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s claim that annexation is “off the table,” Israel claims that annexation has been “postponed.” Overall, the clause about Israeli annexation appears to merely be a public justification for the formalisation of ties.
There is no mention of existing or future Israeli settlements in the joint statement either. The only exceptions are the sections on halting Israeli declarations of its sovereign rights over areas outlined in the Trump Peace Plan. Therefore, the deal is not a significant step towards resolving the Israel-Palestine issue, let alone the settling the “Question of Palestine,” because the Palestinians have denounced the deal. The Oslo Accords gained initial success because an entity representative of the Palestinians was party to it. From this vantage point, the ground reality has not changed for Palestine, barring the significant reduction in symbolic support from the UAE. However, the US has achieved a significant milestone in building an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran.
No Surprises: All Signs Led to a Deal
The UAE had gradually toned down its criticism of Israel over recent years. Their covert ties with Israel have been pivotal in cementing this deal. Signs of these pre-existing conditions culminating in a deal were evident when the UAE ensured its presence in the White House reception on 28 January 2020, when the Trump administration presented its “vision for peace.” In February 2019, the US-led Middle East Security Conference was brokered in Warsaw to build a global strategy against Iran. The conference was attended by representatives from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, among others. The US arranged secret talks between the UAE and Israel at this conference.
The economic and investment opportunities that form a crucial element of the Trump Peace Plan have also incentivised Gulf monarchies who have been working on their post-oil economies. The recent plunge in oil prices induced by the COVID-19 pandemic would have further incentivised cooperation with the more economically and technologically advanced Israel.
On the other hand, there is a perceived nuclear threat from Iran, especially in the midst of a proxy war in Yemen between the Gulf coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. This has created wedges between traditional allies while opening up avenues for cooperation between traditional foes. For instance, in the Persian Gulf—support from Iran and Turkey helped Qatar to successfully overcome the blockade sanctioned by its traditional allies, the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The subsequent thaw in Israel-UAE relations has contributed to stronger UAE-US-Israel ties.
The current US administration has brokered the so-called peace agreement between Israel and the UAE to balance Iran. However, if a Democrat-run administration returns to the White House in the upcoming US presidential election, disagreements between the US and new allies over Iran could emerge easily.
Old fault-lines in West Asia and North Africa may be reducing but new ones could emerge if the deal ends up destabilising the region further by pitting Arab countries against each other. From Palestine’s vantage point, the situation seems unlikely to improve. However, Palestinian statehood has effectively been bypassed, as UAE-Israel diplomatic relations are not conditional upon Israel ceasing annexation of West Bank territories. Overall, Washington’s peace projections are overstated, and this deal has the potential to cause more disruptions—especially between Israel and Palestine. Gradual occupation is likely to continue, keeping the conflict alive.
*Muneer Ahmed is Research Assistant, IReS, IPCS.