New Normalisations – Fateful for the Middle East by Nicolas Vogt
“Historic”, “brave” and “hugely good news”: Unusual words for European officials and Democrats to describe another Trump foreign policy adventure in the Middle East. After all, neither his decisions to pull out of the JCPOA, to abandon the Kurds or to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem stimulated so much excitement. So, what’s different this time? Under the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the third Arab country to normalise relations with Israel under the pretext of doing so in exchange for Israel’s termination of its plan to annex the Jordan Valley. Bahrain and Sudan quickly followed suit. This, apparently, could’ “restore [...] hope in the peace process”’ and serve as a ‘“starting point for further positive developments in the region”’. This is not the case. The Abraham Accords are detrimental 1) to the prospects of a two-state solution 2) to Israel and 3) to regional stability.
Fateful for Palestine
The Netanyahu government has learned a lot from its annexation plan, an action illegal under international law. Just like Mr Pompeo had done regarding settlements, the UAE reminded Israel that international norms do not bound it by rewarding it for not playing by the rules. This was compounded by the fact that many authoritarian Arab countries did not condemn but rather openly endorsed or even facilitated normalisation in a striking departure from what Sadat’s Egypt had to endure after 1979. This was Bibi’s most important lesson and sealed the fate of the Arab Peace initiative, already undermined by covert ties between Arab states and Israel, whereby normalisation would have been a reward, not a gift. Israel can now reasonably conclude that aiding the creation of a Palestinian state by making concessions is no longer a precondition to gain Arab recognition and acceptance. This robs the Palestinians of yet another point of leverage and is likely to increase reluctance among Israelis to engage in negotiations as the status quo is more favourable to them than any other outcome. This is because concessions on the part of the Palestinians Israel has floated in the past for a peace agreement are hugely unpopular with the Palestinians, which makes it unlikely that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would give in to any of them. But without negotiations, there will be no peace agreement and no two-state solution, just perpetual apartheid and occupation.
Fateful for Israel
Democracy in Arab countries is a worst-case for Israel evidenced by its wariness of the Arab Spring, its support and even involvement in counterrevolutionary measures. Furthermore, not a single Arab country rated as ‘free’ or ‘partly free’ by Freedom House with the exception of Mauritania has openly endorsed the UAE’s move. These deals come at a critical time and could deepen the rift between Arab authoritarian rulers and their citizens who remain deeply divided over a variety of political issues. In contrast to authoritarian Arab governments, 88% of Arabs disapprove of the recognition of Israel, which is why it is unsurprising that the UAE tried to stifle dissent pre-emptively. The sensitivity of the issue was reflected by protests in Bahrain, which have been highly uncommon since Arab Spring protests there were violently crushed by a Gulf Cooperation Council intervention.
Conversely, while opposition to Iran is the main reason for Israel-UAE cooperation, only 12% of Arabs consider Iran a threat. With many Arab states already reeling from low oil prices, the dire economic conditions are further strained by the impacts of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund has made its lowest economic forecast for the MENA region in 50 years and with a high dependency on commercial sectors affected and the percentage of Arabs living below the international poverty line projected to reach 25% ‘social and political stability might be impacted’. Mohamed Bouazizi can remind Arab monarchs that it does not take a lot to turn political apathy into action. Once the d-word is echoed on the streets of the Middle East, Mossad should listen because democratic Arab countries will not abandon East Jerusalem.
Fateful for the Region
The Abraham Accords are branded as ‘peace’ deals, yet they could contribute to doing precisely the opposite. These deals will particularly strike a nerve since this ‘betrayal’ comes from a fellow Arab country, which, in the eyes of the Palestinians, exploited their cause for its benefit without even consulting them. As the Palestinians come to realise that Arab solidarity on a governmental level is diminishing and with that the prospects of a state of their own, they are in a tight spot and could make disheartened attempts to make their voices heard, both violently and by other means. In response to the deal, the PA has ‘recalled its ambassador’ to Abu Dhabi and quit ‘the rotational presidency of the Arab League’. Iran and Palestinian terrorist organisations have ‘call[ed] for [an] “uprising”’, and politically moderate Palestinians might now be more susceptible and responsive to their arguments.
Furthermore, the deals have the potential to heighten insecurity in the region. As Iran sees its adversaries joining forces, it will continue to accumulate uranium. It may revert to more aggressive behaviour in the region, which in turn has the potential of starting an escalatory chain of events. At the same time, this deal aligns Israel with one of the two geopolitical alliances of the Middle East. It pits it against, besides Iran, Turkey and Qatar, countries Israel has depended on for trade and engagement with Hamas, respectively. An entire region split into two camps can descend into conflict quickly, which makes it hard to see how the Abraham Accords could kick-start lasting peace and prosperity.
Despite all of this, it could be argued that these deals can ‘inject fresh impetus into the Middle East peace process’. For one, these deals indeed facilitate people to people exchanges among Israelis and Arabs. This should be welcomed both in general but also in the context of heightening Israelis’ trust in Arabs and thereby in Palestinians. Nevertheless, more than 75% of Arabs’ agree that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs’. It was therefore not surprising to see political and student groups as well as civil society organisations coming out to reject the deals. Furthermore, ‘Israel’s major religious groups also are isolated from one another socially’. Therefore, with Israelis and Arabs not even mingling in Israel and with Arabs overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian cause, it is questionable how much of a difference Israelis dining in the Burj Al Arab will make.
It has further been argued that the more interconnected Israel and Arab countries are, the more likely it is that Israel will make concessions as they had previously had nothing to lose. This is hardly believable. The Arab countries stroke these deals for purely selfish reasons and not to gain leverage over Israel to benefit the Palestinians. The Emiratis want to strengthen their alliance against Iran, obtain US weaponry and boost their popularity among US Democrats ahead of a Biden administration, which has taken a hit due to the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. While the UAE is a sovereign state that can normalise relations with any country as it pleases, the fact that it even let the opportunity pass to require Israel to suspend its annexation plans indefinitely shows that the Palestinians are not high on Mohammed Bin Zayed’s agenda. Furthermore, while it is true that Israel had nothing to lose before they also had a lot to gain in the form of Arab recognition. However, Israel is on track to achieving many of the inducements of the Arab Peace Initiative single-handedly. It is therefore unlikely that Israel would now, 18 years later and in a stronger position, voluntarily make territorial concessions.
To return to my question from the beginning, why is it then that a deal that significantly reduces the likelihood of a two-state solution, increases political risks for Israel and heightens insecurity in the Middle East was hailed across the Western world? This time, Europeans were in a dilemma. According to their standards and precedents, they would either be forced to sanction a close trading partner or find excuses for why double-standards apply. They opted for the latter. Europeans were therefore relieved that they could finally go back to paying lip service to the two-state solution, to saying settlements are illegal and the usual talk. Although delayed by the Abraham Accords, the day will come when they have to decide whether they want to continue to sign off on demolition, expropriation, occupation, settlements and apartheid or take a stance that is reflective of their values of dignity and freedom. Inaction is complicity, and for two million Gazans with no future, the day when they are afforded dignity and freedom could come sooner rather than later.