Western progressives are dissing rather than embracing the Abraham Accords. This is a tragedy. Time to rebrand the Accords and get the Biden administration to adopt a more enthusiastic approach to expanding Arab/Islamic peace with Israel.
From the Spring 2022 issue (Vol. 16 Issue 2) of inFocus Quarterly (published in Washington DC by the Jewish Policy Center). Print-friendly copy
The Abraham Accords have transformed the strategic architecture of the Middle East, with Israel moving from a defensive stance against Iran and its proxies to an offensive posture that is buttressed by a network of alliances with key Arab countries.
It might even be said that the Abraham Accords have brought about an end to Arab-Israeli conflict. What remains live and combustible is an Iranian-Israeli conflict with some co-combatants in the Arab world on either side.
As a result, Israel is becoming the center of a new international security order, an emerging alliance structure aimed at combating belligerent actors in the Middle East, a framework that spans the United States and Europe to North Africa, Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies, and India.
In recent months, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was received with royal honors in Manama by the King of Bahrain. Israel signed a historic defense cooperation agreement with the kingdom that will see Israeli defense officials and naval personnel permanently stationed in Bahrain.
According to some reports, Israel’s submarine force equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles will be able to anchor and restock in Bahrain, something that literally gives Israel a forward base on Iran’s borders.
Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog, Bennett, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also have made grand visits to the United Arab Emirates, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed defense accords (including significant arms sales) on a visit to Morocco.
Changes in Attitude
The Abraham Accord alliances are marked by warm friendships too, backed by a discourse of genuine tolerance and ideological moderation. The Emiratis, Bahrainis, and Moroccans have decorated their meetings with Israeli leaders with symbols of true acceptance–such as the playing of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (The Hope, which describes the Jewish soul’s desire for a return to Zion) in their palaces and on their official airwaves.
By referencing the Abrahamic common heritage of Moslems and Jews in the foundational document of the Abraham Accords, and playing “Hatikvah” in their royal palaces, Arab countries implicitly are acknowledging that Jews are a Biblical people indigenous to the Land of Israel. This is a joyous revolution that overturns generations of Arab and Islamic ideological delegitimization of Israel.
Clearly, the leaders of these countries want to redefine the self-identity and global image of Arab Moslems by blending tradition with enlightenment, anchored in an admirable discourse of religious moderation and broad-mindedness.
Affiliating with Israel fits perfectly into this agenda because this is exactly how they view Israel too – as a nation that successfully synthesizes strong ethnic and religious identity with modernity. Therefore, the Abraham Accords are deeply rooted in genuine ideological intentions (as well as urgent security realties) and are locked-in for the long term.
Here is a concrete example of this new moderate discourse: The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) has found that much of the old anti-Israel material in Emirati textbooks has been deleted or altered. Passages that previously demonized Israel, presented anti-Semitic conspiracies, and blamed “the Zionist enemy” for seeking to “exterminate the Palestinian people” have been removed. Especially noteworthy is the removal of passages that presented the Palestinian issue as “the basis of conflicts in the Middle East.” Passages focusing on tolerance towards Jews have been inserted instead.
People to People Ties
People-to-people ties are developing between Israeli and Gulf groups, too, alongside exploding trade ties.
The UAE-Israel Business Council has developed into a community of more than 5,000 entrepreneurs, professionals, investors, companies, and government officials who regularly meet through an ever-expanding range of conferences, webinars, and in-person events. The Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum is the first association bringing together female leaders from across the Middle East. The Gulf-Israel Policy Forum draws academics, policymakers, and cultural leaders from across the region.
In 2022, bilateral UAE-Israel trade in goods and services is expected to reach $2 billion, an increase of 50 percent over 2021, with significant growth in tourism, agriculture, investment, cleantech and professional services. Close to 500 Israeli companies have business dealings in the UAE, including 250 with a permanent presence or collaboration with a UAE partner.
Trade between Israel and the other Abraham Accords countries should jump this year to as much as $1 billion. There even is a strong increase in Israeli trade with Egypt and Jordan – where the stigma of trading with Israel is gradually fading away, thanks to the Abraham Accords.
You Can’t Please Everyone
Alas, for parts of the political left and the anti-Israel mobs it is hard to exult in the Abraham Accords. It means swallowing the fact Israel is demonstrably a force for good, knowledge, prosperity, and stability in the Middle East. After all, that is the reason the Abraham Accord countries are band wagoning with Israel.
It is even harder for extremists on the hard left to accept the Abraham Accords. De facto, the Accords are a blunt refutation of the ongoing Palestinian campaign to deny and criminalize the Jewish people’s historic rights in Israel.
In February, a smorgasbord of so-called “progressive” advocacy organizations in the U.S. called upon Congress “to reject the dangerous Abraham Accords”; those accords being the umbrella framework that “dangerously” has wrought peace treaties thus far between Israel and four Arab countries. The U.S. Presbyterian Church, Progressive Democrats of America, Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and other fringe groups kvetched that “lasting peace comes from justice, not weapons deals.”
America must embrace a foreign policy toward Palestine/Israel that is rooted in human rights, justice, and equality, and to resoundingly reject any attempts to further the Trump administration’s ‘Abraham Accords,’ including through legislation like H.R. 2748/S. 1061, the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021.
While masquerading as ‘peace’ and ‘diplomacy,’ the Abraham Accords and this legislation are in fact an endorsement of arms sales and political favors between the U.S. and authoritarian regimes – including weapons sales to the UAE and the recognition of Morocco’s illegal annexation of Western Sahara – in exchange for the sidelining of Palestinian rights… We must end support for Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and its apartheid rule.
Prominent Moslem advocacy groups also signed the statement, including Linda Sarsour’s MPower Change, Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Opposition to peace in the Middle East by these purportedly progressive groups, their opposition to dialogue and cooperation with Israel, and their support for continued boycotts against Israel – because the recalcitrant and violent Palestinians have been left behind – tells you all you need to know about the nefariousness of these American groups.
Their sour and rejectionist remarks – asserting that the Abraham Accords are no more than a Trump-tainted gimmick or a Netanyahu-stained end-run around the Palestinians, and not an authentic breakthrough for peace and security in the Middle East – are absolutely false.
Their attitude is a nasty, bitter, and ideologically distorted take on Israeli and American goals. And as described above, it also is a complete misreading of Emirati, Bahraini and Moroccan purposes in pursuit of peace with Israel.
Strengthening the Accords
How might the intransigent Palestinians and their backwards backers in America be convinced to appreciate and take advantage of the gargantuan opportunities made possible by the Abraham Accords?
To begin with, moderate forces on the democratic left – for example, Biden administration officials and mainstream Democrats in Congress – ought to move beyond their Trump traumas and get behind the Abraham Accords revolution. Instead of sitting on the sidelines of this historic transformation, Biden’s Washington should be embracing the Accords and investing in their expansion.
While the administration’s rhetoric on the Abraham Accords has improved lately, the palpable momentum of one or two years ago has been lost. The administration has made it clear that its top interest is begging Iran for a renewed nuclear deal, not buttressing the anti-Iran camp nor solidifying a new regional alliance with Israel as its fulcrum.
As a result, Biden has paid only lip service to the Accords (for a while his aides even refused to use the moniker “Abraham Accords”) while doing little concrete to promote them. For example, the administration has not appointed a special envoy tasked with advancing or expanding Abraham Accord-type reconciliations between Arab/Islamic countries and Israel. This is something that should have been an early Biden White House move, with a high-profile appointment on the level of a Jared Kushner in the Trump years.
Instead, the present administration rapidly appointed a special envoy tasked with withdrawing U.S. support for the battle against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen (a terribly mistaken decision), while distancing the U.S. from Saudi Arabia regarding the Yemen war and just about everything else. This, too, relates to the administration’s helter-skelter rush to another bad deal with the Iranians.
In fact, Biden administration behavior casts a pall over the Abraham Accords and engenders doubt that the “Abrahamic narrative” can grow beyond its current contours.
Why should the Saudis, for example, take another step towards Israel, if Washington looks upon this with disfavor (again, because it would anger the Iranians)?
Similar questions are being asked angrily by countries that already have bought into the Abraham Accords. For example, the Emiratis are furious (yes, furious!) with the Biden administration for abandoning the fight against the Houthis, for cozying up to the Iranians, and for monkeying with the agreement to sell American F-35’s to Abu Dhabi.
Why should the Omanis upgrade their relationship with Israel if Israeli leaders cannot help broker better ties for Muscat in Washington?
Why should the Indonesians make a breakthrough normalization agreement with Israel if the Biden administration is not enthusiastically backing the Abraham Accords?
The Current Climate
All this must change. Especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the special role that Israel has played in preventing escalation to all-out war between America/NATO and Russia, it is time for the Biden administration to adopt a more positive approach to expanding Arab/Islamic peace accords with Israel.
Despite “Trumpian residue” on the Abraham Accords and Palestinian dissatisfaction with the Accords dynamic – doubling-down on the pacts should be a priority U.S. foreign policy goal, a “no brainer.”
In fact, the Abraham Accords can and ought to be rebranded as a spur to peace with the Palestinians. Progressives ought to connect with this benefit. The Accords mean much more than economic peace benefits for the Palestinians (which was the Trump administration’s focus). The Accords can and should mean reconciliation and acceptance.
Consider the psychological impact that the Accords have on Israelis. They can travel and trade openly with Arabs across the region. They “feel the love,” viscerally feel the amity and excitement of their new partnerships.
This has provided Israelis with a sense of calm and confidence about their future in the region. After all, key Arab actors and leading Moslem clerics have reaffirmed the indigenousness of Jews in their holy land and accepted the permanence of the State of Israel.
I sense that this has softened overall Israeli attitudes towards Arabs and Moslems, as well as reinvigorated the hopes of Israelis for peace with Palestinians – although sadly that seems a long way off because of Palestinian sclerosis. In the reciprocal direction, Egyptian and Jordanian attitudes towards Israelis seem to be warming somewhat as well.
In sum, the Abraham Accords are about much more than diplomatic relations; much more than a defense partnership against Iran; much more than tourist exchanges; much more than commercial ties and high-tech advances. The Abraham Accords are about a deep change of paradigm.
Perhaps down the road, if smart actors in Washington handle the Abraham Accords opportunity with more vigor, even the Palestinians can become better disposed toward real compromises for peace.
David M. Weinberg is a senior fellow at The Kohelet Forum and Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum. He has led several Israeli/Jewish missions of intellectual dialogue in the UAE. His diplomatic, defense, political, and Jewish world columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com.