A new chapter in Middle Eastern history began with the signing of the Abrahamic Convention. These agreements between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates reflect a strategic reorientation against the two non-Arab powers Iran and Turkey, which threaten their interests in the region. The 2011 uprisings and civil wars exacerbated the decades-long rift between competing sides in the Middle East, creating a truly regional geopolitical order defined by mutually hostile nationalisms and sectarian identities. These developments prompted Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to reassess their priorities and move towards peace with Israel, the region’s dominant military power, in the face of declining US engagement in the Middle East. In this way, the Gulf monarchies are trying to counter efforts to expand Iranian influence in the region and to reduce the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni Islamist movements supported by Turkey and Qatar, regardless of the impact on the Palestinians.
This unprecedented rapprochement has left Palestinians feeling abandoned by traditional allies and reaching for a worn-out gamebook in a rapidly changing Middle East. Their isolation is due to the fact that these changes have not been captured and the Sunni Arab world is unwilling to continue accepting a veto by the West Bank or the Gaza Strip on a development that is clearly in their interests and for the defense against Iran Turkey and the US is necessary is Muslim Brotherhood.
The Palestinians have long tried to secure freedom from Israeli occupation on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative, a pan-Arab policy that calls for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories and the acceptance of Palestinian statehood and, in return, a normalization of relations with the Arab world offers. However, 18 years have passed since it was formally adopted in March 2002 and other common interests prevail. In the absence of progress or realistic hope of achieving this, the readiness of the Palestinians for the Gulf monarchies in the face of clear and present threats from Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood linked to the emergence of common ground no longer has a priority of economic and security interests. Relations with Israel have simply become more urgent than the Palestinian question.
The Palestinian leadership could respond to this diplomatic blow in two ways: either by trying to overcome their feelings of betrayal and get the best out of the situation, or by continuing to radicalize and seek common cause with Hamas and its international supporters do. A related, if rather baffling, possibility is that Turkey and Qatar’s growing support for Hamas (in the latter case largely financially) could induce both countries to adjust more closely to Iran. A sign of this came shortly after the normalization agreement was announced – and a few weeks after President Recep Erdogan had received two high-ranking Hamas officials in Istanbul – with Hamas’ political head, Ismael Haniyah, who was traveling to Lebanon, to meet Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah, to meet The aim is to strengthen the anti-Israel “axis of resistance”.
The Abraham Accords are possibly more significant than existing Israeli peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. While these are both pillars of stability in the Middle East, they operate primarily at the government level. They were agreements between governments to end military conflicts, although the Palestinian question remained unresolved and normalization between their societies was pending. To this day there is still a negligible exchange between the peoples, hardly any tourism (except on the Sinai) and little trade (now count on gas).
What makes the Abraham Accords different is the lack of historical baggage. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates do not border Israel and have never waged war against Israel, and the number of Palestinian refugees living there is relatively small. The agreements are based on shared regional perceptions and have great potential to stimulate economic growth. Four mutually beneficial micro-agreements on investment, scientific cooperation, civil aviation and visa waivers have already been signed. Perhaps even more remarkable are the clear signs of an atmosphere of warm peace: Bahraines, Emiratis and Israelis are happy about their joint peace project. Not only politicians and officials, but also civil society leaders, business people, academics and artists have jointly expressed hopes for real peace and proposed concrete plans for its development.
In their normalization of relationships and their focus on travel, trade and economics, the Abrahamic Accords go further than the cold peace that Egypt and Jordan made with Israel decades ago, and which has often been weighed down by events. The status of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as regional business centers means that the agreements will encourage face-to-face interaction between an increasing number of Israeli visitors and hundreds of thousands of Arab workers. You thereby remedy a crucial deficiency in the two previous agreements. Israel’s historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt retains its status as a major milestone on the road to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict by removing the most populous and powerful nation in the Arab world from the equation. However, this accord and its 1994 successor with Jordan are the coordinates of a cold peace that is limited to solid security coordination and a handful of economic deals.
New prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace will not suddenly emerge as if by magic. A concerted effort on both sides will be required to renew confidence in the possibility of peaceful coexistence. There is currently very little confidence that Israeli and Palestinian political leaders can play a positive role in this endeavor. However, the Abraham accords may offer a new vision for resolving the conflict by viewing normalization between governments as a way of normalization between peoples. If the parties use them wisely, their agreements could have a positive impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations, provide a new framework for negotiations and accelerate progress towards a two-state solution. Israel could encourage aid or investment by the Emirates in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and allow the UAE to present itself as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. In addition, through gestures and concessions of the goodwill of Israel, the two Gulf monarchies were able to show the Palestinians that they were able to meet legitimate Palestinian demands. This could eventually lead to the emergence of moderate and more responsible Palestinian leadership and society, and thus a more willing peace partner for Israel.
Peace, however, means concessions on both sides. To promote the Palestinian acceptance of Bahrain and the UAE as trustworthy mediators, Israel must reach out to the Palestinian people directly and demonstrate that these agreements can have positive effects on them. Step one would be for Israel not only to suspend but also to permanently stop the construction and expansion of settlements and infrastructure beyond the settlement blocks into the heartland of the West Bank. The new geopolitical regional order gives Israel a strategic advantage as normalization with regional partners no longer depends on the green light from the Palestinians and the moment calls for courageous Israeli leadership. A magnanimous Israeli response could maximize the benefits of the new regional order by making significant progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is no clear Palestinian strategy for dealing with the new regional constellation. The Palestinians have no military option, their policies are chaotic, and their current leadership has been in power without electoral approval since 2006. Tired of their corrupt, ineffective leaders, the vast majority of Palestinians want new elections. The existing political strategies of the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have resulted in nothing that has only resulted in increasing Israeli control over all of Palestine. After years of factional struggles, long overdue Palestinian elections would renew the mandates of both the President and Parliament and give them more influence abroad through greater domestic legitimacy. The Palestinians should rebuild their institutions from the ground up and redefine their goals with a view to a new national consensus. They need a leader with the strength and charisma to unite them and give them hope – a leader with a compelling vision, with a chance to be fulfilled, with a sensible and viable plan for the Palestinian future. President Mahmoud Abbas, now 84, is not that person. It is therefore important that all forces in Palestinian society carefully review their methods and develop a considered long-term strategy. You need to rethink previous approaches, understand how other liberation movements have succeeded despite an unfavorable balance of power, and woo all potential allies in their struggle. The warm Arab-Israeli relations that emerged from the Abraham Accords could ultimately benefit the Palestinian cause, but the Palestinians must get involved.
It was requested that the Palestinian leadership seize the moment and resume peace negotiations with Israel in an international peace conference, but Abbas has made his response dependent on the results of the US elections. The Americans will elect their next president on November 3rd, and their election is likely to affect Israeli-Palestinian relations in the way they affect US policy in the Middle East and peace efforts there. For many years the US has been relatively consistent in the peace process through various administrative changes, with only shifts in emphasis and minor differences in the extent of US involvement. However, the Trump administration has made a number of decisions that represent a significant departure from traditional US policy after 1967, particularly since the advent of the peace process in the 1990s. President Trump has dramatically changed policies regarding major controversies such as the status of Jerusalem, Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the building of settlements, and the right to annexation. In addition, US relations with the Palestinian leadership were cut for the first time since the Oslo Accords were signed. The US has closed the PLO mission in Washington and blocked aid to the Palestinians.
If Joe Biden becomes president, all of this could change, not least because the current Israeli leadership has not kept its close ties with Trump a secret. A Biden victory should mean that the Palestinian issue will once again become a focus of US policy in the region. Biden is expected to revisit the Obama administration’s settlement policy and take a tough line against its expansion. He is also expected to reaffirm US categorical support for the two-state solution, which the Trump administration is unsure of, and firmly oppose any proposal to annex the West Bank.
If Biden wins, will he rush headlong in an attempt to revive the peace process? There is no sure way of knowing, of course, but there are a number of important points that need to be considered. First, the US coronavirus crisis, with all its health and economic repercussions, is likely to monopolize Biden’s attention on the domestic front, at least at the beginning of his tenure, as his foreign secretary is responsible for foreign policy. Even without the crisis, Israel-Palestine would not be expected to be a US foreign policy priority, at least not shortly before the start of a Biden presidency.
If Trump wins, will he continue with current guidelines or make changes? An important consideration is whether annexation will come back on the agenda or whether the government will put this controversial idea aside in order to promote the normalization of the Arab world with Israel. Trump has reportedly promised the UAE not to support any annexation measures by Israel until at least 2024. Another Middle East policy question in the event of Trump’s re-election is whether the government would simply ignore the Palestinian issue or try to reestablish ties with the Palestinian Authority. The answer depends to some extent on whether other Arab states considering normalization with Israel would make it conditional on progress with the Palestinians.
A Trump victory would be bad news for the Palestinian leadership and could result in either an attempt to renew relations with Washington or angry radicalization and efforts shared with Hamas and its international supporters, Turkey and Qatar Thing to do. Other actors, not least the EU, could use their own alternative initiative to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by Trump’s second term in office. This has not happened yet, but it would be interesting to see if a renewed mandate for Trump has proven to be a catalyst for such development.
* *The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rabdan Academy or the UAE government.
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