Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Mr. Bennett goes to Abu Dhabi: strategic update on the Abraham Accords (December 13, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: On Sunday of this week, Naftali Bennett arrived in Abu Dhabi--the first Israeli prime ministerial visit to one of the Arab countries that in 2020 signed on to the Abraham Accords. Defense Minister Gantz recently visited Morocco and concluded a deal to sell Israeli arms. Can we say that Israel’s relations with its new normalization partners have reached a new level?

A: Yes, though only with three of the four Arab countries involved. Sudan, the fourth, was always a reluctant partner. In October, a military coup there put already hesitant normalization procedures on hold.

 Meanwhile, the past year has witnessed the inauguration of three new Arab embassies in Israel and of Israeli embassies in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Morocco, along with tourism, direct flights (some six a day to Dubai!), and lots of business. Israel’s trade with Abu Dhabi exceeded $600 million in the first half of 2021. Bennett’s hi-tech background (two multi-million dollar ‘exits’) is a big attraction in the Emirates.

It is striking to note that the business and tourism aspects of Israel’s relationship with the three Arab countries blossomed far more quickly than they did with Israel’s more veteran peace partners, Egypt and Jordan, and already outdistance them. On the day of Bennett’s visit, the UAE’s youth national football (soccer) team was in Israel playing (and losing to) Israel’s team--the first such visit by an Arab national team in Israel’s history.

The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon is that Morocco, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are far away. They don’t border on Israel, were never in a state of war with Israel, and have never been actively involved in the Palestinian issue. Add to this that all three had extensive clandestine relations with Israel for decades, and that Israel’s very large contingent of Jews of Moroccan descent, nearly 500,000 not counting mixed-marriage descendants, has since the 1950s and ‘60s cultivated ties and customs that favor an unusually warm rapprochement.

Then too, the Abraham Accords reflected genuine urgent strategic needs in two of the four Arab countries that US financial largess (vis-à-vis Sudan) and diplomatic largess (recognizing Morocco’s controversial claim to the former Spanish Sahara) could satisfy. This, along with Israeli and American arms and support to the UAE and Bahrain for potentially deterring Iran. Still, normalization purchased with ordnance, goodies and perks almost never worked with Egypt and Jordan, and here it did work, spectacularly.

Q: How does Bennett’s visit reflect Israeli politics?

A: In ironic ways, all of which concern Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Netanyahu who, together with US President Trump, cooked up the Abraham Accords back in 2019-20. A visit to the UAE last March was supposed to be the crowning glory of Netanyahu’s efforts to expand Israel’s Middle East relations. But the trip was cancelled due to a spat with Jordan, which briefly refused to grant Netanyahu’s plane overflight rights on its way eastward to Abu Dhabi. Netanyahu had cultivated the distant UAE but had brutally neglected Israel’s next-door neighbor and provider of vital strategic depth.

Since then, in his first half-year in office, Bennett has patched up and even upgraded (see below) relations with Jordan. In flying to the UAE, he refused to use the prime ministerial plane, Israel’s version of Air Force One, that Netanyahu outfitted for his personal use at a huge expense in taxpayers’ money. Meanwhile, the world was treated to a Trump interview in which the former US president disowned Netanyahu in no uncertain terms.

To top it all off, on the day Bennett was being greeted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) in Abu Dhabi, Netanyahu’s family lost yet another status symbol--its security perks, bodyguards, chauffeured cars, etc. This reflected a decision by a Bennett government committee which chose to ignore the ex-PM’s panicky, passionate and pathetic public complaints that his wife and two grown children were in danger from rabid leftists.

Q: How have Israel’s Abraham Accord normalization deals affected the rest of the Middle East? Israel’s earlier peace partners Egypt and Jordan? Turkey? Iran? The Palestinians?

A: This is where we go beyond the glitzy tourist packages and hi-tech and arms deals and get to some fascinating nuances of the new Abraham Accord era. Happily, on the positive side both Jordan and Egypt have felt obliged to expand their own commercial ties with Israel so as not to lag behind their fellow Arabs. UAE money is oiling the wheels. Most spectacularly, the Emirates are funding a huge solar electric plant in Jordan’s ample desert, which will supply clean energy to Israel and help power a desalination plant on Israel’s Mediterranean coast that will supply much needed fresh water to Jordan.

But news in the rest of the Middle East is less encouraging from Israel’s standpoint. The UAE may be arming itself with US and Israeli help on the basis of threats posed by Iran, but Abu Dhabi is also reaching out to Israel’s enemies and arch-critics in the region. Note a recent high-level UAE visit to Tehran. And a visit to Turkey by MbZ himself. And renewed relations with Syria. In other words, any Israeli delusions about a genuine strategic alliance with the Emirates have been dispelled by the UAE’s ongoing display of serious regional strategic reach, wherein Israel is only one of many partners not all of which are to its liking.

Then there is the Palestinian dimension. In normalizing with four Arab countries, Netanyahu publicly walked back his aspiration to annex parts of the West Bank to Israel and accepted the territorial status quo of the Oslo Accords. Bennett, who is no less hawkish about the West Bank than Netanyahu but lacks both the coalition clout and presumed American backing of the Trump era, would like to recruit Emirate financing for ‘economic peace’ deals in the West Bank (Qatar, a UAE rival, channels money to the Gaza Strip). These would be intended, in the delusionary neo-imperialist thinking of the dominant right-religious mainstream in Israel, to guarantee at least medium-term peace and quiet on the Palestinian front.

But Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who defiantly condemned the Abraham Accords and has basically been left out of all the normalization talk and accordingly been snubbed by Israel’s new peace partners, is not interested. So Naftali Bennett may be able to celebrate normalization in Abu Dhabi, and Benny Gantz to sell weapons in Rabat, but closer to home, in the West Bank, the situation is certainly not improving. Creeping annexation--unofficial to be sure--continues with every new settler land-grab farm and settlement expansion.

Israel may be embraced by parts of the Arab world, yet it is ultimately almost certain to stand alone in confronting its two primary strategic challenges: conflict with Iran, and the slippery slope leading it to a highly conflicted binational reality with the Palestinians.

Q: Apropos Israel, the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, last week witnessed President Biden’s Summit for Democracy. None of Israel’s Abraham Accords partners is a democracy and none was invited. Nor is there a viable working democracy among the other Arab countries. What can we say about the state of Israeli democracy? Palestinian democracy?

A: As 2021 draws to a close, it is fair to say that Israeli democracy flourished this year with the ending of 12 years of Netanyahu rule and the advent of an extremely pluralistic government embodying the political right, left and Arabs. The presence in the ruling coalition of Mansour Abbas’s Raam party of Islamist-leaning Israeli Arabs represents a dramatic first for Israeli democracy.

Still, there remain lots of problems threatening Israeli democracy. Some on the opposition political right, mimicking Trump Republicans, still insist on delegitimizing all or part of Bennett’s perfectly legitimate government. Many on the right, including those in the coalition, seek to constrain the role and influence of the High Court of Justice in a manner that threatens the executive-legislative-judicial balance.

And then there is the elephant in the room of Israeli democracy: the occupation of the West Bank, which cannot in any way be reconciled with democratic values. Nor, for that matter, can we find much by way of democracy in the Palestinian governance dimension of the West Bank and Gaza, even allowing for these territories’ lack of sovereign rule.

The West Bank has not held leadership and parliamentary elections since 2007. Palestinian Authority elections were scheduled for last May, then cancelled when it became apparent to the ruling PLO that it would lose to Hamas. This week the PA is holding municipal elections, but only in rural areas where Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas apparently calculates he can win. And Gaza is firmly ruled under Hamas’s Islamist dictatorship. 

Q: Bottom line?

A: Congratulations to Bennett for visiting Abu Dhabi. Normalization with the Arab world is at a high point. But Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian slippery slope still constitute existential threats.

Most alarming of all? While Israel and the entire world are at least trying to deal with one aspect or another of the Iranian threat, neither Israel nor its new Arab friends is dealing constructively with the Palestinian issue. The Arabs are leaving this to Israel and the Palestinians. And Israel and the Palestinians, led by Bennett, Mahmoud Abbas and Gaza’s Hamas, are only making matters worse, day-by-day.

It is important that Israel’s friends, whether in Abu Dhabi or Washington, not lose sight of this slowly gathering tragedy.