A Historic Turning Point in Arab-Israeli Relations?

The ‘normalisation’ of diplomatic relations between several Arab countries and Israel in late 2020 was described at the time as ‘historic’. Four experts consider whether it will lead to long-term change.

Israeli soldiers on the outskirts of Rafa, during the 'Six Day War', or 1967 Arab–Israeli War, fought 5-10 June 1967. Wiki Commons.

‘The Abraham Accords represent a shift in the policies of the Arab despots’

Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Penguin, 2014)

In the second half of 2020 four Arab states signed the so-called Abraham Accords, normalising ties with Israel: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Only Egypt and Jordan had previously concluded peace agreements with Israel. Was this a critical mass, a historic turning point in Arab-Israeli relations?

In my opinion the Abraham Accords do not merit the grand epithet of ‘historic’ because they do not touch the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian problem is the core of this conflict and has been the central issue in Arab politics since 1945. Until very recently, there was a broad consensus in the Arab world in favour of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel as the price of peace with the Jewish state. 

This consensus found its most authoritative expression in the Arab Peace Initiative, a resolution adopted unanimously at an Arab League summit conference in Beirut in 2002. The API offered Israel peace and normalisation with all 22 members of the Arab League as the reward for withdrawing from all occupied Arab land and agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. Israel rejected the offer and continues to reject it. 

What all four Abraham Accords have in common is that they represent peace on Israel’s terms; in other words, peace for peace rather than land for peace. Israel has not had to pay any price for normalisation. Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain under the most brutal and prolonged military occupation of modern times. Not surprisingly, Palestinians denounced the Abraham Accords as a stab in the back. 

President Trump persuaded the authoritarian rulers of the four Arab states to recognise Israel with promises of American weaponry, containment of Iran, removal of Sudan from the list of terrorism-sponsoring states and recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. But the Accords have met with strong popular opposition in the four countries and in the rest of the Arab world. They represent a pragmatic shift in the policies of the Arab despots rather than a genuine turning point in Arab-Israeli relations. 

 

‘For Israel to live in peace, it must end its occupation of Palestine’

Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of Making the Arab World (Princeton, 2018)

Actions in politics often produce the opposite of their intended consequences.  Donald Trump’s so-called ‘deal of the century’ marks a historic turning point in Israel Palestine relations, though not in the way that Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu had intended. Trump’s decision to unilaterally and illegally gift the remaining part of historical Palestine to Israel not only destroyed the framework for a two-state solution but has also made the one-state solution or a bi-national state with citizenship and equal rights for both communities a reality. Although Israel’s strategic goal is to annihilate the very idea of an independent Palestinian state, Trump and Netanyahu’s actions will ultimately bring about a bi-national (Israel-Arab) democratic state: history’s ultimate revenge.  

As for the normalisation of official Arab-Israeli relations – unveiled to great media fanfare in the last days of the Trump administration – it is simply a geostrategic partnership between insecure authoritarian Arab rulers and an expansionist Israel. Arab autocrats now consider Iran and popular opposition at home to be a greater threat than Israel and are therefore prepared to forsake the Palestinians at the altar of their strategic alliance with Tel Aviv. 

But far from a turning point, this top-down Israeli-Arab partnering overlooks the fundamental question of Palestinian rights and Israel’s place in the region. Palestine still resonates deeply in the Arab popular imagination, which considers Israel an existential threat. Surveys and studies of Arab and Muslim public opinion towards Israel contrast sharply with the propagandistic narrative peddled by Arab rulers and right-wing politicians in Israel and the US. 

For Israel to be fully integrated in Arabia and live in permanent peace, it must end its occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands and recognise its neighbours’ legitimate rights. This historical moment provides Israel with a stark choice – to assist in the development of genuine peace in the region and be a good neighbour, or continue as a colonial fortress, which sadly means living in a perpetual state of war. 

 

‘Normalisation has very little to do with the real issue in Israel and Palestine’

Ilan Pappé, Professor of History at the University of Exeter and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies

The Abraham Accords are not a turning point in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even before the creation of the state of Israel there was a gap between the way Arab societies viewed solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and the way their governments acted on the ground. This was particularly evident in 1948, when public opinion forced reluctant Arab governments to interfere militarily in Palestine. 

For a while, the difference between public opinion and official action was not pressing. The popularity of the Palestinian national movement on the one hand and Israel’s desire to create a non-Arab alliance in the Middle East (with Iran and Turkey) on the other led to polices on Palestine which were widely endorsed by local public opinion. Yet the weakening of Soviet presence in the region and the relative Egyptian success in the 1973 October War pushed Egypt outside the cycle of direct conflict with Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians. This was a precursor for a process that continues today and that has led some Arab regimes to normalise their relationship with Israel, while ignoring the continued and deep commitment to Palestine among their societies.

American hegemony after the end of the Cold War meant that the survival of quite a few regimes depended on good ties with the US. Many Arab leaders were convinced that the way to Washington goes through Jerusalem. Even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in a way accepted this logic when it consented to the Oslo Accord. It is also the motive for the Abraham Accords.

The Arab Spring has shown that democratisation in the Arab world would mean, inter alia, demand for a more committed policy towards the Palestinians. The unpopularity of the recent normalisation policies could lead to further destabilisation in the future. More importantly, it has very little to do with the real issue in Israel and Palestine. Israel controls the whole of historical Palestine and half of the population there are Palestinians who live under a matrix of Israeli rule that denies their basic human and civil rights. As long as this situation continues, no accord will prevent further conflict and bloodshed in the land of Abraham.

 

‘Diplomacy has proven incapable of figuring out what to do about religion’

James Rodgers, BBC correspondent in Gaza (2002-04) and author of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

No, but it is an important moment. After years when Israel has been treated (publicly, at least) across the Arab world as an enemy, it has ‘Peace with the United Arab Emirates, peace with Bahrain, peace with Sudan and now peace with Morocco’, as its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, put it when he met President Trump’s adviser Jared Kushner in Jerusalem on 21 December 2020. It was 26 years since Israel had signed its peace treaty with Jordan and more than four decades since it made peace with Egypt. 

The reasons why this is not a historic turning point are rooted in two more distant dates: 1948 and 1967. The former saw the founding of the State of Israel, the latter the start of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Both are remembered in Palestinian history as times when Palestinians suffered great injustice – wrongs that are yet to be righted and are not addressed in the agreements. While the text of the Accord between Israel and Bahrain does mention ‘continuing the efforts to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, the Palestinians see little in it for them. To make their point, they temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Bahrain and the UAE.  

The Abraham Accords were so named by their American sponsors because of their desire to ‘advance a culture of peace among the three Abrahamic religions’. Here, the agreements touch on a key element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without offering a solution. In an interview for my 2015 book Headlines from the Holy Land, the former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, said ‘diplomacy has so far proven incapable of figuring out what to do about religion’ – a key factor in the conflict. These Accords are likely to be remembered as significant for the wider region in the sense that they were part of Trump’s staunchly pro-Israel foreign policy and for the possibilities they offer for building diplomatic alliances against Iran. They are not a historic turning point in Arab-Israeli relations because they do not directly address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.