Abraham Accords resilience on full display

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Will ties with the Gulf states continue to progress without movement on the Palestinian issue?

 US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanin, speak at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on Wednesday. (photo credit: Andrew Harnik/Reuters)
US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken, accompanied by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanin, speak at a joint news conference at the State Department in Washington, on Wednesday.
(photo credit: Andrew Harnik/Reuters)

This week former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo received the Peace through Strength Award from the Friedman Center at a unique gala devoted to the Abraham Accords in Jerusalem. Pompeo said he was deeply honored by the award.

The event brought together a number of architects of the accords and also showcased the new faces that have helped cement the peace deals, such as a delegation from Bahrain that was in Israel with the NGO Sharaka.

Hardly a day goes by without momentous news coming from Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and other countries that are seeking peace in the region.

For instance, an agreement was signed between an Israeli delegation and Sudan this week.

 A DELEGATION from Bahrain tours the Old City this week. (credit: MICHAEL STARR) A DELEGATION from Bahrain tours the Old City this week. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

The Israeli delegation included Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll and Knesset Foreign Affairs Subcommittee chairwoman Emilie Moatti. They met with Sudanese Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

“Cooperation with Israel in the areas of education and culture are even more important to us than economic cooperation,” Abdulbari said, according to Frej. “We must get to know one another and strengthen the human ties between us.”

Then, on Wednesday, there was a trilateral meeting in Washington attended by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“From climate collaboration to religious coexistence, our countries reaffirmed their partnership with the announcement of two new trilateral working groups,” the UAE said.

At the meeting in Washington, Lapid thanked the Americans for hosting the trilateral meeting.

“It was a powerful moment which sent a clear message to the entire region about Israel’s relationship with the United States and the whole region,” he said. “We have a lot to talk about: Iran, expanding the circle of normalization, and regional challenges. But before all of that, I think it’s important to dedicate a moment to discussing the strength and depth of the relationship between our two countries. This relationship is based on values and interests and on the way we view the world, on the way we think the world should look in the future.”

Lapid also noted how Israel has turned what was a “cold peace” with Jordan and Egypt into a warmer peace.

“And we greatly strengthened our relations with the European Union and with our neighbors in the Mediterranean,” he said.

He highlighted the importance of religious tolerance and moderation and the “importance of fighting terror and radicalization. The partnership is based on economics, progress, and technological excellence.”

He even mentioned climate change while warning against Iran’s desire to pursue a nuclear weapon.

“At the center of my visit here is the concern about Iran’s race to a nuclear capability.... Israel reserves the right to act at any given moment, in any way,” he said.

He also said that a new chapter in history was being written, a reference to the peace accords.

For his part, Blinken said that normalization would be a force for progress, not only between Israel and other Arab countries but also between Israelis and Palestinians.

IT’S CLEAR from these numerous meetings, in Jerusalem, Washington and the Gulf, that the wheels are turning in the right direction.

Israel has increasingly held important meetings with officials from Egypt and Jordan, something that was rare during the 10 years Netanyahu was in power.

While Netanyahu always claimed that peace would come through Israel’s strength, he primarily only looked after the strength part, not actually wanting public meetings with counterparts in the region.

Netanyahu got massive applause at the event at the Friedman Center, but the reality is that it is the current government that has had the task of bringing the Abraham Accords to the proverbial end zone. Last year was the kickoff, but this year, after the anniversary, is where the real business is being done.

The reason for that is that the first year of the peace deals took place amid the Covid pandemic and also took place amid several small controversies.

Sudan, for instance, didn’t see much outreach from Jerusalem, and it also was wary of too close contacts. It took time to move Morocco and Israel closer. In addition, the UAE was concerned about whether a pipeline deal would go through, and many in the Emirates wondered when they could actually visit Israel. For the time being, these visits are still highly choreographed. The free-for-all of Israelis traveling to the Gulf last year has not been replicated by two-way travel. The UAE wants to see more commitments from Israel, whether it explicitly says that or not.

In addition, there are sometimes problems in messaging. Some Israeli commentators and pro-Israel voices interpreted the accords as a way to avoid the Palestinian issue and saw them as a way to work together against Iran. But Gulf states, although they may be wary of Iran, don’t want more tension. Iran’s attacks in the Gulf of Oman, for instance, are concerning. The UAE also wants to see some progress on the Palestinian issue. Inflammatory statements from some on Israel’s far Right are not helpful in this regard.

This is part of the elephant in the room that has always been a threat to peace: Some Israelis on the far Right who may pretend to support the peace deals also harbor racist and extremist views against Arabs. They only pay a bit of lip service to peace, when in reality they very much support settler extremists who carry out attacks on Arab civilians, and they always have excuses for abuses in the West Bank, whether those are Israelis attacking Palestinians, or Israelis now even attacking the IDF.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the highest levels, these contradictions are less relevant. A new water deal is helping Jordan, the Expo in Dubai has been a fantastic success, and there are more announcements likely to be made in coming months.

For instance, Bin Zayed, said on Wednesday that he would visit Israel soon, according to reports. He said the UAE is impressed with the growing relationship. Bahrain is also happy with the progress.

THE CONTEXT of the progress is important because the region is going through some changes. Iran is trying to micromanage the aftermath of a recent election in Iraq. Jordan is trying to do more outreach to Syria, while Turkey threatens another military operation that could destabilize parts of Syria. Tectonic shifts could see Iraq and Syria growing closer to the Arab states and the Gulf again, after being divided and also being at the mercy of Iran and Turkey.

At the same time, key questions remain about Mediterranean issues, amid a new defense pact between Greece and France, and also concerns over French tensions with Algeria.

Everything is connected, and that is what the Abraham Accords have taught us. Major possibilities exist for a wider series of positive relationships connecting India to the Gulf, the Gulf to Israel, and then onward to Greece and France and the US. These are like-minded states that want stability. But there are states that are more interested in arming proxies and spreading extremism as well.

This year the Abraham Accords need to move to the next level of partnerships cementing the ties.