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Foreign Policy

Middle East after the Abraham Accords

Oct 09, 2020
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

On Sept. 15, U.S. President Donald Trump and the first lady hosted the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on the south lawn of the White House. The deal, heralding the normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, was named to suggest that the descendants of Abraham — namely Arabs and Jews — are ready to bury the hatchet and commence an era of peace.

Trump declared with enthusiasm that the accords will serve “as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region,” and “usher in a new dawn of peace.” 

True that diplomatic recognition of Israel by the UAE and Bahrain will improve the diplomatic climate in the Middle East, but it is premature to predict that a new era of peace in the region has commenced.

First and foremost, the accords were based on an exchange of interests over a short span of time, without fundamentally altering the structural conflicts and diverging interests in the region. To put it more bluntly, it is not backed by an easing of tensions in the region but rather was the result of diplomatic expediency between the United States and Israel.

For Trump, the accords will contribute to his reelection bid by boosting his diplomatic scorecard, galvanizing support among a pro-Israel evangelical electorate and burnish his credentials for a potential Nobel Prize. Israel wants to secure a meaningful diplomatic breakthrough by taking advantage of the tenure of the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history.

This convergence of aspirations has been brewing since the start of the Trump administration nearly four years ago. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, personally presided over the so-called Middle East Peace New Plan    — dubbed the “deal of the century” by proponents — which unapologetically favors Israel, along with his shuttle diplomacy around Arab countries to make the case for Israel in recent years.

His efforts paid off. The Abraham Accords have significantly eased relations between part of the Arab world and Israel, but persistent fault lines that determine war and peace in the Middle East remain. Israel-Palestine relations have taken a turn for the worse. The U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank have pushed Palestine to the abyss of desperation, which may well feed into animosity between the two sides. Without rapprochement between Israel and Palestine — that is, merely circumventing the conflicts — real peace will remain elusive.

Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords are pleasing to some while annoying others. On one hand, it fragments the monolithic mass of Arab hostility toward Israel, but on the other it rallies the ranks of anti-Israel forces such as Palestine, Iran, Turkey, the Hezbollah, the Houthi militants and the PMF. Each of these represents a force to be reckoned with. Iran and Turkey are strong economically and militarily, while Hezbollah and the Houthi are well tested on the ground with solid experience in staging surprise attacks.

Iran and Turkey seek to leverage the fragmentation of the Arab world to reshape the regional balance of power and bolster their respective aspirations of national rejuvenation.

The U.S. has been struggling to contain Iran and undermine Turkey, which has turned out to be a taller order than fragmenting the Arab world. This has left the U.S. feeling overstretched. In the meantime, Iran has risen above years of international sanctions and developed the capacity to resist pressure, and the European Union, Russia and China have opposed the bullying behavior of the U.S., which threatens to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose sanctions on Iran unilaterally.

Turkey voiced strong opposition to diplomatic ties between Bahrain and Israel. On top of that, driven by Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s ambition to alter the political landscape of the Middle East, Turkey has launched robust military interventions in northern Syria and in the Libyan civil war.

Last, the accords’ long-term viability is fragile. The UAE and Bahrain have strong ties to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, the crown princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia are close with each other and are of approximately the same age, sharing identical or similar views of geopolitics and development. Both countries have the will to promote trade and military cooperation with Israel.

But it remains to be seen how this calculus, which puts national interests above the broader interests of the Arab world, will be received by other Arabs, and whether it can be sustained in the event of leadership changes in the two counties. Only time will tell. 

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