Since its foundation after World War II, Israel has had a rocky relationship with the rest of the Middle East. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to divide British-controlled Palestine into two countries, one Jewish and one Arab: Israel and Palestine. This sparked a series of attacks on Jewish settlements by small bands of the Arab Liberation Army attempting to prevent this partition. Once Israel did establish its independence, it was almost immediately invaded by the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which sought to preserve the territory as one Arab state because they viewed the arrangement as detrimental to the Arab population living within the new nation. Israel was able to prevail, but a series of wars followed over the next 35 years.
In 1967, the Arab League committed to “three no’s”—no peace with, no recognition of, and no negotiations with Israel. Over this time period, Israel’s troops began to gradually occupy Palestinian territory, and the people of both countries have continued to suffer.
There seemed to be hope for warmer relations after the Camp David Accords signed by Egypt in 1979, and again when Jordan normalized relations with Israel in 1994. However, the rest of the Middle East did not follow. In fact, in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative (API) was created, predicating rapprochement with Israel on a withdrawal from all occupied territories and the full recognition of Palestinian statehood with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Now, two countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have signed the Abraham Accords and established official ties with Israel within 30 days of each other; though neither country has ever been at war with Israel, both are members of the Arab League and signatories of the Arab Peace Initiative. Is there any reason to believe this agreement might make a larger impact on improving the relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world? Experts are divided.
Implications for Israel and Palestine
Both the UAE and Bahrain state that they still support Palestinian statehood and tied their signatures to the condition that Israel delays its expansion farther into the West Bank. However, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has not backed down from his dedication to a potential annexation, and Palestine has been vocal about viewing these accords as a betrayal to the API, withdrawing its ambassador to Bahrain on September 11, the day of the normalization announcement.
Some experts believe that these normalizations are shifting the foundation on which it was assumed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved: normalization in exchange for the recognition of Palestine. If countries begin to officialize relations with Israel without requiring progress on the issue, leaders will need to find a new paradigm for peace.
Bahrain and the UAE may be able to leverage their closer relationship to Israel, and the United States by extension, to promote a two-state solution in place of Israeli domination. However, Bahrain and the UAE are small countries with relatively little pull in the Arab world; their primary role in this conflict may simply be to acclimate the Arab people to closer relationships with Israel or to serve as mediators between Israel and more influential states, not to act as principal negotiators themselves. As such, the full extent of the Accords’ impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains to be seen.
Impact on the Rest of the Middle East
In the past few years, there have been numerous indications that Middle Eastern countries are prioritizing their individual concerns over maintaining strict support for Palestine and antagonism towards Israel. Nearly all Arab Gulf states still officially support Palestinian sovereignty and have committed to the conditions of the API; however, these very countries have also been pursuing economic ties, technological exchanges, and even arms deals with Israel. They have been working, albeit unofficially, with Israel in order to contain Iranian influence in the region and have also been preoccupied with wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria as well as with their own development. America’s pledge to reward the UAE with sales of F-35 fighter jets also provides a clear incentive to sign the Abraham Accords.
On this basis, both Israeli and American officials have vocalized their hope that other Arab countries will soon follow suit and sign the Abraham Accords. However, there remains concern over future of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel. On the one hand, there is a consensus that Bahrain would not have acted without Saudi Arabia’s consent. Additionally, Saudi-Israeli backchannel diplomacy has recently been growing as both countries are deeply concerned about Iran’s growing influence as well as the gradual American disengagement from the region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has an economic plan to foster development in Saudi Arabia, which amongst other things, includes expanding tourism ventures and creating a “smart city” called NEOM. Because of its geographical position and technological prowess, Israel seems to be an ideal partner. Normalizing with Israel would also help restore MBS’s American image which has been damaged by his crackdowns on dissidents, his role in the Yemeni humanitarian crisis, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS even seems to be pushing Saudi media and religious leaders to encourage religious tolerance towards Jewish people so as to decrease public opposition to normalization.
On the other hand, many experts believe that a Saudi-Israeli normalization is not likely to happen anytime soon. Despite MBS’s efforts, there is still extreme public opposition to officializing ties with Israel; Bahrain is facing protests, and anti-normalization rhetoric is trending on social media in Saudi Arabia. In addition, many believe that Bahrain’s rapprochement with Israel is not a sign that Riyadh will follow but rather a consolation prize for the US which has been pressuring Saudi Arabia to improve its relationship with Israel. Israeli experts do not believe that Saudi Arabia will truly normalize with Israel as long as King Salman remains in power. He has indeed been vocal about his commitment to the API in the past and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered “central to the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s kings.” Saudi Arabia also has a unique position as custodian of multiple Islamic holy sites, complicating its ability to improve relations with Israel, a country that many in the region view as a thief of other holy sites in East Jerusalem.
It is more likely that countries like Bahrain and UAE, which are more peripheral to the conflict, will continue to increase ties with Israel, perhaps even signing the Abraham Accords in the near future. As a matter of fact, in late October, Sudan, one of Africa’s largest countries, became the Abraham Accords’ newest signatory with the promise of tens of millions of dollars in American aid. However, it seems that Saudi Arabia is not going to officially normalize with Israel until either an extreme shift in public opinion or a change in leadership takes place; it will continue working with Israel unofficially or through intermediaries, like Bahrain, that are signatories of the Accords. As such, the Abraham Accords may not be a catalyst for peace in the Middle East but a signal of a new trend towards prioritizing national concerns more highly and working with Israel on shared interests.