The Abraham Accords domino effect will lead to more peace deals

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: It was hard to predict in January 2020 that, by the end of the year, Israel would have relations with four more Arab countries.

BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN MINISTER Abdullatif Al Zayani applauds as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
BAHRAIN’S FOREIGN MINISTER Abdullatif Al Zayani applauds as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
We were all so innocent when 2020 began. In January 2020, people around the world had not yet heard of the COVID-19 virus, and those who had – outside of Wuhan, China – didn’t know it would turn so many lives upside down.
In Israel, January’s news cycle in some ways looked the same as today’s – we were heading toward a March election then, too – but the diplomatic agenda was drastically different. There were three big stories: Naama Issachar, the Israeli woman in a Russian prison for alleged drug smuggling; preparations for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, which brought leaders of 49 countries to Israel; and speculation about the Trump peace plan, which came out at the end of the month.
A week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to the White House to hear about the peace plan, along with a quick stop in Moscow to give Issachar a ride home, there was a small hint at what was to come.
Netanyahu went to Uganda, ostensibly on a regular diplomatic visit to Africa of the kind the prime minister has made before, but there was a surprise: Netanyahu met with Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Sudan authorized Israel to fly over its airspace, shortening flights to South America, but in the ensuing days, Burhan said this was not a step toward normalization.
A week and a half later, Jason Greenblatt, who had resigned months earlier from his position as US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, announced that he was “very inspired” by ties between Israel and Gulf states and planned to promote them – but still said time was needed for them to move into the open.
Meanwhile, the Trump peace plan train was chugging along, with the emphasis on application of sovereignty, as its supporters called it, or annexation, as its detractors said.
Netanyahu promised in one campaign speech and statement after another that he would take the plunge, with the Trump “Peace to Prosperity” plan supporting Israeli sovereignty over up to 30% of the West Bank, including all settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz made statements that were vague enough to make voters think he may support annexing the Jordan Valley, as well.
But COVID-19 got in the way, and the plan could not be implemented as speedily as Netanyahu said he intended. Whether he ever intended to extend Israel’s sovereignty or not is a matter of great debate, but he certainly spoke and, to some extent, behaved like he did. Israel and the US established a committee to draw an annexation map, and it met a couple of times, but didn’t get very far. At the time, senior US sources said talks between Jerusalem and Washington were much more focused on joint coronavirus policy than anything else, and those kinds of comments continued even after a so-called unity government between the Likud and Blue and White was formed. A clause in the coalition agreement said Netanyahu could bring sovereignty moves to a cabinet vote in July.
That unity coalition was anything but united, and the Trump peace plan was one of many areas where Netanyahu and his partners didn’t see eye to eye. Gantz, who was defense minister at that point, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi spoke enthusiastically about the Trump plan – but they wanted it all, as a whole. The plan itself would have allowed for Israel to extend its sovereignty as a first step, so what they were really saying was they needed major adjustments. Ashkenazi especially worked to block the annexation element. Netanyahu had the votes in the cabinet to push it through without Blue and White’s support, but the Trump administration wanted a more united Israeli front.
As June rolled along and the world was watching Israel to see what its next steps would be, in swooped United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba. In an op-ed for Yediot Aharonot, which in and of itself was a unique event, Otaiba dangled the possibility of normalization of ties between Abu Dhabi and Israel if the latter would drop its annexation plans.
Since 2015, there had been more and more steps, public and secret, toward ties between Israel and Gulf states, including intelligence sharing and cooperation in combating the Iran nuclear threat, ministers and other officials visiting the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Israeli athletes participating in sporting events in Arab states, and tens of thousands of Israelis touring Morocco each year. But these were gradual and had been happening for years. While Netanyahu and some other politicians talked openly about warming ties with Gulf states, the statements were vague.
So Otaiba’s op-ed, offering what he called the “carrots” of greater normalization and expanded ties in the Middle East, came as a surprise to many observers of the Middle East – though apparently not to Trump’s peace team. Looking back at Greenblatt’s statements and remarks by Trump’s Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, it seems they were hinting at what was coming all along, and what seemed like bluster or campaign rhetoric from Netanyahu was the real deal. Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, who replaced Greenblatt, saw an opportunity in what Otaiba wrote, and jumped on it.
July 1 came and went without any sovereignty moves and very little talk on the matter. There was an oblique reference here and there by Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but no movement.
And then came the moment that changed everything: A phone call between Trump, Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, leading to the announcement of peace on Trump’s Twitter account. The deal was called the Abraham Accords, named after the forefather of Jews and Arabs.
The love affair between Israelis and Emiratis began immediately. There was an effusive outpouring of support and excitement on social media from regular people in both countries.
And on the diplomatic level, the governments immediately took action to make normalization a reality. Less than two weeks later, the first-ever Israeli delegation to the UAE landed in Abu Dhabi, led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. Israeli flags waved in the airport where an El Al plane landed in Abu Dhabi for the first time.
The ensuing months have brought a flurry of business, cultural and diplomatic exchanges, and, of course, many thousands of Israeli tourists in Dubai this month, when the UAE was one of the only “green” countries Israelis could visit without having to quarantine when they arrived home.
Even the talk of a deal to allow the UAE to buy F-35 planes could not mar the excitement. The US, Israel and the UAE have all said that the fighter jets were not part of the peace deal and never came up between the two Middle Eastern countries. At the same time, the US and UAE pointed out that Israel lifting its opposition to the sale – after Gantz met with his American counterpart and they reached an arrangement that satisfactorily maintained Israel’s qualitative military edge – was what greased the wheels on something the UAE had been seeking for the past six years.
IN THE last few months, we have also seen a veritable domino effect. It took the UAE’s courage to be the first Arab country in decades to take the plunge and establish diplomatic relations with Israel to inspire more to follow.
Bahrain’s announcement came less than a month later, and its foreign minister took part in a peace-signing ceremony at the White House a few days after that.
In mid-October, Ben-Shabbat led another delegation, this time to Manama. The Bahrain peace deal didn’t come with any strings attached to date, and has been purely about normal diplomatic and business ties, which have moved at a rapid pace, as with the UAE.
The next two dominoes to fall were Sudan and Morocco, but in a somewhat different way. In both cases, ties with Israel came together with a major shift in US policy in favor of those countries.
Normalization with Sudan is highly symbolic for Israelis. Khartoum was the site of the Arab League’s “three noes” of 1967: no negotiations, no recognition, no peace with Israel. For Khartoum to overturn those three is truly momentous. The business opportunities in Sudan are fewer for Israelis, but Israel has already offered help in the areas of agriculture, water use, solar energy and more.
For Sudan, the normalization story was something else entirely. The announcement of steps toward ties with Israel came in late October, after pressure from Pompeo during negotiations to remove the African state from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. That removal came over a year and a half after Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed and Burhan, a Sudanese Army general, and civilian leader Abdalla Hamdok formed a government aimed at transitioning toward democracy. Getting off the list will likely drastically help Sudan’s economic recovery and access to international aid.
While the US denied making an ultimatum – recognize Israel or you stay on the list – it’s clear that Khartoum felt serious pressure. Hamdok was opposed to ties with Israel, while Burhan was more in favor – after all, he had met Netanyahu already – and both realized it was risky while their country’s situation was so shaky, but in the end they did it. Normalization with Israel was a small step to take toward something that was much bigger and more important for Sudan.
The same could be said about normalization between Israel and Morocco, announced in December. In King Mohammed VI’s announcement, a few short bullet points on renewing diplomatic relations with Israel came after seven lengthy paragraphs on the Trump administration’s agreement to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. That recognition is the big prize Morocco wanted.
If the king had not been holding out for a big prize – as he saw Sudan and to some extent the UAE received – ties with Israel would have been easy. Israel and Morocco had secret ties, including intelligence sharing, for decades, and partial diplomatic relations in the 1990s. Those relations were officially suspended in 2000, but some level of ties has always continued, and many Israelis visit Morocco each year.
Still, since a million Israelis have roots in Morocco, and many have fond, positive feelings for the country and its royal family, this move was celebrated in Israel. And Morocco’s tourism minister expects 200,000 Israeli visitors a year, post-corona.
With 2020 behind us and 2021 beginning, there is discussion of even more dominoes falling, and even more countries joining the Abraham Accords. Trump administration officials have said they’re working to even make it happen in the next three weeks, before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Mauritania, Oman and Indonesia are the names on Israeli and American officials’ tongues these days, which makes sense, because Israel has or has had some level of ties with all of them.
Mauritania declared war on Israel in 1967, but the countries established diplomatic relations in 1999, which were suspended in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in 2009.
Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, and thousands of Israeli and Indonesian tourists visit each other’s countries each year.
Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018, and Israel and Oman are part of the anti-Iran axis in the Middle East.
But the big hope is for Saudi Arabia. This is where Biden comes into play. Biden and his foreign policy advisers have spoken positively about the Abraham Accords, without commenting on the strings attached. At the same time, they have been very critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. If the Trump administration doesn’t find a way to quickly make it worth Riyadh’s while in the next few weeks, which seems unlikely, MBS and King Salman will probably wait to see what benefit they can exact from the Biden administration to go with peace with Israel. After all, the thought is, why shouldn’t they get something out of the deal, as the UAE, Sudan and Morocco did?
At the same time, a very senior official told The Jerusalem Post that Riyadh is expected to get on board in 2021. Netanyahu and MBS met in the Saudi city of Neom weeks ago. Salman is still reticent on the matter, holding on to the Arab Peace Initiative, also known as the Saudi Initiative, which requires peace with the Palestinians before normalization with the Arab League.
Looking ahead at the unfolding new year, it seems likely that the Abraham Accords domino rally will continue, and it seems almost inevitable that it will feature the biggest coup of all, Saudi-Israel peace.
But if there’s anything we learned from 2020, it is that January can be drastically different from December in ways we never expected.•