In recent weeks, the faint hope for peace in the region perennially plagued by conflict, the Middle East, has come closer to becoming a reality. Facilitated by the United States, two Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and Bahrain, have made moves to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This historic breakthrough is the culmination of almost two decades of largely secret diplomatic efforts, not to mention the continuously changing regional power dynamics. There is little doubt that these recent advances will accelerate Israel’s rapprochement with other Arab states, promote peace and prosperity in the region over time, and, importantly, will upset Iran’s plans for the dominance in the region.
There is little doubt that these recent advances will accelerate Israel’s rapprochement with other Arab states, promote peace and prosperity in the region over time, and, importantly, will upset Iran’s plans for the dominance in the region.
On August 13th, U.S. President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed released a joint statement that announced “full normalization of relations” between the two countries. The U.A.E. struck the deal with Israel in exchange for the promise that Tel Aviv will forego the annexation of disputed territories in the West Bank. As Itamar Rabinovich, one of Israel’s leading Middle East historians, told Thomas Friedman, “Instead of Israeli annexation for a Palestinian state, they made it Israeli non-annexation in return for peace with the U.A.E.” He added that Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump on the Middle East, “basically generated an asset out of nothing, which Israel could then trade for peace with the U.A.E. It was peace for peace, not land for peace.”
Interestingly, the peace accord itself (dubbed the “Abraham Accord”) was made possible by a set of almost accidental conditions. If the Trump administration had not given Israel the green light to annex West Bank territories (per the Trump peace plan), Mohammed Bin Zayed would not have offered Tel Aviv full normalization of diplomatic relations in exchange for the halt in annexation plans—plans that would have ultimately eliminated any chances of regional rapprochement.
Still, many other catalysts proved favorable for reconciliation between the two states. For starters, the two share a mutual perception of Iran as a security threat and opposition to Tehran’s nuclear program, as well as a shared hostility toward political Islam. Moreover, growing Israeli-U.A.E. ties have been an open secret for years, including collaboration in culture and technology and joint military exercises. And of course, both countries are also close allies of the United States, which boded well for the prospects for normalized relations.
But Abu Dhabi’s decision to officially recognize Israel is a stark break from the early 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (which, up until now, reflected the consensus view of all members of the Arab League, including the U.A.E.). The 2002 Initiative explicitly states that normal relations with Tel Aviv could be re-established only if Israel returns to its pre-1967 borders. In defiance of that, the U.A.E. is the third Arab country to enact a peace treaty with Israel, following Egypt (which normalized relations in 1979) and Jordan (which normalized relations in 1994).
Both the U.A.E. and Israel are expected to benefit substantially from the enhanced commercial and security ties this accord makes possible. For example, Israel and the U.A.E. have already started direct air flights (using Saudi Arabia’s air space); the Emirati company APEX National Investment and Israel’s Tera Group launched a partnership on COVID-19 research; and Israel is considering selling more military equipment to the U.A.E. The joint declaration also states that officials from Israel and the U.A.E. will meet in the coming weeks to sign bilateral agreements, and enhance cooperation in the economic, cultural, and technological sectors. On September 1st, for example, a joint Israeli-American delegation and the U.A.E. agreed to create “a joint committee to establish cooperation on various fronts—from financial services and joint investments to combating terror financing and money laundering.”
As an added bonus, the peace agreement could give the U.A.E. access to advanced U.S. weapons, such as F-35 fighter jets or advanced drones. After all, Washington began to supply similarly advanced weaponry to Egypt and Jordan only after they signed peace pacts with Israel, making it clear that better relations with Israel mean better relations with the United States.
A NEW POLITICAL MOMENT FOR MIDDLE EAST RELATIONS
Canadian-American journalist Graeme Wood recently pointed out in The Atlantic, that even though “Saudi Arabia is not officially party to the agreement … its relationship with the UAE is so fraternal that we should assume that it eagerly approved, and that the UAE will represent its interests in Israel as if they were its own.” This means that there is now the possibility that Saudi Arabia, the region’s economically most powerful player and de-facto leader of the Arab League, will normalize its relations with Israel—if not immediately, almost certainly in the long run.
“Bahrain’s monarch, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, never would have acted without the assent of the Saudis, analysts said, which means this could be a harbinger of an eventual Saudi move to normalize ties.”
We can expect the new peace agreement to function as an icebreaker to encourage similar moves by other Arab countries in the short term. Egypt and Oman have voiced support for the Abraham Accord, and Saudi Arabia, though it did not explicitly endorse the deal, nevertheless “cautiously welcomed” the agreement, stating that it “could be viewed as positive,” and opened its airspace to Israeli planes.
Such a welcome reception of the agreement by Arab states stands in stark contrast with the previous attempts at reconciliation. Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat, who oversaw the signing of a peace pact with Israel in 1979, was killed by jihadists two years later (with the peace treaty being one of the motivating factors behind the assassination). Following the adoption of the deal, the entire Arab world (with the exception of Sudan) condemned Sadat’s efforts, and Egypt’s membership in the Arab League was suspended. U.A.E ‘s agreement with Israel, however, has been received much more positively—with the Arab League refusing to condemn the new peace agreement.
As The Economist notes, the current deal “reflects remarkable changes that have already taken place [in the region]. A part of the world once defined by Arab-Israeli hostilities is no longer so; countries increasingly look towards the future, not the past, when shaping their policies.” Just one month after the Abraham Accord was announced, Bahrain revealed that it, too, has joined the list of Arab countries intending to initiate full diplomatic relations with Israel. Bahrain’s foreign minister will be at the White House ceremony on September 15th, during which Israel and the U.A.E. will formalize their new relationship.
Bahrain’s move is especially important considering the country’s deep ties with Saudi Arabia. As the London bureau chief of The New York Times Mark Landler writes, “Bahrain’s monarch, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, never would have acted without the assent of the Saudis, analysts said, which means this could be a harbinger of an eventual Saudi move to normalize ties.” Analysts expect that Oman, Morocco, and Sudan may soon follow the U.A.E. and Bahrain—all of which ultimately paves the way for the prized diplomatic end of Saudi-Israeli reconciliation.
The hostility between Arab states and Israel dates back towards the end of the 19th century and results from the conflict over the Holy Land between Palestinians (who are supported by the Arabs) and the state of Israel. Amid this, Saudi Arabia has acted as the de-facto leader of Gulf states; the country is the largest oil exporter in the world and a regional military and economic powerhouse.
Over time, however, the Israeli-Palestinian issue (and, with it, Israeli-Arabian conflict) was overshadowed by another competing tension: the rising influence of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s primary geopolitical opponent in the Middle East. As Iran’s influence has surged in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other Middle Eastern countries, the Gulf states have resorted to gradually expanding their ties with Israel, who is also interested in checking Iran’s power. The Gulf states are becoming less concerned about ancient disputes and more interested in tackling present and future challenges.
This is why Israel’s reconciliation with the U.A.E. and Bahrain, principal allies of Saudi Arabia, is so significant: the Gulf states and Israel are starting to unite their efforts to better cope with Iran’s assertiveness in the region, thereby complicating Tehran’s geopolitical calculus.
BROADER GEOPOLITICAL IMPLICATIONS AND COUNTER-BALANCING IRAN
The party with the most to lose from the Middle Eastern rapprochement is, of course, Iran. Iran and Israel have long been arch-enemies, with Tehran repeatedly threatening to obliterate Israel. Unsurprisingly then, Iranian supreme leader Hassan Rohani has already called the U.A.E. ‘s move a “huge mistake” and a “treacherous act.” But the balance of power is changing in the Middle East, and not in Iran’s favor. Gulf states and Israel are seeking to overcome their differences and deepen security and military ties, in part as a measure to counter-balance Iran.
The agreement is proof that there are no limits to what we can accomplish when Christians, Jews, and Muslims all combine their efforts to make this world a better place.
And, with the Arab-Israeli rift waning, a new, Arab-Iran rivalry is intensifying. The U.A.E. and other Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are currently engaged in proxy warfare against Iran in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria; Iran currently seems to be winning. But the deepening of collaboration between Israel and Saudi Arabia-led coalition following the recent peace accords holds the potential to change the balance of power in the region—and not in Iran’s favor.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran has overwhelmingly relied on the exercise of U.S. hard power, in particular, sanctions and occasional military action (such as the Qasim Soleimani strike). Now, however, the White House is pursuing a more balanced and ultimately more effective approach based on strategic maneuvering instead of direct action against Iran. The swift normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states will deepen economic, cultural, and political interdependence in the Middle East, making it harder for Tehran to achieve its regional objectives by taking advantage of Israeli-Arab divisions.
The Abraham Accord is a big milestone and one of the greatest foreign policy successes of the Trump administration. It will help move the Middle East closer to becoming a stable, peaceful, and prosperous region. The agreement is proof that there are no limits to what we can accomplish when Christians, Jews, and Muslims all combine their efforts to make this world a better place.