The Abraham Accords and the Imposed Middle East Order
Having just marked two years since their ratification, the Abraham Accords continue to represent a top-down regional order destined to yield instability, not peace.
Having just marked the two-year anniversary of the inauguration of the Abraham Accords, American politicians and commentators continue to sing praises of a newfound framework for “peace” and the advancement of U.S. interests in the Middle East. Ratified under the administration of President Donald Trump and embraced by President Joe Biden, the Abraham Accords involved the formal normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, and were later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan as well. These four states joined Egypt and Jordan in formally establishing relations with the state of Israel. Marketed as a way forward for the Israel-Palestine conflict and a broader framework for “Middle East peace,” the Abraham Accords have rapidly emerged as a new guidepost for U.S. Middle East policy.
The Abraham Accords have been embraced by both major political parties in Washington as the new guidepost for U.S. Middle East policy and a mechanism to promote peace and security. Both of the newly formed bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucuses in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate used the two-year anniversary to praise the historic agreements for “transforming” the Middle East and ushering in an “unprecedented and lasting peace deal that has made America and the world more secure.” U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken also addressed the anniversary, stating that the Biden administration remains committed to expanding upon the normalization agreements, which serve to advance “regional security, prosperity, and peace.”
Despite the lofty praise, however, the Abraham Accords neither advance peace nor U.S. interests in the Middle East. Instead, they represent the formalization of a coercive political, economic, and security order designed to maintain the status quo in the region. A top-down imposition, the framework of the Abraham Accords is designed to sideline Palestinians and popular Arab opinion in order to push for high-level “normalization” and the formation of a more formal coalition through which regional actors can maintain the status quo and Washington can (presumably) advance its interests. This order is an artificial construct, upheld only via intense exclusion, repression, surveillance, and security guarantees from the world’s preeminent superpower. Furthermore, amid fears that Washington is becoming less interested in the region as it gets pulled toward Eastern Europe and Asia, the accords are designed to keep the United States deeply engaged in the Middle East as a security guarantor.
In this new order, Israel’s project of apartheid and the survival of regional Arab autocracies have become intimately linked. This autocracy-apartheid nexus has led to a Middle East that is more exclusionary and repressive, while reinforcing authoritarianism in the region and Israel’s dominance over Palestine. The presentation of the Abraham Accords as a mechanism to advance peace is designed to distract from the central role of these actors in the region’s destabilization. Washington’s emphatic embrace of such an order is dangerous, as it obscures the true underlying sources of instability in the Middle East while compounding the region’s problems and failing to advance American interests. Though regional actors and many in the West present this order as a breakthrough for peace, underneath the surface is a region primed for further instability, which risks cementing Washington’s commitment to forcefully upholding an artificial and unsustainable order in the Middle East.
Power, Not Peace
When the Abraham Accords were announced, signatories emphasized how this historic declaration would be a tool for “maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East and around the world based on mutual understanding and coexistence.” The UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, argued that the accords prevented further Israeli annexations in the West Bank and “salvaged the two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, representing what he called “probably the biggest concession that was reached for the Palestinian cause in the last twenty-five years.” Jared Kushner, one of the architects of the accords, claimed that the agreements established “a new paradigm” in the Middle East and have “captured the imaginations of the whole region.”
However, such depictions are false. Not only were Palestinians completely excluded from these negotiations, but none of the Arab member states to the accords have ever actively been at war with Israel, raising the question of “peace between whom?” The Abraham Accords were not designed to usher in a genuine solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict or a broader “Middle East peace.” Rather, they were built solely as a mechanism to advance specific governmental interests.
Though high-level connections between Israel and various autocratic Arab regimes have been expanding for decades, they rapidly evolved from largely behind-the-scenes cooperation to more overt forms of coordination following the 2011 Arab uprisings, ultimately culminating in the declaration of the Abraham Accords in 2020. The 2011 uprisings represented an existential threat to the political, economic, and military elites in the Middle East, who have historically benefited from the illiberal status quo and the region’s prevailing balance of power. For Arab autocrats, the wave of mass mobilization that swept the region in 2011 dealt incredible damage to the domestic legitimacy of the authoritarian old guard, with almost every country in the region witnessing some form of protest calling for political, economic, and/or social change. The direct threats to the old order posed by the uprisings were unique because they were interrelated, challenging not only the domestic authority of various individual rulers but also the broader regional authoritarian order. Though Israel was not directly challenged in ways similar to how various Arab states witnessed mass mobilization against their own regimes, it nevertheless viewed the uprisings as a serious threat to its own interests. Israel feared both the vacuums that would emerge following the overthrow of longstanding Arab autocrats and the possibility of adversaries—particularly Iran—expanding their strategic footprint as a result.
However, as I have detailed elsewhere, there is also a strong normative component to the shared fears between Israel and Arab autocrats rooted in a common counterrevolutionary ethos, which views democracy—anywhere in the region—as anathema to their own survival. In the period since the Arab uprisings, Israel, alongside its regional partners, has engaged in a sophisticated campaign of counterrevolution designed to not only preserve the prevailing regional balance of power, but also prevent the emergence of a popular democratic paradigm in the Middle East. Israel is a status quo power in the Middle East and fears that popular governments accountable to their own people would be more demanding in the fight for Palestinian rights and a genuine settlement to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel also benefits from the lack of democratic governance in the region when attempting to rally external support. By portraying itself as constantly on the defensive in a “tough neighborhood,” Tel Aviv is able to project a lasting image of victimhood to its Western supporters. In the early days of the uprisings, this was made evident by the rhetoric of different Israeli officials such as then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who stated that “those leaderships [autocrats] as much as they were unaccepted by their peoples, they were very responsible on regional stability. … They’re much more comfortable [to us] than the peoples or the streets in the same countries.”
It is in this context that the matter of Palestine—which had traditionally served as a barrier to rapprochement—has largely been abrogated as ruling elites in these countries continue to prioritize the sustainment of the status quo above all else. Initiatives such as the Abraham Accords should not be viewed as organic, bottom-up normalization between the Zionist state and Arab publics, but rather a top-down imposition by which popular opinion and the objections of the Palestinian people are forcefully sidelined as likeminded elites in Israel and several Arab states pursue their common objectives. In the post-2011 context, the matter of Palestine has come to be viewed by these governments as little more than an impediment to the advancement of mutual agendas. The Abraham Accords are the product of efforts to preserve and promote power, not peace. Such high-level normalizations have resulted in the complete dismissal of Arab public opinion and the objections of the Palestinian people. The Abraham Accords were designed to solidify the regional status quo—its authoritarian nature, the regional balance of power, and Israeli dominance over Palestine—while drawing attention away from the root problems in the Middle East and the central role these actors play in its destabilization.
These root problems have only grown worse in recent years. In fact, the accords have emboldened these actors, allowing them to continue with their personal agendas while being cheered on by Washington for ascribing to a nonexistent peace.
The Middle East has witnessed an authoritarian resurgence and a strengthening of unyielding personalistic rule. Arab autocrats have ramped up repression to silence anyone who challenges the absolute authority of their regimes. The Abraham Accords have presented Arab autocrats with a lucrative mechanism to curry favor in Washington by cozying up to Israel while simultaneously continuing—and in many cases, deepening—their repressive policies at home. These autocrats have increasingly taken their repressive efforts abroad, targeting dissidents and outspoken critics around the world, particularly within the West. This is in addition to their efforts to harness Israel’s vast lobbying network in Washington in order to rehabilitate their images and advance their mutual agendas for the region.