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How the Abraham Accord Might Impact the Middle East

FILE - Hamas supporters protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank and US President Donald Trump's Mideast initiative, at the Palestinian side of Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, July 9, 2020.

From behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office Thursday morning, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a “historical peace agreement” between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to commence "full normalization of relations." Part of the deal includes Israel’s commitment to suspend annexation of Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank.

The agreement is called the "Abraham Accord" after the father of monotheistic religions founded in the Middle East – Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

“I wanted it to be called the Donald J. Trump Accord,” Trump said to aides’ laughter. “But I didn't think the press would understand that.”

In a statement, the White House said the “historic breakthrough” was made possible by Trump’s “leadership and expertise as a dealmaker.” Hours later, national security adviser Robert O’Brien told White House reporters that he wouldn’t be surprised if the president is eventually nominated for a Nobel Prize.

How historic?

The deal marks the first Gulf country and the third Arab country to have full diplomatic relations with Israel since Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. Egypt signed an agreement in 1979, and Jordan in 1994.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the deal, Emirati officials were more circumspect.

"Is it perfect? Nothing is perfect in a very difficult region," said senior UAE official Anwar Gargash. "But I think we used our political chips right."

For years the UAE and Israel have had under-the-table contacts, which can now be conducted openly. The deal could lead to stronger economic, political and cultural ties not only between the countries’ governments but also among their people.

“Already some prominent Emiratis have been posting on Twitter about going to the beach in Tel Aviv,” said William Todman, an associate fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But while the deal is a significant step in improving Israel’s relations with Arab states and will open possibilities for the two countries, Todman said the importance shouldn't be overstated.

“The UAE was never at war with Israel. And so, in terms of a step towards regional peace, I think that that part is currently being exaggerated,” he said.

Israeli annexation

Trump administration officials refuse to clarify how long Israel will suspend annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank as a result of this deal, and under what circumstances the U.S. would support Netanyahu returning to annexation plans.

“Somewhere between a long time and a short time. That's what temporary means,” said Jared Kushner, White House senior adviser in charge of the Middle East Peace Process.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman confirmed that the issue could be revisited.

“It's not off the table,” Friedman said. “It's just something that will be deferred until we give peace every single chance.”

The administration officials’ statements appear to protect Netanyahu’s domestic interest.

“Israel for its own domestic political reasons will have to couch this as a suspension, and not totally forswearing it,” said William Wechsler, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

However, Wechsler added, it’s unlikely that Israel would restart annexation discussions once full normalization has occurred.

Annexation suspension at this point “makes a lot of sense from the Israeli point of view” Wechsler said, adding that in the long term, control over Palestinian land will put Israel in the bind of choosing between a Jewish identity versus a liberal democratic state where Palestinians have the same citizenship rights as Israelis.

Palestinians have reacted with anger, with a spokesperson to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling the deal "treason."

Palestinian analysts say there will be no changes on the ground.

“There is no suspension,” said Dana El Kurd of the Palestinian policy network Al-Shabaka. “Annexation and the theft of Palestinian land continues unabated, as it did before the Israeli government pointed to a date in the calendar as ‘annexation’ day and will continue to do so after.”

El Kurd said normalization of relations with Israel was one of the few remaining bargaining chips the Arabs had.

“They just squandered it for literally nothing in return,” he said.

Will other Arab countries follow?

Once it has studied the outcome of the UAE deal with Israel, Bahrain could be the next country to follow. Bahrain hosted the Trump administration’s 2019 “Peace to Prosperity” economic summit to promote its Middle East peace plan.

Bahrain would “probably want to wait to understand the reaction from their own populations to images of Netanyahu in Abu Dhabi or Emirati officials in Jerusalem,” Wechsler said.

Other possibilities include Oman and Morocco. And while Saudi Arabia is not officially party to the agreement, the kingdom’s close ties with the Emiratis and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s direct contacts with Jared Kushner indicate their approval.

But Saudis are unlikely to follow anytime soon.

“I would think that given all of the challenges they face, normalization with Israel might be a consideration only after the transition of power in Riyadh is complete and Mohammed bin Salman becomes King,” Wechsler said.

Overall, considering decades of hostility with Israel, all Arab countries will move forward very cautiously.

“There remains significant opposition to Israel in the Gulf countries,” said Todman of CSIS, adding that "normalization is betrayal" in Arabic trended on Twitter in a number of Gulf states including Saudi Arabia on the day of the announcement.

Meanwhile Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population and traditionally a vocal defender of Palestinian rights, also trod carefully. In a series of phone calls with her counterparts from United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, foreign minister Retno Marsudi reiterated Jakarta’s position that the solution of the Palestinian-Israeli question “must be based on relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions and the internationally agreed parameters, including the two-state solution.”

What it means for Iran

The deal, which Tehran has condemned as an act of “strategic stupidity” between Israel and UAE, is seen as a further consolidation of American allies in countering Iran’s influence in the region.

In the short term, this deal will not have much impact on Tehran, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute. But if the dialogue between UAE and Israel is followed by other Gulf countries, or if normalization expands beyond economic and cultural ties to some kind of military relations, there could be significant geopolitical impact.

While Iran said the deal will only strengthen the “axis of resistance” – Tehran’s military approach of resistance using proxies in the region – the strategic dialogue option currently endeavored by the UAE could emerge as an alternative to sway public opinion in the “Arab Street.”

Vatanka said the deal is “a strong, powerful alternative” that has now come to the public. “Everyone can see it, and everyone can judge it for what it is.”