In Israel’s telling, the Abraham Accords have been an unqualified success since their signing exactly two years ago on the White House lawn.
Welcoming United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the President’s Residence on Thursday, President Isaac Herzog called the agreements “a paradigm change in the Middle East, of sounding new voices, of painting new horizons for our children and their future and a celebration of life and change.”
The accords, which normalized Israel’s ties to the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, have certainly changed the Middle East, and there is no shortage of achievements to point at. Trade between the UAE and Israel is expected to reach more than $2 billion in 2022, well up from the $1.2 billion in bilateral trade last year.
Though the trade relationships are impressive, the emerging diplomatic ties and strategic dialogue are just as important. An Israeli attaché was appointed to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists have visited Morocco and the UAE in the past two years, and Israeli leaders and ministers regularly fly to visit their new partners.
Despite all the accomplishments, not every aspect of the new relationships is progressing smoothly.
“There is an asymmetry in the Abraham Accords,” Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told The Times of Israel.
“People think that there is full normalization and that there is acceptance, but most of the Emirati, Bahraini and even Moroccan public still has a ways to go before they completely accept Israelis and Israel. We’re not there yet entirely.”
Israel has made a concerted effort to ensure that people-to-people ties grow in a way that they never did after the agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Israeli orchestras are playing in the UAE, the Abraham Accords countries have held soccer matches, and there was even a massive Jewish wedding in Abu Dhabi this week.
Declining public support
But, paradoxically, while headlines tell of comfortable and joyous encounters between Israelis and Arabs in the Gulf and in Morocco, the data show a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s new allies.
Washington Institute polling showed 45% of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020. That support had steadily eroded to a paltry 20% by March of this year.
The trend is the same in the UAE. The 49% of the country that disapproved of the Abraham Accords in 2020 has grown to over two-thirds as of last month. And only 31% of Moroccans favor normalization, according to Arab Barometer.
Part of the decline in support is to be expected, said Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, as the initial enthusiasm wears off. Some in the normalizing countries may also be disappointed that more progress has not been made in Palestinian state-building following the peace deals. And yet it remains unclear why the trend has been so drastic.
“There’s a division between very modern, Western-oriented people, some of them younger, some of them older, who are interested in business, are not very religious, and those who are much more conservative, more religious,” he said.
The uneasiness over the accords is more of a problem in Bahrain than in the UAE. Emiratis trust their government and royal family, and tend to keep criticism quiet.
In Manama, however, the government is by no means universally popular, nor has it put in much effort to explain to the public why normalization will benefit them.
The asymmetry manifests itself outside of polling. Throngs of Arab tourists to Israel have not materialized, and the rulers of the Abraham Accords countries have yet to reciprocate visits by Israel’s president and prime ministers.
“There is an imbalance that cries out to the heavens,” said Zaga.
But many are happy with the pace of normalization. “Three out of the four countries that signed on to full normalization are moving along quite nicely,” argued Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Sudan signed onto the accords, but normalization has stalled amid political unrest that included a coup in the country last year.
“UAE, Bahrain and Morocco are all seeing the fruits of the agreements they entered into. I’m not surprised to see things are moving slowly. It’s still the early days. I don’t think that’s cause for pessimism. I don’t see anyone rushing to void the agreements.”
Waiting for the next shoe to drop
After the signing of initial agreements in 2020, there was an expectation that other Muslim countries would soon follow suit.
“I think that we had about six active discussions going on” with other prospective Abraham Accords countries, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former US president Donald Trump and his senior White House aide, said on Monday.
US officials told The Times of Israel in January 2021 that the Trump administration had been closing in on agreements with Mauritania and Indonesia to be the next Muslim-majority countries to normalize relations with Israel, but ran out of time before the Republican president’s term ended.
But Saudi Arabia remains the major prize. Expectations for significant breakthroughs were drummed up around US President Joe Biden’s visit in July. Israel and the US pumped up the significance of minor policies, while the Saudis denied they had anything to do with Israel.
Hours before Biden flew from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s Civil Aviation Authority declared that all civilian air carriers could now fly over the country. The Saudi statement did not mention Israel at all, but Prime Minister Yair Lapid still called it “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudis, at least publicly, were quick to pour cold water on that notion. “This has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel,” insisted Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, briefing reporters as Biden headed home.
Israel’s eagerness during the Biden visit likely pushed Riyadh even further away.
“I think Israel caused damage here,” lamented Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “They inflated the Saudi issue with all sorts of leaks and briefings. It wasn’t historic, not in Israel and not in the Saudi aspect.
“They simply can’t sell it to their nation,” explained Zaga. “They don’t have the legitimacy that the Emirati royal family has. The population is much more heterogenous and the population is much less disciplined.”
Moreover, the Saudis are not eager to grant Biden, a harsh critic of the Kingdom, any diplomatic victories.
But there are positive signs coming out of the conservative kingdom.
Saudi leaders are fed up with the Palestinian leadership, while continuing to care deeply about the plight of the Palestinian people. “They’re waiting for the day after Abu Mazen, to see if it’s possible to make progress and possibly normalize with Israel if there is a Palestinian leadership you can talk with,” said Zaga, using Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s nom de guerre.
“People are saying the word Israel out loud, which is a change,” said Schanzer, speaking from Saudi Arabia. “There is an acknowledgment of mutual interest both in combating Iran but also in building stability and ultimately prosperity in the region.”
Last September, US Central Command officially assumed responsibility for the US military’s relationship with Israel. This has allowed the countries to more easily interact away from the public eye.
“They’re not normalizing with us anytime soon,” Krasna explained, “but our relationship with them is almost at the stage that the ones with UAE and Bahrain were before the Abraham Accords, when they were very good.”
Hedging against Iran
While the threat emanating from Iran is an important foundation of the Abraham Accords, here too there has been a tendency to overplay how much Gulf interests intersect with Israel’s.
“There is an Israeli misconception here that Iran is a common enemy, and the Emiratis will rush into Israel’s arms,” said Zaga. “That’s not the story here. The story is to stop Iran, but for the UAE Iran is a security threat but not an enemy.”
While Abu Dhabi normalized relations with Israel, it was doing the same with Qatar, Turkey and Iran. With a reduced US presence in the Gulf, the UAE has chosen to protect its national security by finding common ground with its neighbors.
“We are part of the Emirati trend to resolve its issues regionally and not through the US,” Zaga explained.
Schanzer called the Gulf states “natural hedgers.”
“It’s in their DNA to be skittish. They are not powerful militaries and they’re within spitting distance of the Islamic Republic. They need to be extremely careful about how much they antagonize the regime in light of how much damage the regime could do either directly or by proxy.”
The old, cold peace
The Abraham Accords, of course, did not mark the first treaties between Israel and the Arab world. When the Jewish state made peace with Egypt and Jordan, it was forging ties with neighbors with which it had fought bitter wars in the country’s first decades. Relations have been stable but cold since the 1979 and 1994 deals.
Both countries did not seem especially thrilled about the recent accords. They were the ones who took on the most risk in recognizing Israel, and did not enjoy significant economic benefits over the years. Officials in Amman and in Cairo had to watch as Israel and the US lauded the courage of Gulf Arab leaders who hadn’t been facing harsh criticism for years over ties with Israel.
Egypt has made peace with the new reality. It sent its foreign minister to this summer’s Negev Summit — though he went to some lengths to maintain a sour expression — and is an active participant in the fledgling Negev Forum.
“Egypt has assumed the role of peacemaker slash broker every time there’s a Gaza conflict,” said Krasna. “They’ve become a trusted actor in the region.”
Jordan, on the other hand, stayed away from the Negev Summit. It has expressed anger over Israel allowing Palestinians to fly out of Ramon Airport as well as over its policies around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
“Jordan is a real cause for concern,” said Schanzer. “Their rhetoric has spiraled out of control. We can almost bank on a ratcheting up of tensions every Ramadan between Israel and Jordan.”
Amman, it seems, has not yet figured out how to approach the emerging regional alliance with Israel, or how integrated it wishes to be.
Despite the serious challenges, analysts believe Israel should be able to gradually deepen ties with its neighbors in the coming years.
“These Arab governments understand that it’s in their national interest to maintain ties with Israel,” said Schanzer, “or at a minimum to no longer engage in hostilities with Israel, diplomatic or otherwise. And so we’re watching progress, but I would expect it to be slow.”
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