Demonstrators storm the US Capitol Building, January 6 2020.
With just two days left for President Trump’s tenure to end, 20th January hopefully marks the end of what has been a chaotic, polarized, and horrid few months in the United States. The tension around the controversial elections and the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters morphed into an insurrection with right-wing extremists storming the Capitol building on January 6th, 2020. Under federal law, Congress must meet on 6th January to validate the election result by counting the electoral votes. The Vice President presides over the session and officially declares the winner after they complete the counting. Demonstrators stormed into the Capitol building, which disrupted Congress proceedings, and the clash with the Capitol Police resulted in the deaths of law enforcement personnel and protestors. The pandemic and political fervor ravaging the US and the world at large resulted in the sidelining of an occurrence of significant consequence to the peace and future of the Middle East: The Abraham Accords. Although these Accords garnered a tepid response from the international media, this agreement between Israel and two Gulf Nations - The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Bahrain marks the beginning of a new chapter for Arab-Israeli politics.
The Abraham Accords
(From L-R) Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed during the Peace Accord signing ceremony in the White House.
The Abraham accords are a series of agreements and joint statements between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and the UAE, with the United States acting as the mediator of this agreement. The accords were officially signed in the White House on September 15th, 2020. The accords signify the official normalization of relations between Israel and the two Gulf countries. UAE became the third Arab country after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, to formally normalize its relationship with Israel. Bahrain followed suit and became the fourth Arab country to recognize the state of Israel.
The agreement between UAE and Israel was signed a month before (August 15th) the agreement between Israel and Bahrain, but both these agreements were collectively signed on September 15th at the White House. Before the agreement between Israel and the UAE, there was no official relationship between the two nations, but informal trade channels to conduct business and unofficial communication was active. Before normalization, the UAE did not allow Israeli citizens or passport holders entry into the country, except for transit. There were no direct flights between the two countries. Although there was no restriction for UAE citizens to visit Israel, the UAE government barred its citizens from visiting Israel.
After the agreement between UAE and Israel was signed, the UAE for the first-time established telephone links by unblocking Israel’s +972 country code to allow for direct communication. The first direct commercial flight from Israel to the UAE flew on 31st August 2020, and the first cargo ship from the UAE entered Israel’s port of Haifa on October 12th, 2020. Many kosher restaurants were opened in the UAE to serve the expected influx of people from Israel.
First Israeli commercial flight to the UAE takes to the skies.
The agreement between Israel and Bahrain also called for the establishment of flights between Tel Aviv and Manama. The two states also agreed to exchange ambassadors and open embassies in each country and begin working together in areas of technology, health and agriculture. Most countries welcomed the normalization of the relationship between the Jewish State and the two gulf nations baring Palestine, Iran and Turkey, entities having a lot to lose because of the agreement.
Key Players and Benefits
Benjamin Netanyahu had a lot to gain from this agreement. This agreement sets the precedent that the Israeli government can negotiate and formalize its relations with its Arab neighbors without conceding to demands from the Palestinian front. On a personal level, this foreign policy accomplishment establishes him as a shrewd statesman and boosts his popularity ahead of another national election.
Given that the normalization of relations would strengthen ties between the nations of the agreement, Netanyahu has managed to shift the balance of power towards Israel. This deal can potentially move Israel’s defensive capabilities to Iran’s doorstep in the Persian Gulf. It helps move Israel and Saudi Arabia much closer to form an unofficial alliance of sorts against the influence of Iran and Turkey.
It also opens up the wealthy Gulf markets to Israeli products and services. There will be willing buyers for Israel’s high-tech defense, security and surveillance products which will boost its coffers.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This proverb is the main motivation for the UAE to formally recognize the state of Israel. The Sunni majority country now has additional support to counteract the influence of the Shia majority Iran and the regional insurgencies that it sponsors.
The biggest win for UAE could be Israel and the US’s concession to sell advanced weapons to boost its defensive capability. There are rumors that the US will now sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, something that the US had avoided to protect Israel’s strategic interests. Further Israeli-UAE defense collaboration and technology-sharing can now be conducted openly, an important win for both countries.
There is a lot to gain on the economic front as well. Israeli’s are avid investors, travelers and consumers and the influx of technical expertise, funding and collaboration with the booming Israeli startup sector can give the UAE a much-needed boost to diversify its economy away from oil.
For a state whose decisions are heavily influenced by Saudi Arabia, this deal provides Bahrain with access to resources to bolster its defense against Iran and Turkey. It also opens up an opportunity, just like for the UAE, to engage in open economic trade and get the transfer of groundbreaking Israeli technology in defense and agriculture.
Although Donald Trump lost the election, the deal is one of the most significant foreign policy achievements of his tenure. Amidst intense criticism regarding his handling of the pandemic, this achievement served as a respite from the constant blame. The deal would also have appealed to his conservative, pro-Israeli base, thus strengthening his chances in the now lost election.
It also allows for the sale of US weapons to the Gulf nations, something which was prevented by law before to protect Israel. It also empowers nations in the Gulf and Israel to take up greater responsibility to counterbalance Iran’s influence at a time when the US is retreating from the region.
It also establishes the US as a nation still having the ability to broker world peace at a time when it’s influence on the international field is waning in many avenues.
The Palestinian Predicament
The Abraham accords have left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Palestinian people and authorities. The PLO reacted angrily and called the accords a betrayal. It conveys the message that the Gulf regimes are more interested in obtaining economic and defense benefits to counteract Iran at the cost of pressuring for Palestinian statehood. Sceptics of the accords believe that the deal will further radicalize the Palestinian people and may exacerbate the skirmishes and insurgencies that are common to the region. Those that advocate for the Abraham accords point out that the UAE and Bahrain can now diplomatically engage with Israel and actively support Palestinian aspirations. Although the latter seems unlikely, only time will tell how the effects of the accords will unfold and establish a new dynamic in the middle east.