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War in Gaza Forces Tough Choices on Israel's Arab Partners

FILE - Protesters shout anti-Israel slogans during a sit-in in support of Palestinians, in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 27, 2023.
FILE - Protesters shout anti-Israel slogans during a sit-in in support of Palestinians, in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 27, 2023.

The Israel-Hamas war is forcing tough choices onto the Jewish state’s partners in the 2020 Abraham Accords, which must seek a middle ground between placating an angry Arab public and trying to preserve the economic and strategic benefits of the deal.

So far, the two main signatories - Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - have made opposite choices, with the former halting economic ties and recalling its ambassador and the latter reiterating its commitment to the accords.

Sudan, which signed onto the accords in 2021, has expressed support for the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to have their independent state, but it is too consumed with its own civil war to have said much more.

Morocco, meanwhile, has strongly denounced Israel’s bombing campaign across Gaza and deplored what it sees as inaction by the international community. However, it has yet to act on demands that it sever diplomatic relations with Israel.

Over the longer run, analysts say, the future of the agreements and prospects for their expansion are likely to hinge on the outcome of the war and on what efforts toward a permanent peace the combatants are willing to make.

Courtney Freer, an academic in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at Emory University in the southern U.S. state of Georgia, noted that in Bahrain last week, the parliament declared the suspension of economic ties with Israel. Khaled Al-Jalahma, Bahrain's ambassador to Israel, has been recalled, and flights between Tel Aviv and Manama have been suspended.

But in the UAE, she noted, the chairman of the Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee “went so far as to call the accords ‘our future’ earlier this week. This response is obviously quite different from what we are seeing, at least with respect to the Bahraini parliament.”

Air travel between the UAE and Israel also remains operational.

Freer said the future of the agreements hinges, in part, on the resolution of the conflict and on the role that Arab states play in that process. She also noted that it was too early to tell how far-reaching and long-lasting these effects would be.

“We have various parliaments, like Tunisia's, discussing legislation that would criminalize normalization with Israel; other states like Kuwait already have such legislation in place. Obviously, if these laws are put in place, they complicate efforts to expand the Abraham Accords,” she said.

“In the countries where normalization already exists, however, I do not believe we will see a full reversal, but it is perhaps too early to know for certain,” she said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has suggested that the action by Bahrain’s parliament was aimed more at reassuring the public than indicating a significant shift in relations. “Israel-Bahrain relations are stable,” the ministry said in an official statement.

FILE - Volunteers help pack aid for the Gaza Strip at a donation center set up by the Emirates Red Crescent in Dubai, UAE, Oct. 21, 2023.
FILE - Volunteers help pack aid for the Gaza Strip at a donation center set up by the Emirates Red Crescent in Dubai, UAE, Oct. 21, 2023.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Chatham House think tank in London, told VOA that there was certainly pressure from both the UAE and Bahraini populations on their governments to defend and protect civilian life in Gaza.

“Both the UAE and Bahrain are trying to work multilaterally to advance a humanitarian corridor and pressure for a cease-fire. Behind the scenes there are also clear messages being sent to the Israeli government that ties are fraying,” Vakil said.

She suggested that a change of leadership in Israel could help but stressed the critical importance of a just settlement for long-term stability.

"It will be harder to publicly engage in bilateral political discussions with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's government, so new leadership in Israel could settle some of the preexisting tensions. Above all, without addressing the need for a just settlement on Palestine, ties will be strained for a while," she said.

Ahmed Aboudouh, a nonresident fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, emphasized the delicate position Arab nations find themselves in. They face domestic pressure to support the Palestinians while also being committed, in the long term, to their normalization agreements with Israel for strategic reasons.

"The murky nature of Bahrain’s decision to cut off, or not cut off, its diplomatic ties with Israel shows the enormous challenges Israel’s agenda of circumnavigating peace with the Palestinians in favor of building ties with the Arab world is facing," Aboudouh said.

"While there is no evidence, so far, that these countries may sever their diplomatic and economic ties with Israel soon, the chasm the war has created in the relations is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It will definitely intensify as long as Israel’s extreme far-right government is unwilling to heed the international calls for peace negotiations,” he said.

Aboudouh also said the war might discourage other countries from joining the Abraham Accords.

"The war will also put off other regional players to have official relations with Israel as a high-risk, high-cost endeavor that, at any moment of escalation, can put their regime stability domestically under huge pressure and potentially cause a regional conflagration that no one in the region wants to see,” he said.

“In other words, the current war has proven to some Arab governments that Israel is an unreliable partner that can create a burden on, rather than maximize, their regional interests,” he added.

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