The Abraham Accords: A Turning Point in Middle Eastern Politics | Dan Mikhaylov

Few would have predicted that amid the coronavirus pandemic and the deleteriously divisive issue of race relations, the Middle East would surprise the international community not with horrid images and testimonies of human suffering, but with distinctly positive news. 

In recent years, the region has become synonymous with political turbulence and ethno-religious tensions, and its deep-seated problems have appeared evermore irresolvable. The Arab-Israeli brinkmanship, in particular, underscores the difficulty of change in the regional miasma of stalemate. Decades of diplomatic efforts undertaken by almost every influential polity and organisation at one point or another, have yielded few results, while Palestinians continue to snub Israeli proposals for a definitive peace settlement.

However, the Abraham Accords impugn this impression. In line with Donald Trump’s iconoclastic conduct, the US-led recent normalisation of relations between Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and Israel was unexpected and revolutionary. It was unexpected given the rumoured Israeli annexation of Samaria and its potential to dissuade Arab countries from making overtures towards Jerusalem. The fact that it doubled the number of Arab states recognising Israel, replenishing that list for the first time since 1994, makes it revolutionary. The UAE and Bahrain might even become trendsetters themselves, as there are speculations that Oman and Mauritania might also ride the tide in due course. 

Now that the momentum, set by the Republican administration, has somewhat decelerated, it behoves us to determine whether and how the Abraham Accords could precipitate the advent of peace. While many praised this move towards eradicating Arab-Israeli animosity, gainsayers highlighted to the document’s brevity to suggest that its significance was purely symbolic. Further retorts centred on its impact. Though Manama and Abu Dhabi are laudable for soliciting explicit reconciliation with Jerusalem, they have long been Israeli partners in such matters as national security and technology, and establishing formal ties with Israel for them was a mere formality. 

For others, resiling from historic grievances would be much more difficult. Already, Algeria and Qatar have reiterated support for the Palestinian cause, with similar reactions emanating from Yemen and Palestine’s fragmented leadership. Less promising still, neither Syria nor Lebanon are expected to join Trump’s geopolitical enterprise, owing to their entrenched hostility towards Israel, alimented by a history of armed conflict and the concomitant propaganda against the so-called “Jewish state” fed to the local populations. 

Therefore, recognising Israel would imply doing away with considerable entrenched public animosity, which never existed in the Gulf States, but whose presence elsewhere complicates the road to political harmony. This hostility is difficult to expunge, seeing that almost 1 million UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees inhabit Syria and Lebanon.

Certainly, these concerns are somewhat valid. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute benefitted little from the Abraham Accords, since it involved no direct negotiations with the Palestinian authorities. Moreover, Syrian and Lebanese participation is indispensable to the peace process, albeit far more difficult to secure. Despite sponsoring the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and, in the aftermath of the Fatah-Hamas split, backing one of them in the ongoing power struggle, the Gulf States have not partaken in the conflict between Israel and Palestine as much as Syria and Lebanon have. Yet, the latter cannot befriend Israel without gradually and purposefully overcoming domestic anti-Zionism.

That said, the United States government was correct to facilitate the wider process of pacification in the Gulf. Although Baghdad and Damascus did dictate the entire Arab world’s outlook on Israel in the past, their economic weakness resulted in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh supplanting them as regional leaders. The former is on board with Trump’s initiative. The latter may similarly end up cajoled into joining it.

The monarchy’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, hails from a new generation of Arab leaders, too young to remember the twentieth-century tensions and sufficiently ambitious to execute an equivalent of the 1979 Camp David Accords, when he ascends to the throne. The 34-year-old autocrat might muster support from among the nation’s business elites. In the past, they have demonstrated willingness to partner with Israeli tech firms. Elements of the Saudi entertainment industry is warming up to normalisation, as well: last Ramadan, the Saudi channel, MBC, aired a TV programme that bemoaned the exodus of Gulf Jews from their homes and portrayed Jews and Muslims coexisting in peace. 

Although they were long overdue, the Abraham Accords are finally repainting the Arab-Israeli conflict as one between Palestine and Israel exclusively. Previously, Palestinians exploited the Arab world’s unconditional sympathy to them and excoriation of Israel to walk away from talks in the hope that external pressure might improve their bargaining position later on. Increasingly despoiled of this allusion, they will have no other options but to compromise with Israel, as opposed to perpetuating their myth of victimhood. This is why September 2020 is indeed a turning point in Middle Eastern politics.

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