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CWA # 399, 31 December 2020

The World This Year
Abraham Accords: Rethinking Diplomacy and Restructuring Priorities in the Middle East

  Rashmi Ramesh

Terming the Abraham Accords a peace deal is pre-mature at this point, as its effects are yet to trickle down and solidify. It is certainly a bilateral peace deal but not a peace plan for the region, and hence, there is a long way to go for the peaceful Middle East.

On 15 September 2020, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain created history by normalizing diplomatic relations and signing the Abraham Accords, a peace deal brokered by President Donald Trump. The Accords is a historic diplomatic move to integrate Israel in its neighbourhood and achieve Arab consensus against Iran. 

The Accords
The process of normalizing relations with Israel by the Arab countries gathered steam in the second half of 2020 when the UAE announced its stance in August. Bahrain followed it in September. In October, the transitional government in Sudan, despite opposition, announced starting diplomatic relations with Israel. In December, Morocco recognized Israel and became the fourth Arab country. 

The Accords signal a departure from the Arab unity, where most Arab states did not recognize Israel and demanded a sovereign state for the Palestinians. While the demand for an independent Palestine still stands, it is no more a pre-condition to establishing relations with Israel.  

The Background
Normalization of relations between Israel and the four Arab countries necessitates an insight into the background. 

First, the United States, as a great power, is embroiled in numerous issues of the region and has multiple stakes and interests. Sale of arms is one of the primary interests. In 2019, under Trump administration, arms sales increased by 42 per cent globally. Sales to the Middle East and North Africa specifically skyrocketed, recording a 118 per cent increase in 2019. Abraham Accords can bolster the sale of arms and serve the interests of the US. Supporting Israel and ensuring its security is another primary interest of the US. The Accords is an achievement in the US's policy towards Israel. 

Second, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the central issue that directs the geopolitics of the Middle East. The prominent members of the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, do not place Palestine as a core issue. Though Riyadh has not signed the Abraham Accords, it has not opposed the entire process. This has prompted speculations that it provides covert support to the normalization process, encouraged Bahrain to sign the Accords in September and may recognize Israel in future, provided that the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman deftly manages divergent opinions within the al-Saud family and the public. 

Third, officializing the unofficial. It is well known that the Arab world has been maintaining diplomatic relations and interacting with Israel through back channels. The Abraham Accords is an official acknowledgement of the same, much to the Palestinians' disappointment and some sections of the population in the Arab countries.

Fourth, the role of media and religious leaders. To ensure that the public opinion is not extremely negative, the Arab media weaved narratives about the origin of Jews and how they belong to the region, thereby the need for the Muslim community to "tolerate" them. Religious leaders called upon the people and reminded them of their "duty" adhere and uphold the ultimate decision of the kingdom/state.

The Perspective
First, it is the primary nature of a state to prioritize its national interests. The parties to the Abraham Accords, certainly have specific gains in return to the signing. The UAE and Bahrain will benefit from the defence deals perceived as gains in return for normalization of ties with Israel. The UAE has long wanted the F-35 fighter jets, which the US could not sell because of its commitment to Israel's security. However, Israel now does not oppose the sale, as it said that the US had assured its military superiority in the Middle East. Bahrain gains from the lifting of hold on the sale of F-16s. The Accords may also pave the way for direct defence ties between UAE- Bahrain and Israel. 

Sudan also calculated the transactional gains from the Accords. In return for recognizing Israel, it was assured of being removed from the US's State Sponsor of Terrorism List. The most recent to normalize relations, Morocco was the highest buyer of US arms (worth approximately $12 billion) in 2019 in the MENA region. In return to the Accords' signing, the US recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, where the Polisario Front leads a separatist movement at the behest of neighbouring Algeria. 

As stated earlier, the US gains in terms of arms sale. Abraham Accords will also be projected as one of the biggest achievements of the outgoing Trump administration, on the foreign policy domain. 

Israel perceives the recognition from the Arab countries, as a mammoth gain. However, the conservative section of the Israeli society has opposed the deal, as Netanyahu had to put the West Bank annexation plan on hold in return to be officially recognized. With all the variables remaining constant, the plan will not be implemented shortly. However, the Palestinians are no closer to achieving their sovereignty. Perhaps, the Arab countries believe that avoiding annexation is the best alternative to offer Palestine, as they realize that the stalemate in the conflict continues.  

Second, the intra-Arab concern. The GCC crisis continues to plague the Arab Gulf, and Qatar continues to be isolated. However, the US perceives the GCC crisis as an obstacle to fully realizing the fruits of its efforts towards the peace process. As a mediator, it is in Washington's interest to ensure that the intra-Arab issue does not affect Abraham Accords. In November, the US National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said that ending the GCC crisis and lifting Qatar's blockade was a priority. 

Third, consolidation against Iran. At present, Iran is the primary rival in the region. Most countries are affected by the Iran-supported militias' activities in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE are involved in a proxy war with Iran in Yemen. The interests of most Arab countries, Israel and the US converge around cornering Iran, and Abraham Accords is an apt tool. The Accords try to isolate Iran further. While addressing the GCC crisis's concerns, Robert O'Brien remarked that "it is in America's interest to have harmonious relationships within (GCC) because that provides an important counter-balance to Iran." 

Finally, is peace in the Middle East on the cards? Terming the Abraham Accords a peace deal is pre-mature at this point, as its effects are yet to trickle down and solidify. It is certainly a bilateral peace deal but not a peace plan for the region, and hence, there is a long way to go for the peaceful Middle East.
 

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