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The Abraham Accords’ legacy is a new Arab pragmatism

By Dr. Bren Carlill

This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 22 September 2021

Israel has had a lonely time of it in the Middle East. After seven decades of existence, it only had full diplomatic relations with two Arab countries. The rest, in solidarity with the Palestinians, boycotted the Jewish state.
But then, like a bolt from the blue, Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced they would normalise relations
Less than a month later, Bahrain followed suit.
The Abraham Accords, signed on 15 September last year, was the outcome. Since then, Morocco and Sudan have also signed the Accords.
The main reasons they were signed is skittishness over American commitment to the region, and the pragmatism of a new generation of Arab leadership that is shrugging off the failed ideologies of old.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Israel and most Arab states share two sets of enemies. The first is Iran and its proxies. Iran seeks regional hegemony, and uses its proxies to undermine others, extending its influence. Iran has proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. These are failed or failing states in which Iranian involvement steepened their downward spiral.
The second set of enemies that Israel shares with the Arab states is the matrix of Islamist groups that seek to replace the region’s countries with a caliphate.
A strong US commitment to the regional status quo would render these two threats as not much more than minor irritants. But the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent chaos there, upended the status quo. Since then, the Iranian and Islamist threats have only grown.
After Bush, both Obama and Trump made clear that they wanted to ‘pivot’ away from the Middle East. The jury is still out on Biden, but the chaotic scenes of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely further convince many Middle Eastern leaders that they cannot rely upon America to guarantee their safety.
With regional threats increasing and the American presence decreasing, it’s little wonder that the Gulf states decided it was time to bring their relationship with Israel out of the closet.
America has, for decades, wished that its Arab and Jewish friends would forge closer relations. It is not without irony that it took the fear of abandonment to bring this about.
Trade is another factor.
With the world moving away from fossil fuels and the looming threat that climate change poses to an already parched landscape, the Gulf states have known for years that they need to rapidly diversify their economies. They’ve made remarkable progress, but the traditional pan-Arabic insistence of no ties with Israel meant they weren’t allowed to participate in the Jewish state’s environmental and high-tech advances.
That changed with the signing of the Abraham Accords. In just one year, Emirati–Israeli trade went from zero to north of $750 million. The tourism, investment, environmental, trade and other opportunities that the Accords promised are bearing orchards of fruit.
This is a long way from the Arab politics of old, with its promises to cast the Jews into the sea. But that’s rather the point—a new generation of Arab leadership has embraced pragmatism. It is the stale ideologies of old that have been cast aside.
Thus, rather than being an abandonment of the Palestinian cause, the Abraham Accords should be seen as an Arab rejection of the Palestinian ideology of ‘summud’.
Summud means steadfastness. Like all cultural themes, it is multilayered—but one of these layers is the refusal of any compromise with Israel until all Palestinian demands are met. Economic cooperation with Israel is rejected, even if it would help the Palestinian people.
Summud would be an effective diplomatic tactic if Palestinian objectives were achievable. But after the rejection of four offers of statehood this century, most Israelis and many observers concluded that current Palestinian objectives can’t actually be reached for as long as Israel remains in existence.
For decades, the Arab states boycotted Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinians. As these states embraced pragmatism, they looked to the Palestinians to do the same. But the Palestinians are steadfast.
What these pragmatic Arab states realised, is that adherence to the stale ideology of summud was not only holding back Palestinian livelihoods, it was also holding back their own. For the pragmatic Arab leaders, the choice to make was obvious.
This commitment to pragmatism is the Accord’s real success—and herein lies a lesson for Western policy on the Middle East. Israeli and Arab security and economic interests aligned, and peace was the result.
What are the West’s interests? Who is advancing them? Is too much emphasis placed on the hope of changed future behaviour rather than seeing today’s reality—as with Iran?
The Accords’ anniversary comes less than a week after we mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 and its aftermath reminds us of what can and has gone wrong in and because of the Middle East. But the Abraham Accords are a symbol of what has gone well, and of a brighter future for all.