Hard Questions, Tough Answers- Two Years into the Abraham Accords: What works, What Doesn’t (August 22, 2022)


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. Israel reportedly just cancelled a September celebration of the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Why?

A. Apparently the Arab delegations pulled out for fear of being accused of tampering with Israel’s November 1 Knesset elections. Assuming there is no more sinister reason, this may be a good opportunity to assess where the Abraham Accords have succeeded and where dangers still lurk--dangers that could negatively affect this dramatic expansion of Israel’s relations with the Arab world.

(Note that normalization between Israel and a fourth Arab partner to the Abraham Accords, Sudan, has not developed over the past two years due to prolonged internal unrest in that country.)

Q. Start with successes . . .

A. While the Abraham Accords built on clandestine strategic and economic relationships between Israel and Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain that go back decades, progress in the technological-economic sector since the formal act of normalization has been nothing short of spectacular. Economic interaction is booming, with the Israel-UAE relationship leading the way.

Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed a Free Trade Agreement on May 31 of this year, and annual trade is predicted to reach $10 billion over the next five years. The two countries are also partners in I2U2, the Israel-India-UAE-US economic-technological union celebrated during President Biden’s July visit to Israel. Israel-Bahrain and Israel-Morocco relations are not far behind.

High-level diplomatic and military visits are common. In the high-tech sector, executives and their families are ‘relocating’ in both directions as partnerships blossom, particularly between Israel and the UAE.

Militarily, Israel is selling technology, weaponry and training. This aspect of cooperation is not without its complications--some would say, risks. Thus, Israel is openly advising and arming Morocco regarding its conflict with Algeria over the Western Sahara. Similarly, Israel and the two Gulf states, the UAE and Bahrain, are exploring forms of military cooperation against Iran.

Q. Now you’re getting into more problematic territory . . .

A. Indeed, Israel and Abu Dhabi and Dubai (the two principal city-states of the UAE) have begun entering into relations of inter-dependence in strategic industries and ventures that are without precedent and that explore uncharted strategic territory. Thus, for example, an Abu Dhabi government company now holds 22 percent of a major Israeli natural gas reserve in the Mediterranean. Israeli civil aviation is betting economic and tourist calculations on the open skies policies of its new partners, which shorten travel to the east.

A UAE acquisition of a major Israeli port could prove as strategically risky as the already existing Chinese strategic-commercial presence in Israeli infrastructure and university-based research and development. Note that some of Beijing’s strategic investments in Israel are of considerable concern to the United States.

For the moment, these ventures are profitable and seem beneficial all-around. But they could prove problematic in the event of destabilization or war in the region or unrest in the ruling circles of Israel’s partner countries, where there is little pretense of democratic rule.

Q. How about the overflow effects of all this activity? How do Israel’s new Arab partnerships affect the broader region, starting with Israel’s more veteran peace partners, Egypt and Jordan?

A. One of the open secrets of the Abraham Accords’ success is the determination of Israel’s new Arab partners not to mortgage cooperation with Israel to the Palestinian issue. This has potential complicating ramifications for Israeli-Palestinian ties that we will return to. It is also already evident that Israel-UAE-style normalization has not spread to the more veteran Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian relationships.

Both Cairo and Amman were expanding military strategic cooperation with Israel even prior to the Abraham Accords--a move dictated by unrest in Syria and by Iranian and Islamist threats. But, broadly speaking, commercial ties have not grown, with the notable exception of expanded Egyptian-Israeli tourist and aviation cooperation in Sinai, where it transpires far from the public eye in Egypt.

There is simply too much pro-Palestinian popular sentiment in Jordan and Egypt to warrant risking a popular backlash by expanding open normalization. The same applies to the Saudi regime. It recently allowed overflights by Israeli commercial aircraft, and there is plenty of semi-clandestine commercial collaboration. But the Saudis insist that a genuine UAE-type normalization breakthrough will have to await progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

In contrast, the overflow benefits of normalization in the direction of Europe and Asia are palpable. Israel’s growing links with the UAE render Israel a more attractive military and technological partner elsewhere. Turkey, for example, is warming up relations and hopes to transport Israeli Mediterranean gas to Europe. Israel’s recent inclusion in the operational map of the United States’ Central Command (Centcom) facilitates military ties in the Middle East. The war in Ukraine, along with Israeli military sales in the Persian Gulf and to Morocco, have boosted European arms purchases.

As one IDF officer put it recently in Haaretz, “Our new legitimization among some Arab countries strengthens our ties with the Europeans. It’s easier for them. In the last year and a half you can see a huge leap in the IDF’s international activity. . . . Submarine crew training in Holland, mountain-climbing training in Nepal, a helicopter simulator in India, cooperation with US special forces, cyber defense studies that we administer to numerous countries.”

Q. And the effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations?

A. We have already noted the stubborn ongoing insistence of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia on conditioning expanded relations to a broad extent on the Palestinian issue. Israel’s recent three-day clash with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip provided an excellent example.

When Egypt’s Intelligence Chief, General Abbas Kamel, negotiated a ceasefire in Gaza and it was sealed in a conversation between President Sisi and Prime Minister Lapid, Cairo expected that Israel would avoid any further military action against PIJ in the West Bank as well. It was precisely such Israeli activity that had triggered the Israel-Gaza PIJ confrontation in the first place.

So when a PIJ fighter in Nablus was killed by the IDF within days of the Gaza ceasefire, Egypt reacted angrily--to the extent of temporarily curtailing its normal military cooperation with Israel. The head of Israel’s Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, had to make an emergency trip to Cairo this Sunday.

This sort of volatile interaction over the Palestinian issue is not currently conceivable between Israel and, say, Morocco or the UAE. At most, when Gaza or the West Bank go violent, Israel’s new normalization partners suffice with a mild diplomatic protest and/or a financial grant to the Palestinians.

Q. But can Israel count on it always being like this?

A. Turning to the international diplomatic arena, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is planning a move that could generate tensions in all of Israel’s relations with Arab countries. Abbas may be in the diplomatic dog-house with Americans and Europeans (and of course, Israelis) over his “fifty holocausts” accusation against Israel last week in Germany. And his popularity among West Bank Palestinians may be at an all-time low due to accusations of corruption and his faltering hold on power.

But next month, when he asks the United Nations Security Council to recognize Palestine within the 1967 border as a full-fledged state--albeit a state under occupation--the entire Arab world is likely to support the move. Israel’s leaders, preoccupied with Nov.1 Knesset elections, are barely paying attention.

Such a UN event is not likely to rock the foundations of normalization even if it may have ramifications (e.g., regarding borders and settlements) for a distant Palestinian-Israeli peace process. But it does signal that the West Bank-based PLO is frustrated that the Arab world is paying less and less attention to the Palestinian issue.

As Abu Mazen’s leadership profile declines and as unrest, corruption and armed activity (and Jewish settlement activity) increase in the West Bank, it is possible to conceive of a situation so anarchic and violent that even Abu Dhabi, Manama and Rabat feel the need to react. That situation may not be far off, and it could test the stability of the new normalization.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The Arab-Israel normalization process that began two years ago is flourishing. It remains an undeniable achievement of Israel’s then-PM Netanyahu and US then-President Trump. Netanyahu’s successors, Bennett and Lapid, have cultivated ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco assiduously. President Biden is an active supporter. Those ties are hugely beneficial to regional stability, to the Israeli economy . . . and to the Israeli ego.

Yet one key to success has been precisely the distance between Israel and these Arab countries. Their leaders feel they can afford to ignore the Palestinians with their overblown and problematic political demands, their disunity (West Bank-Gaza), their corruption and their violence (Gaza).

Yet the closer you get to Israel, the more difficult this stance becomes. Note that Saudi Arabia, which almost borders on Israel, keeps its distance from normalization despite pressures and enticements. And Egypt and Jordan, both veteran peace partners and direct neighbors that are deeply invested in the Palestinian issue, have barely warmed up relations, if at all.

Those relations are far more vital to Israeli-Palestinian stability than ties with Morocco or the UAE. And with Israel and the Palestinians rapidly sliding down a slippery slope toward binational status, Israeli-Palestinian stability increasingly means Israeli domestic stability.

Where will this dichotomy take us? Stay tuned.