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The Abraham Accords: An invitation to rethink the Arab-Israeli conflict

Point of View, 08.10.2020 Research Areas

The Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may have started as a PR stunt, but regional and global circumstances have turned them into a potential game changer. Europe should assist in leveraging them to reengage with the Palestinian issue, writes Gil Murciano.

German facilitation of the first meeting between the Israeli and UAE foreign ministers on Tuesday is a welcome change in the European attitude toward the Abraham Accords, which are viewed very differently in Europe than in the Middle East. In the region, supporters and antagonists alike view the accords as a meaningful development that revises the rules of engagement for Arabs and Israelis. However, in Europe the agreement is often downplayed as being yet another PR stunt designed for the mutual electoral interests of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Others dismiss this step as symbolic – a mere formalization of the relations that have existed below the surface between the parties for years now.  

Improving Netanyahu’s declining approval ratings and boosting Trump’s image as statesman before the elections are among the main motivations behind this initiative. Nevertheless, they do not reduce the potential impact of the accords as a challenge to the status quo. The Abraham Accords set in motion new regional dynamics in a time of new regional needs. The lesson learned from previous rounds of conflict and peace in the Middle East – from Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount – is that when the timing is right, symbolic steps can become the catalyst for major political developments.

The Abraham Accords break a long-standing taboo in the Arab world. The prevailing formula – as outlined by the Arab Peace Initiative (2002) – was that normalization would be granted to Israel in return for making meaningful political compromises vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The accords have shattered this formula, as they replace the equation of “peace for land” with the Netanyahu-coined “peace for peace” approach, in which normalization is given almost unconditionally. Moreover, the accords reframe the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of Arab-Israeli relations. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been downgraded to yet another topic alongside other standing issues. The needs to counter Iran’s regional ambitions or utilize economic opportunities have all become alternative frames of reference to Israeli-Arab relations. Prevention of annexation notwithstanding, Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT) have hardly served as main motives for the UAE and Bahrain to normalize. This process of disassociating Arab-Israeli relations from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may create a domino effect, in which other Arab nations that are not involved in direct confrontation with Israel will follow suit.

Shifting regional priorities

The potential of the accords to change regional realities relies on its extraordinary timing. As the Covid-19 crisis takes its toll, national priorities – from Khartoum to Kuwait City – are partially shifting from traditional political considerations to urgent economic needs. The decline in oil prices and the expected decline in growth of more than 7 percent in Gulf Cooperation Council countries in 2020 have turned general goals such as diversifying the Gulf economies and utilizing new global business opportunities into immediate necessities. In this nexus, normalization with Israel provides an undeniable opportunity. Israel’s status as a leading hi-tech hub presents a viable platform for joint cooperation in multiple fields from agriculture to health. For other regional actors, such as Sudan, US endorsement of the normalization process offers the opportunity to mend relations in the hope of lifting sanctions and receiving financial aid.

From an international perspective, the potential of the accords to influence the Israeli-Palestinian political stalemate remains a key question. On the one hand, the accords serve as yet another disincentive for Israel to reengage with the Palestinian issue. They demonstrate that Israel’s acceptance in the region does not necessitate paying the price of tough compromises on the Palestinian front. The Israeli public’s sense of urgency for dealing with topics such as the occupation or the settlements will decrease even further, as the accords enhance the comfortable illusion that the events shaping Israel’s future in the region are taking place in Abu Dhabi and Muscat instead of in Gaza and Kalandia.

Nevertheless, the accords reintroduced the terms “peace” and “normalization” into Israeli public discourse after a decade of absence. The violence affiliated with the “Arab Spring” enhanced the Israelis’ self-perception of their country as a “villa in the jungle.” These events had turned their perception of normalization with the Arab world from a token concern into an outdated distraction. Now, and for the first time in decades, public polls indicate a change in the Israeli public mindset regarding normalization, both on the political and economic levels, reinstating it as a matter of value.

Using the regional context to reengage with the Palestinian issue

The Abraham Accords invite European leaders to rethink their policy approach regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the last two decades, the EU approach has been to compartmentalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the regional context and focus on bilateral relations. The accords offer new opportunities to leverage the broader regional context as a basis to reengage with the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europe’s involvement in enhancing Israel’s regional normalization is not a withdrawal from the two-state solution. On the contrary, it should become a factor in reconnecting the normalization process with efforts to influence Israeli policies in the OPT and Gaza. The converging interests between the moderate regional forces and Europe have already been demonstrated in the campaign against annexation. At present, leveraging the accords to constructively influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sounds highly unlikely, as the actors involved either aim to cement the separation between the topics (Netanyahu), or under-prioritize the need to engage with it (Trump). Nevertheless, possible changes to the political leadership in the near future in Israel, the United States and the Palestinian National Authority – combined with growing Arab public pressure on the normalizing countries to address the Palestinian issue – might present an opportunity to harness regional influence to impact Israeli policies. Instead of observing from afar, Europe should be at the forefront of the effort to promote this regional dynamic as a conciliatory vector. After all, who can speak better for regionalism as a basis for peace than the EU?

This text was also published at fairobserver.com.

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