The Centrality of the Abraham Accords
Jan 29, 2021 | Bret Stephens
In November 2013, I participated in an interview at the Wall Street Journal with Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi prince of legendary riches and blunt, if sometimes unsavoury, views.
It turned out to be an exceptionally interesting interview. Three months earlier, Barack Obama had surrendered his red line in Syria, refusing to make good on his prior threats of military action in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama seized on a Russian proposal to have Assad voluntarily relinquish his declared arsenal – a proposal that proved remarkably easy to violate while heralding a new era of American fecklessness in the Middle East.
“The US has to have a foreign policy,” Alwaleed said that day. “Well-defined, well-structured. You don’t have it right now, unfortunately. It’s just complete chaos.”
As dismayed as Alwaleed was by Obama’s climbdown in Syria, he was even more alarmed by Obama’s turn toward Iran, in the form of an interim nuclear deal that would later become the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The prince warned that Iran’s supposedly moderate leaders were not to be trusted. He also hinted that Saudi Arabia had a nuclear option thanks to an “arrangement with Pakistan.”
And then Alwaleed dropped a little bomb of his own. “For the first time,” he said, “Saudi Arabian interests and Israel’s are almost parallel. It’s incredible.”
That a prominent Saudi prince was willing to say it on the record, in the pages of a leading US daily and in impolitic defiance of an American president, proved how right he was.
In many ways, the meeting with Alwaleed was the first hint of what, seven years later, would bear fruit in the peace deals known as the Abraham Accords. Israel signed the first of them in September with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. It is in the process of finalising (with the help of some US diplomatic bribery) ententes with Morocco and Sudan, will probably soon make a deal with Oman, and seems ultimately destined to strike one with Saudi Arabia itself. The prospect that the Arab–Israeli conflict, long thought to be the world’s most intractable, might be brought to an end much sooner than anyone dreamed possible offers powerful lessons to the incoming Biden Administration for how to conduct a successful Mideast peace policy – provided it has the humility and good sense to learn them.
THE ARAB RECKONING
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Arab civilisation at the beginning of this millennium resembled nothing so much as a gigantic prison of desperate inmates, dangerous gang leaders, cruel wardens, and crumbling walls. It was also a civilisation that had long been in denial about the causes of its failures. As the historian Bernard Lewis pointed out at the time, for centuries much of the Arab world had developed an almost reflexive habit of accounting for its misfortunes by asking: “Who did this to us?” There was never a shortage of scapegoats: Mongol invasions in the 13th century, Ottoman overlords in the 17th and 18th, British and French imperialists in the 19th and 20th, and then, after 1948, the Zionists and their friends in America.
The endless search for outside culprits, Lewis noted, served to deflect a more difficult, if also more productive, question: “What did we do wrong?”
That began to change in 2002, when the United Nations Development Program published the first of five landmark studies, written by prominent Arab scholars.
Among their findings: Spain translated more foreign books into Spanish in a single year than the Arab world had translated foreign books into Arabic in a millennium. Spain also had a larger gross domestic product than all 22 states of the Arab League combined. Half of all Arab women were illiterate. Per capita income growth in Arab countries was the second-lowest in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa’s, with 20% of people living on less than US$2 a day. Unemployment was high and getting higher, especially among the youth. In terms of demography, nearly 40% of all Arabs were under the age of 14, the largest youth cohort in the world.
Though the report contained the obligatory throat-clearing about the alleged evils of Israeli occupation, it was refreshingly candid about where the real problems lay. The Arab world, it argued, suffered from critical deficits in political and personal freedoms, educational resources and scientific know-how, and women’s empowerment. These were not the result of perfidious outsiders, but of repressive leaders, corrupt elites, and a broader inability to master the challenges of modernity.
If the conclusions of the Development Report seemed academic, its point would quickly be driven home by a more direct set of challenges. From about 2003 onward, Islamist terrorism – hitherto directed mainly against non-Muslims – turned the weight of its savagery inward. The same Arab leaders and secular intellectuals who privately saw the attacks of 9/11 as an overdue comeuppance for the United States, or had celebrated suicide attacks against Israelis during the Second Intifada, quickly learned how easily such methods could be turned against them.
The hard consequences of Arab economic mismanagement came home to roost as well. In 2007–08, global food prices rose sharply. Arab countries, which import most of their food, were especially vulnerable. In Egypt, consumer prices for bread rose as much as fivefold in the months before the 2011 collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
The hardest shock of all was the Obama Administration’s abrupt abandonment of decades of US policy in support of our allies. This came in the form of serial decisions to call for Mubarak’s departure, withdraw all US forces from Iraq, steer clear of involvement in Syria, accept a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, negotiate a nuclear deal with Teheran guaranteed to strengthen its regional hand, and treat Russia’s military re-entry in the Middle East with near-indifference. If much of the Arab world’s street had been infuriated by the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, its leaders were no less appalled by the policy of American disengagement carried out deliberately under Obama.
Taken together, these developments underscored to Arab leaders – at least those still standing – the tenuousness of their position. Could they survive major internal upheaval? Would the US continue to guarantee their security? Was it possible to return the genie of Islamist fanaticism to its bottle? How could they reform their economies and societies in ways that provided opportunity and hope? Above all, what could be done to halt Iran’s seemingly unstoppable rise?
As Arab leaders struggled to come to grips with their vulnerabilities, Israel was gaining a keener sense of its own strengths.
The Jewish state had also been in a bad state at the turn of the millennium. The misbegotten 1993 Oslo Accords collapsed seven years later in a diplomatic humiliation at Camp David for then-prime minister Ehud Barak. This was followed by an eruption of Palestinian terrorism, in which more than 1,000 Israelis – the proportional equivalent of 43,000 Americans – were murdered. The economy went into a deep recession. Media solons insisted that Israel could not possibly defeat terrorism through military means. In many places, Israel was treated as a pariah state.
Yet within a few years, and despite stumbles such as the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel had turned itself around. The IDF crushed the Second Intifada. The economy recovered and thrived, with GDP rising from US$132 billion (~A$170 billion) in 2000 to almost US$400 billion (~A$514 billion) in 2019. Israel’s demographic picture did not, contrary to the usual anxious predictions, darken: On the contrary, as the Herzl Institute’s Ofir Ha’ivry has shown, Israel’s fertility rate is by far the most robust in the developed world, while fertility rates in the Arab world (including among Palestinians) have gone into a steep decline.
On the diplomatic front, Jerusalem significantly strengthened its ties with India, Japan, Greece, Oman, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Chad – all countries of strategic significance to Israel. And while Israel fought three wars against Hamas following the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the Palestinian question has, for the time being at least, become less of an existential threat and more of a chronic condition.
What makes Israel’s progress all the more remarkable is that it achieved it by consistently defying the reigning international consensus as to what it should do.
In 2011, then-US secretary of defence Leon Panetta said that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the region and that it was time for it to get to “the damn table.”
In 2014, Obama warned in a Bloomberg interview that time was running out for Israel to come to terms with the Palestinians. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach,” the president said, “then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
Then-US secretary of state John Kerry added his own confident prediction in 2016. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world,” he said. “No. No, no, and no.”
What was it that Israel’s leaders understood about the region that the Obama Administration didn’t? Four main points stand out.
For starters, Israelis distrusted the so-called Arab street and hence were not enthusiastic about the so-called Arab Spring. Israelis understood, in a way that relatively few Westerners did, that the two most plausible alternatives to a secular dictatorship like Mubarak’s were, on the one hand, a radical theocratic regime led by the Muslim Brotherhood, or, on the other, chaos.
Israelis had also tired of the standard Western analysis that it was “two minutes to midnight” before the last hopes for peace with Palestinians expired. A solution for the Palestinians would have to wait until Palestinian leaders stopped rejecting every Israeli peace offer and brushing aside every Israeli olive branch.
Israelis understood, too, how vulnerable Arab leaders were in the face of Teheran’s tightening grip over a crescent of Arab capitals that stretched from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut to Gaza to Sana’a. That vulnerability was all the more acute as it became clear that the Obama Administration was not interested in standing up to Teheran’s imperialism. If Arabs wanted a determined and capable ally, they would have to look elsewhere.
Finally, Israelis knew that, in the Middle East, the coin of the realm isn’t love. It’s respect.
In bidding for the world’s love during the Oslo years, Israel had lost much of that respect. But in the last 20 years, the Jewish state won it back by: crushing the Palestinian terror apparatus; locating and eliminating a North Korean nuclear reactor in eastern Syria; assassinating powerful Hezbollah commanders such as Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008; challenging Iran across a wide domain; standing up to Barack Obama in Washington; and responding forcefully to attacks and provocations from Hamas. In doing all this, Israel demonstrated to its neighbours that, far from being their enemy, it could well be their most valuable asset against their enemy.
In November 2015, Israel opened a full-time diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, officially as part of the International Renewable Energy Agency, making it the first permanent Israeli foreign-ministry station in a Gulf country. Such contacts would only become more frequent in the years leading up to the Abraham Accords. There were handshakes between senior Saudi and Israeli figures at the Munich Security Conference; there was intensified intelligence cooperation; and PM Binyamin Netanyahu made a public visit to Oman. To anyone paying attention, the Abraham Accords could not have come as any sort of surprise.
Near the end of the Obama Administration, a friend of mine half-joked that Obama had belatedly earned his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize – by uniting Arabs and Israelis in horrified opposition to him. There was more than a grain of truth to it. In the space of a few years, Obama, whose election was supposed to herald a new era of global respect for America, had succeeded in infuriating or betraying nearly all of America’s traditional allies in the region while winning no new friends.
This was no way to conduct US foreign policy. Much as many Americans may wish it otherwise, the US continues to have vital interests in the Middle East. The US cannot allow a hostile power to dominate a region that accounts for close to 40% of global oil production (and oil that is much cheaper to produce than what is extracted by fracking from shale). It cannot allow the world’s most fanatical regimes to acquire nuclear capabilities, setting off an arms race in the world’s most combustible region. It cannot accept the permanent establishment of jihad incubators similar to what the Taliban established in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah in much of southern Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza.
Finally, the US has a long-term interest in encouraging reformers in the region wherever we might find them – whether it’s in government ministries in Riyadh, a protest movement in Teheran, or a TV station in Dubai. But such encouragement is a far cry from the sort of democracy promotion that was embraced by the Bush and later Obama Administrations, which wound up legitimising political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the followers of Musa Sadr in Iraq that view democracy merely as a vehicle to establish their own authoritarianism.
Where does the creation of a Palestinian state rank on this list of American priorities? Not high, in the final analysis. There’s a shopworn argument that the failure to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a major reason for ideological extremism and jihadist terrorism. Yet to the extent that extremists and jihadis care about, and act upon, their Palestinian grievance, it’s to destroy Israel in its entirety, not to create a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one. There is also an argument that a Palestinian state of some kind will be necessary to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. But even if one concedes the point, it’s an argument about Israeli interests, not American ones.
The infatuation so many US policymakers have with Palestinian statehood has disserved American interests in myriad ways.
• It confuses a vital national interest with a political wish – in this case, the wish of American presidents like Bill Clinton and secretaries of state like John Kerry to be lauded as peacemakers.
• It perpetuates the damaging myth that the plight of the Palestinians is the gravest in the region – to the detriment of other Middle Eastern people, such as the Kurds, who have fared far worse at the hands of Turks, Iraqis, and Syrians alike.
• It perpetuates the false notion that a solution to the Palestinian issue would somehow solve everything else.
• It allows the Arab world to go on asking “Who did this to us?” rather than “What did we do wrong?”
• It plays into the propaganda of America’s radical enemies, led by Iran, that Israel’s behaviour, rather than their own, is the chief source of turmoil and injustice in the region.
• It asks that this same ally, Israel, weaken its defences and take the proverbial “risks for peace,” when what America most needs from Israel is a strong country that can defend itself, come to the aid of its neighbours, provide the US with critical intelligence and tactical know-how, and serve as a bulwark against the region’s radicals.
• It puffs the vanity of Palestinian leaders and encourages them to pursue maximalist demands and reject every compromise, since it is only through the perpetuation of conflict that they remain relevant actors on the world stage.
• It stands in the way of full normalisation of ties between Israel and Arab states by tying normalisation to demands that Israel cannot safely meet, such as relinquishing the Jordan River Valley or allowing the descendants of Arab refugees from 1948 to return to Israel.
• It feeds antisemitic stereotypes. As one French ambassador put it not long after 9/11, “All the current troubles in the world are because of that shitty little country, Israel. Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?”
In sum, not only did the Obama Administration harm US interests and values by overworking the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it harmed Israeli, Arab, and even Palestinian interests as well. Could the Trump administration do better?
To its credit – and to the pleasant surprise of some of its critics, including me – it did, in spades.
In February 2017, I wrote a column titled “Mideast Rules for Jared Kushner.” Donald Trump’s son-in-law had been handed the Israel-Palestine brief by the new president, and so I addressed him directly. “For Mr. Kushner,” I wrote,
“the goal of diplomacy isn’t to ‘solve’ the Palestinian problem. It’s to anaesthetise it through a studied combination of economic help and diplomatic neglect. The real prize lies in further cultivating Jerusalem’s ties to Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Abu Dhabi, as part of an Alliance of Moderates and Modernizers that can defeat Sunni and Shiite radicals from Raqqa to Tehran.”
I don’t know whether Kushner read the piece, but the ideas I was expressing offered an intellectual foundation for what would become the Abraham Accords.
To the extent that the Accords are about the Palestinian issue at all, it is that they turn conventional thinking about it on its head.
Instead of the usual view that a Palestinian state is the precondition to full Arab-Israeli normalisation, the Accords suggest that a Palestinian state will happen only as a result of that normalisation. There is an intuitive and compelling logic to this. If Israel does not have to fear a hostile or chaotic neighbourhood, it has less to fear from a Palestinian state. And if Palestinians observe that good relations between Israel and other Arab states are the norm, there’s less of a reason for them to stand out as the violent exception.
Yet the Abraham Accords are not, at bottom, about the Palestinians at all. On the contrary, they are about decoupling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Doing so has obvious benefits for all sides. Israeli airliners no longer have to take a circuitous flight path to avoid overflying the Arabian peninsula. Abu Dhabi can acquire state-of-the-art F-35 jets from the US without risking a de facto veto from Israel’s friends in Congress. American military strategists and intelligence operatives can leverage this burgeoning alliance both as an added deterrent and a force multiplier against regional enemies.
The significance of the Accords goes deeper. Had raison d’état governed the calculations of Arab statesmen, their quarrels with the Jewish state would have ended long ago. But the longstanding Arab refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy is the expression not of national interests. It’s a civilisational impulse. It stems from centuries of faltering confidence and wounded pride, which even the most clear-eyed Arab statesmen – including Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s late King Hussein – found hard to challenge.
Overcoming it requires a change not just of policy but also mentality, a willingness to rethink assumptions that are as much cultural and psychological as they are political and strategic. It means looking at Israel as a regional role model and strategic partner, and at Palestinians as just another nation. That at least two Arab leaders were prepared to do all this in exchange for no territorial concessions by Israel is a considerable tribute to their farsightedness. In this sense, the Accords are about finally coming to grips with the fundamental causes of the decline of the Arab world, not just the immediate threats to its existence.
As for the Trump Administration, whatever else might be said about its conduct of foreign policy, it was refreshingly indifferent to State Department formulas and shibboleths that had governed 50 years of US policy and condemned it to futility.
They also show how little the US gains through a policy of Mideast even handedness. To his considerable credit, Trump shut down the Palestinian mission in Washington. He moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem. He recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He offered a peace plan for an eventual Palestinian state that clearly tilted toward Israel. The plan later provided the pretext for the Abraham Accords, after the UAE offered Israel a peace deal in exchange for Netanyahu backing off from his pledge to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank.
Simply put, US policy of being maximally pro-Israel did nothing to diminish America’s standing with its Arab allies. If anything, it did the opposite. Why? In part because Arab solidarity with Palestinians has always been opportunistic. But it’s also because what Arab states want from the US isn’t balance. It’s reliability as an ally. An America that supports Israel to the hilt is one that understands the value of loyalty – an attractive feature to any country that looks to the US for support.
I write all this as someone who has never disguised or disavowed my disdain for Trump: I supported both of his impeachments and have never regretted my opposition to him. But I believe in giving credit where credit is due.
Nor am I optimistic about the direction of Mideast policy under Biden, whose sole idea for the region seems to be his eagerness to bring the US back to the JCPOA. But I believe in giving new presidents the benefit of the doubt.
In the short term, Biden’s effort to return to the JCPOA will probably strengthen Israel’s strategic ties with its new partners – at America’s expense. US outreach to Iran will also likely stiffen Israeli resistance to US pressure to resume negotiations with Palestinians. Jerusalem would be rash to cede an inch if sanctions on Teheran are eased, to the benefit of Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other Iranian terrorist proxies on Israel’s doorsteps.
Still, it behooves the incoming administration to at least consider how the Abraham Accords can advance traditional Democratic foreign-policy objectives.
Peace: American presidents have sought, with mixed success, to normalise Israeli–Arab relations since Harry Truman was in the White House. This is not just a matter of altruism. The US benefits when its allies are not at daggers drawn and Washington doesn’t have to worry about placating one side at the expense of the other. The history of Israeli-Arab wars has also been a story of US foreign-policy crises, whether it was the Eisenhower Administration rupture with Britain and France in 1956 over Suez, the nuclear alert during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the US intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s, or Iraq’s Scud-missile attacks on Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. The Abraham Accords are a major step toward ensuring that these sorts of crises never happen again.
Global strategy: If the Biden Administration believes that the US needs gradually to reduce the scale of its Mideast commitments – perhaps for the sake of pursuing the Obama-era pivot to Asia – then it had better do so in a way that neither leaves chaos in its wake nor creates openings for American adversaries. Broad normalisation between Israel and Arab states can never fully compensate for a diminished US footprint in the region; no Israeli aircraft carriers exist to patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf. But it can help. A united Israeli-Arab front could stymie Iran’s bid to become a regional hegemon, prevent Assad from regaining full control of Syria, and undermine transnational threats like Hezbollah or the remnants of ISIS – all of them threats to the US as well.
Regional integration: Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan, to which it sells arms (some of them used to appalling effect against ethnic Armenians in the recent conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh) and which it uses for intelligence purposes against neighbouring Iran, is one model for how Israel could cooperate with, say, Bahrain. A better goal for Israeli–Arab relations would be the old Turkish–Israeli alliance, which involved close commercial ties, extensive tourism, and mutually productive diplomatic cooperation. That relationship held for more than 50 years until the Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power. Arab-Israeli economic integration cannot by itself address the Arab world’s social and economic challenges. But it points the Arab world in the right direction: cultivating human capital, and not letting past grievances stand in the way of future opportunities.
A (somewhat) more reputable United Nations: Imagine a UN whose business was less lopsidedly anti-Israel. Normalisation might dampen the organisation’s infamous biases against the Jewish state, restoring some of its long-lost credibility.
Anti-fundamentalism: The biggest prize for Israel, as for the United States, would be for Saudi Arabia to join the Accords, which seemed to come tantalisingly close to fruition after Netanyahu paid a not-so-secret visit to the kingdom late last year. For the Saudi royal family, now deeply riven over the question, it would also mark the ultimate reversal of policy: from being the principal Sunni underwriter of anti-Western, anti-Christian, and antisemitic Islamism to being a friend and partner of the Jewish state. That, in turn, would require a profound shift in how the kingdom approaches the practice of Islam, what it teaches its schoolchildren, the mosques and madrassas it supports overseas. If what the US ultimately needs most in the Middle East is a region that doesn’t export misery and fanaticism, then a prime objective of the Biden Administration’s policy should be to push the kingdom toward Israel.
Yes, the Palestinians: A Palestinian state will never come into being on account of US or international pressure. It could, however, come into existence when two conditions are met. The first would come about when Israeli leaders have complete confidence that territorial withdrawals in the West Bank will not lead to Gaza-style results. And the second could happen when Palestinian leaders and people alike abandon their long-held goal of destroying Israel as a Jewish state, both by renouncing the so-called right of return and forswearing the use of terror. Both those conditions would be significantly advanced in a world where Israel had normal relations with most of its neighbours.
CAN BIDEN ACCEPT IT?
Will the Biden Administration pay heed to any of this? Given the usual tendency of incoming administrations from the opposing party to view everything done by their immediate predecessor as dangerous, stupid, or both, my hopes aren’t high.
But the new administration ought to pay heed because the alternative will be failure. Iran has made it clear that it has no interest in returning to the JCPOA on anything but the deal’s original terms, which would have lifted the arms embargo on Iran last year, and then lift restrictions on centrifuges and enrichment within the decade. Whatever the Biden team thinks of that, it’s unacceptable to Israel and its new allies. For the US to return to the deal would bring the region closer to war. Nor will a resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians yield better results than the last time they were tried, during Barack Obama’s second term.
But what if Biden simply accepted that a new dynamic is at last afoot in the Middle East, and that there can be immense upsides – and more than enough credit to share – by harnessing it to American purposes?
No matter what one thinks of Joe Biden, America desperately needs a successful presidency. The logic contained in the Abraham Accords offers him one shot at success in a place that matters, and where so many others have failed.