The Abraham Accords Still Show the Way Forward

February 15, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelSaudi ArabiaNormalizationIranHamasDiplomacy

The Abraham Accords Still Show the Way Forward

Despite frequent public protestations from virtually all Arab states regarding Israel’s conduct in Gaza, the movement toward normalization doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy. 

The current war in Gaza presents the first real challenge to the Abraham Accords. If the Accords prove to be more than a temporary political achievement, it will provide a durable framework incorporating more states into the fold. If not, the regional balance of power may be in greater flux than we think.

The Abraham Accords culminated in the normalization of ties between Israel and a handful of Arab states—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. The prevailing hope was that this much-heralded breakthrough would serve as a bridge to the crown jewel of diplomatic normalizations for Israel—Saudi Arabia. It remains an open secret that the Kingdom (custodian of the two holiest sites of Islam and figurehead of the Arab world) and the Jewish state have seen an alignment of interests. The specter of an ever-expanding, Iranian-backed Shia crescent has been enough for these two unlikely partners to thaw relations over the past decade.

The Accords remain intact. Despite frequent public protestations from virtually all Arab states regarding Israel’s conduct in Gaza, the regional status quo doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy—aside from one notable player. Turkey, a non-Arab nation, has adopted an exceptionally harsh posture towards Israel since October 7.

Enigmatic as ever, Turkey remains a wild card pursuing a truly independent foreign policy. Historically, It has served as the base of a mighty Islamic empire and an avowed secular republic. Today, this complexity manifests itself in two rather ambiguous positions.

First, the Turks coordinated with the United States on toppling the Islamic State yet remain fixated on wielding this latitude to strike Kurdish groups throughout the region (who have proven to be some of Washington’s most reliable partners). Tensions escalated when an American F-16 shot down a Turkish drone flying too close to U.S. forces in northeast Syria. The second duplicitous stance is on the war in Ukraine. Turkey is a NATO member, supplying Ukraine with military hardware. Yet Ankara refuses to sanction Moscow.

In late December, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likened Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to former German chancellor Adolf Hitler over Israel’s campaign in Gaza—a particularly incendiary and evocative comparison. Erdoğan’s increasing anti-Western rhetoric (especially rampant over the last election season in 2023) is fueled by the leader’s attempt to reanimate the Islamic character of Turkey. Tracking Ankara’s foreign policy under the neo-Ottoman banner that animates the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be worthwhile.

Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf monarchy about four times the size of Washington, D.C., has lodged negligible statements against Israel. The island remains the sole Arab member of Operation Prosperity Guardian—a U.S.-led naval coalition aimed at deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Crowds of Bahraini protestors, taking exception to the obvious pro-Western leanings of the royal family, have been confronted by riot police in recent months. The protests mark some of the largest gatherings since the Arab Spring revolt shook the nation nearly fifteen years ago.

Morocco is another Abraham Accords signee facing similar domestic unrest. Numerous days with tens of thousands flooding the streets in solidarity with Palestinians highlight the broad disdain felt for Israel. A recent poll showed 75 percent of Moroccans view the October 7 massacre as “legitimate resistance.” Even this seems to be a relatively conservative figure.

Egypt and Jordan remain the two partners Israel most requires cooperation from on the Palestinian issue. Despite cosmetic ambassadorial shuffling and (admittedly) sharp admonitions of Israel on the international stage, neither is willing to intervene on behalf of the Gazans. Criticizing Israel also serves as a safety valve for ailing Arab regimes, distracting the people from their governments’ glaring ineptitude and lack of avenues to political participation.

Egypt has legitimate security concerns in the Sinai Peninsula as well as a violent history confronting the Muslim Brotherhood—of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. In fact, the devastating blockade imposed on the Strip so frequently attributed solely to Israel is co-maintained by Egypt. As recently as 2015, Egypt embarked on an all-out offensive to destroy the tunnels linking the Sinai with Gaza—flooding them with sewage water, utilizing aerial and ground explosives in the process. Jordan is a delicate monarchy that now constitutes a majority Palestinian population that unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the king in 1970.

Neither country has an interest in absorbing an impoverished, radicalized population that threatens to upend the fragile demographic balance safeguarding each regime. Even if they were, Egypt remains in perpetual economic crisis while Jordan suffers from acute water shortages (in which Israel already provides substantial assistance).

Most importantly, a Saudi-Israeli normalization still does not seem that far off. As recently as January 9, the Saudi ambassador reassured the United Kingdom that “absolutely there is interest…We’ve been at this for a long time, and [have been] willing to accept Israel for a long time, it’s a reality that’s there that we have to live with.”

That emphatic public response would be enough to raise eyebrows in an ordinary setting, let alone against the backdrop of the current crisis. The New York Times reported on multiple public polls out of the Kingdom from late December, the first of which found that 40 percent of Saudis express positive attitudes towards Hamas (up from 10 percent since before October 7) while 96 percent believe Arab countries should cut all ties with Israel to protest the war in Gaza.

This underscores the incredibly awkward position Arab leaders find themselves in. They must join in the chorus of ire against Israel to mollify the Arab street. The Arab world remains largely skeptical of their governments and often suspects them of acting as feckless puppets of the West. Therefore, moderate leaders must thread an incredibly tight needle to court essential U.S. assistance without enraging the public beyond the breaking point. Arab leaders are correct in not overreacting, which may be politically expedient, in favor of more calculated diplomatic maneuvering.

The Middle East works in cryptic ways—rarely lucid. As always, one must read between the political lines. Many Arab leaders are in the nascent stages of attempting to extend the Overton window in their respective countries to speak of Israel as a partner, not a mortal enemy. This will be a gradual, multi-generational project. Until then, hostile overtures must be occasionally hurled at the Jewish state (or “Zionist entity”) to appease the strident opposition residing in the bustle of Cairo, bazaars of Casablanca, and valleys of Amman. Israel is not particularly miffed at the lack of diplomatic niceties and remains more than willing to endure the antagonistic remarks—as long they culminate in substantive geopolitical developments.

As Iran continues to exacerbate the growing fissures across the region, moderate Arab leaders have abandoned any delusions of grandeur that omit Israel from the solution. This does not discount the genuine enmity Israel engenders among even Arab elites, but Iran and its proxies remain the much more urgent threat. Arab realpolitik is clouding the West’s formulaic sense of diplomacy and foreign policy. Don’t let the strongly worded speeches fool you. Many of the same countries leveling rhetorical haymakers at Israel are also the ones most quietly rooting for them.

Alex Welz is a graduate student at the University of Haifa studying Political Science and National Security. He is also currently an Editorial Intern for The National Interest and a frequent Contributor to The College Fix.

Image: U.S. State Department Flickr.