Ever since its founding in 1948, Israel has been in a seemingly perpetual conflict with its neighbouring states in the Arab world. The only Arab states to recognize Israel and normalise relations in a span of over seventy years being Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, both peace treaties involving renegotiation of territory. In 2020, however, this all changed. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain both signed normalisation agreements with Israel within the span of just one month. But how could this paradigm shift in diplomacy come to be, and what does it mean for the future of the region?
The normalisation treaties, known as the Abraham Accords, were signed with the promise of the Israeli government to suspend their annexation plans of occupied Palestinian territories. This being what sparked the agreement is especially noteworthy as it breaks with the Arab Peace Initiative (API), a Saudi led peace proposal which the United Arab Emirates(U.A.E) and Bahrain both endorsed, and later re-endorsed at the 2002, 2007 and 2017’s Arab League summits. The API states, amongst other things, that no normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel shall take place unless an independent Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, be established first. So, what made the two gulf Arab states abandon their long-standing demand of an independent Palestine in a period as short as only three years?
The answer is not simple, but an important part of the answer involves Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has long championed the idea of annexation of both the West Bank territories occupied by Jewish settlers, as well as the strategically positioned Jordan Valley. These plans stand in direct opposition to most interpretations of international law, and have thus garnered abysmal levels of international support. However, this all changed when in January of this year U.S. president Donald Trump launched his Israel-Palestinian peace plan. In it he promised full U.S. support to Netanyahu’s plans of annexation. The Trump administration thus became the first to support any form of imposed sovereignty, lending Netanyahu’s cause considerable strength.
But is this really the reason behind the peace agreement? That Palestinian sovereignty was threatened and the U.A.E and Bahrain heroically swooped in to save their ally from impending annexation? That is certainly the story the gulf states would want to sell, as it makes it look as if they not only acted for peace amongst themselves and Israel, but also to save their Arab brethren. In reality, however, the annexation plans were likely not going to come into fruition anytime soon and thus the suspension is only delaying what was already being delayed. More than anything, the Abraham Accords have actually seen Palestinians lose support for self-determination. This is certainly the sentiment amongst both Palestinian leaders and the population. The decision sparked massive protests and political condemnation in Palestine. Bahrain and the U.A.E’s decision therefore can hardly be explained by a will to actually defend Palestinian interests, the reason lays elsewhere.
In contrast, Israel’s reason for wanting to make the deal seems simple. The state has long sought recognition and peace with their regional neighbours. The deal is a huge step for Israel’s national security, while also securing trade deals with countries rich in valuable oil resources. This foreign policy win is especially important for Netanyahu, whose approval rating has been steadily declining as a result of his management of the corona crisis. Not managing to deliver on his promises of annexation would of course further tarnish his reputation, and this deal forms an excellent op-out. It lets Netanyahu promise to go through with annexation later while still putting peace first.
When it comes to why Bahrain and the U.A.E want to normalise relations there are a host of reasons. Both countries have long had unofficial relations and cooperation with Israel, and they have likely long sought a reason to strengthen diplomatic ties, but have been unable to do so without compromising their relationship with their other allies or upsetting their citizens. They have however, just now, been given an excellent cassus pax, getting to play the role of saviours.
However, the U.A.E and Bahrain’s main reason for normalising relations with Israel seems to be the common enemy of Iran. While the U.S. has made plans of retracting from the region, Iran seems like the strongest contender to fill a potential power vacuum. This means that the U.S. allies in the region have to increasingly fend for themselves. With its strong military and economy, as well as its advanced technology, Israel is a useful ally to have. The U.A.E has also been negotiating a weapons deal of acquiring U.S. F-35 aircraft, something Israel has vehemently opposed. With normalised relations these deals are more likely to go over smoothly. In fact, the U.A.E have a previous history of doing military deals with Israel in which they have sought their expertise in drone warfare and cybersecurity.
Another reason for the normalisation is that the Arab monarchies see less and less gain in supporting Palestine. Firstly, Israel is by now well established and stable, it’s not going anywhere. That is not something that can be said about the fractured Palestine which is politically divided and suffers constant regional power struggles. Why help those that can’t help themselves, especially as there is nothing to gain that isn’t just symbolic? There is also the fear that, if Palestine were to unite into a functioning democratic state it could set the precedent for people to seek democracy within the gulf monarchies. This fear became very real during the Arab spring where Bahrain’s leaders would have been toppled if not for Saudi intervention.
Will other Arab countries follow suit? While impossible to tell at this time, it does seem very likely, especially among the states of the gulf. Oman’s state television, for instance, has reported that “The Sultanate welcomes the initiative taken by the sisterly kingdom of Bahrain”. Also adding that they hoped it would be a step toward a peace between Israel and Palestine that would eventually result in the “end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and on establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital”.
Saudi Arabia, the strongest of the gulf states, has under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also increasingly gone for a more Israel friendly rhetoric. He was, in fact, the first gulf Arab leader to recognise the right of Jewish people to their own nation-state in an interview to The Atlantic in 2018. But, even though Mohammed bin Salman is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler he still has to look to the opinion of his 84 year old father and of other powerful figures of the family. The conservative King Salman is, in contrast, not at all inclined to normalise relations with Israel unless an independent Palestine is first established. So as to keep an image of political unity and to not lose prestige for breaking the Arab Peace Initiative, a proposal the Saudi’s themselves drafted, it might yet take a while for them to officially make any normalisation agreements.
Saudi Arabia is however, like the other gulf states, feeling increasingly threatened by Iran. Mohammed bin Salman has, in fact, been very outspoken against the Shia state and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Saudi Crown Prince even claimed that the “Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good”, further accusing the Ayatollah of “trying to conquer the world.” Whether Saudi Arabia will directly cooperate with Israel soon or not remains to be seen but it is increasingly clearer that some form of partnership is in the works.
As mentioned previously, Saudi Arabia saved Bahrain’s leadership during the Arab Spring. After the uprising had been quelled the small island state lost much of its autonomy, basically becoming a vassal state of Saudi Arabia. Since then no greater foreign diplomacy decisions would have been taken without the direct approval of the Saudis. This of course includes the normalisation agreement with Israel. For now, the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel might simply be by proxy, but the Saudis are taking clear steps towards the eventuality of making it official. Indeed, even now, on tightly controlled social media, religious scholars are propagating for warmer relations between the states and for the equal treatments of Jews.
It seems that the gulf Arab states are willing to abandon their symbolic cold war of diplomacy to instead prepare for a threat they perceive as way more real.