When the Abraham Accords were first announced in 2020, some heralded them as the dawning of a new era in the Middle East. The architects of the bonanza of normalization with Israel—the administration of Donald Trump, the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan—declared their great optimism that the agreements could solve regional problems through new business and security alliances.
Four Arab countries have so far joined in the Abraham Accords, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. And the agreements do indeed suggest a new political infrastructure in the Middle East. They also represent the first new normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel in more than a quarter century.
But while the accords are historic, their benefits have been murky and mixed. Normalizations may have been a boon for business and tourism, at least, so far, between Israel and the Emirates. No less significantly, they may have opened, at least for some, a sense of hope and possibility for better relations between states, which are so sorely lacking in the region.
However, the normalizations have done almost nothing to advance Israeli–Palestinian conflict resolution. In fact, they leave the Palestinians more alienated than ever.
The accords also fortify the image of a Middle East bifurcated into great-power alliances competing through the threat of force. The partner countries are poised to add to the flow of weapons and technology in the highly militarized competition with Iran—directly raising the threat of war. Further, the new alliances encourage the partnerships and practices of undemocratic regimes, and even undermine the international system. The accords also heighten the moral hazard in the region, increasing the militarization and potential escalation over Iran.
Any American progressive foreign policy vision should include at least four core aims: advancing peace, reducing regional militarization, advancing democracy, and strengthening the international system. But after more than a year and a half, the record shows that the Abraham Accords do not advance progressive American foreign policy goals—and in many cases, actively violate them.
The future of the Abraham Accords could look different. There is little evidence that the accords will help advance democracy in the region. However, the agreements could have other benefits. Current and potential future partners to the accords could insist that Israel take steps to advance Israeli–Palestinian peace as a condition for their participation—and the United States could encourage such conditionality. The accords could also help forge a new dynamic in the Middle East, grounded in diplomacy rather than the language and use of force. The United States can also cease and even reverse policies that undermine the international system.
But the positive redirecting of the Abraham Accords will only happen with U.S. leadership, based on the four main cornerstones of progressive policy listed above. In the Middle East, the values outlined above translate to prioritizing Israeli–Palestinian conflict resolution; de-escalation and reduced militarization of the region, including eroding the binary pro- and anti-Iran axis; supporting democratic movements; and reinforcement of the postwar rules-based international order where it is specifically threatened. In addition, a progressive foreign policy should include cooperation in the critical areas of climate, health, and environmental policy, as well as on economic development.
The United States under Trump produced the Abraham Accords, primarily to serve his personal political interests and those of Netanyahu (who was then prime minister). In contrast, the administration of Joe Biden claims to support a higher-minded, progressive foreign policy. That concept shouldn’t be just a slogan. But the accords are at a crossroads, and they are listing dangerously toward the wrong path. Washington must make a strategic decision to change the course of the accords—and make good on Biden’s promise of a progressive foreign policy.
The Anti-progressive Accords
Measured against the progressive aims outlined above, the accords were on course to fail from the start. The problem begins with their provenance. Each country had significant and specific motivations for advancing normalization with Israel, and none of those motivations had to do with traditional notions of peace, nor the core progressive principles outlined here. Instead, the Gulf state parties to the accords—the Emirates and Bahrain—were motivated by military, political, and economic self-interest. Sudan and Morocco both had economic interests and very specific political quid pro quos (described below), which were primarily fulfilled by the United States.
The first agreement between the Emirates and Israel—announced in August 2020—was perceived, and portrayed as, a great surprise. Yet the move followed years of de facto cordial and cooperative relations between Israel and the Gulf states.1 The agreement was also consistent with Netanyahu’s attempt to mitigate his political vulnerabilities at home, while facing criminal charges ahead of fresh elections, by making splashy foreign policy breakthroughs a centerpiece of his political brand.2 Cultivating illiberal or authoritarian countries, often with dramatic flair, was already a practiced routine; the Emirati agreements were preceded by a surprise visit to Oman in 2018, and renewed diplomatic ties with Chad in 2019. These events followed Netanyahu’s highly publicized friendships with the nationalist, populist, and authoritarian leaders of Azerbaijan, India, Brazil, Hungary—and of course his close friendship with Trump.
The Trump administration’s leadership in brokering the Abraham Accords faithfully reflected the business-oriented and transactional nature of the administration’s foreign policy, and its Middle East team in particular. The series of deals were also an expedient foreign policy win for Trump during his reelection campaign.
Cultivating illiberal or authoritarian countries, often with dramatic flair, was a practiced routine for Netanyahu.
Bahrain announced its intention to join the Emirates in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in September 2020, just a month after Abu Dhabi announced its agreement. Bahrain’s leadership clearly shared the anti-Iran concerns of Israel and the Emirates; Bahrain’s partnership made the accords a multilateral event and most likely proceeded with the approval of Saudi Arabia.
The fanfare of the September 2020 ceremony broke a psychological barrier for people of the region and observers alike, and shattered atrophied perceptions of Arab states (beyond Egypt and Jordan) as unreformed rejectionists of Israel. Next to join the accords were Sudan (also in September 2020) and Morocco (in December 2020). Both countries acceded for baldly transactional reasons—for Khartoum, U.S. aid and the removal of a “state sponsor of terrorism” designation; and for Rabat, long-awaited American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
The remainder of this section discusses the details of the quid pro quo deals that created the Abraham Accords—and, in many cases, their heavy costs for progressive foreign policy aims.
Arms and Money
The accords were followed by a coveted American promise to the Emirates: for the first time, Washington consented to the sale of F-35 fighter jets, along with MQ-9 Reaper drones and billions of dollars’ worth of additional munitions.3 The promise seemed to rely on the United States’ longstanding commitment, formalized over the years through legislation, to Israel’s qualitative military edge (known as QME) in the region.4 However, negotiations for the actual sale slowed as the Biden administration combed through a series of concerns, including pressure from the Democratic Party over the Emirates’ involvement in the Yemen war, the QME legal regulations, and fears that stealth technology would fall into Chinese hands due to the Emirates’ use of Chinese 5G communications technology.5 Washington, therefore, sought to restrict the stealth technology in its planes and drones, ultimately prompting the Emirates to threaten to suspend the $23 billion deal.6 The fate of the sale remains unclear, highlighting the hasty nature of the original agreement. Concurrently, Israeli companies hope to sell military equipment to the Emirates, banking on shared military concerns about Iran and its proxies.7 In the wake of rocket attacks by the Houthis (the Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels) on the Emirates in February, Israel might also be preparing to sell its famed Iron Dome defensive missile interception system to the Emirates.8
The Abraham Accords partner countries also sought the economic gain the accords were expected to provide. Those benefits are already beginning to accrue: In 2020, the value of Israeli exports to the Emirates topped $70 million. Emirati exports to Israel were worth more than $117 million.9 Overall trade between Israel and the Emirates surged in 2021, reaching over $610 million in the first seven months. In both years, the diamond trade accounted for much of this commerce.10 Trade rose far more modestly with Bahrain, Morocco, and other Arabs states.11 Thus, although analysts envision dizzying economic potential in the future, to date the biggest business dividend of the accords so far has gone to the Emirates—by far the richest of the four signatories.12
Undermining the International System
When Morocco joined the Abraham Accords, the choice had little to do with new sympathies for Israel, and a lot to do with a giant diplomatic gift from the Trump administration: American recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. In 1975, Morocco invaded the Western Sahara—in the process of decolonization from Spain—and then maintained its grip over 80 percent of the area, preventing self-determination for the indigenous Sahrawi people. Since the invasion, the Sahrawis, backed by Algeria, have fought Moroccan control through the Polisario Front rebel group, in a long-simmering unresolved conflict. In December 2020, the Trump Administration breezily provided Morocco with the prize of recognition of sovereignty over the entire territory, in exchange for normalizing with Israel.13
The quid pro quo with Morocco was roundly criticized by everyone from rights activists to John Bolton.14 Deepening Morocco’s control perpetuates the decades-long violation of the Sahrawi right to self-determination. And U.S. recognition erodes the fundamental postwar international prohibition on conquering territory by force. Within months, the move contributed directly to the renewal of violent hostilities between Morocco and Algeria, now edging—if not striding—toward war.15 The rise in tension and violence was the direct result of the original bargain. Since the agreement, Israel has taken steps to deepen its military ties with Morocco, including with the sharing of intelligence, military trade deals, and drills—which could assist Morocco’s plans in Western Sahara, much as Israeli drones helped Azerbaijan in the Caucasus war of late 2020.16
The U.S. recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara was consistent with the Trump administration’s general dismissal of international norms. His government also recognized Israel’s military conquest and annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967, and separately, worked hard to undermine a political framework for Palestinian self-determination, while legitimizing Israeli annexation in the West Bank.17
Today, as Russia has started a war in Ukraine, the importance to the international order of sovereign integrity—and the prohibition on conquering territory by force—could not be more plain. But the Trump administration exposed Washington’s highly selective commitment to those norms.
So far, the Biden administration has not indicated that it will change the policy recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over the region. 18
Learn More About Century International
Advancing democracy in the Middle East should be a core principle of a progressive American foreign policy. The aim is not to repeat the failures and manipulations of democracy-building by previous American intervention in the Middle East, but rather to support the emergence of a democratic culture in the region.
The Abraham Accords are more likely to weaken democracy than to strengthen it. Each participating country operates under its own specific but severe democratic deficit.19 The Emirates and Morocco are considered “partly free” in Freedom House rankings, while Bahrain and Sudan receive dismal scores.20
Nondemocratic regimes that forego popular legitimacy must ultimately hold power through force. Prior to the accords, the Emirates was already a client for Israel’s cyber surveillance technology exports, including surveillance technology used to spy on political opposition, media, or civil society.21 The fallout from the scandal the over Israeli firm NSO Group’s sale of surveillance technology reportedly caused the Israeli Ministry of Defense to drop even its new Abrahamic partner from the list of countries allowed to import these technologies.22 It remains to be seen whether mutual interest can drive workarounds to circumvent the ministry’s belated regulation. But it is clear that the established pattern is for the Emirates to draw on Israel’s knowledge to perpetuate monarchic, authoritarian rule.
Advancing democracy in the Middle East should be a core principle of a progressive American foreign policy.
For Bahrain, democracy itself is remote; if anything, the Abraham Accords move it farther away. The anti-Iranian strategies underpinning the accords can easily be leveraged for Bahrain’s domestic campaign to taint popular opposition from its people (who are mostly Shia) as Iranian-backed rebels. In 2011, the country used this tactic to violently repress its own chapter of the Arab uprisings, and there is little indication of any further move toward democracy. For this reason, analysts have noted that the accords bolster the Bahraini regime’s position against domestic opposition.23
In Sudan, too, Israel’s role is hardly salutary for democracy. Sudan normalized relations with Israel in return for Washington removing its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and providing a large bridge loan to pay off Sudan’s World Bank debt, while moving Sudan closer to meeting conditions for joining the World Trade Organization.24 The U.S. deal with Sudan was controversial for those who had been watching it struggle with instability as it edged toward representative governance after decades of civil war.
Critics of the U.S. deal said the normalization process risked destabilizing Sudan—and emboldening antidemocratic forces in the country.25 The problem, in this view, was not the rewards themselves, but the fact they were conditioned on normalization with Israel. These fears were partly born out: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with whom Israel negotiated for normalization at the early stages of the accords process, led a coup against the democratically elected Sudanese government in October 2021. Just weeks before the military seized power, reports surfaced that a delegation of Sudanese military officials met with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv. The appearance of an alliance between these figures has angered supporters of civilian rule and democratic transition.26 Israeli officials then visited days after the October coup, reportedly to consider the fate of the relationship. In February, another Sudanese envoy of the military government visited Israel on a tight-lipped mission.27 The Biden administration had sent its envoy for the Horn of Africa to Israel just weeks earlier, presumably to urge Israel to encourage civilian rule in Sudan, but otherwise has done little to back democratic forces.28
For Israel, seeking allies among undemocratic authoritarian neighbors is not unusual. Historically, the country has often cultivated relationships with such countries—though with new energy, and to new aims, in the Netanyahu era.29 But a progressive foreign policy should seek to limit the mutual influence of undemocratic force—not indirectly support powerful alliances among them.
The question of advancing Israeli–Palestinian peace almost seems out of place in the context of the Abraham Accords. The motivating forces behind the agreement related to issues that are distant from Israel and the Palestinians: mostly, advancing a political and militarized alliance against Iran, and advancing lucrative trade deals (including technology associated with pernicious uses).
Representatives from the Trump administration, the Emirates, and Bahrain—and even Netanyahu—offered perfunctory hopes that the accords would facilitate Israeli–Palestinian peace, mostly by pressuring the Palestinians, or perhaps by fostering economic development.30 But any substantive causal link between the accords and Israeli–Palestinian peace was never truly clear. The Palestinian leadership itself bitterly rejected the accords and rallied Palestinian public sentiment against them.31
Yet the accords did deliver one important impact in terms of Israeli–Palestinian relations—an impact that required no Palestinian action: in return for normalization, the Emirates won Netanyahu’s agreement to postpone his plan to declare annexation over parts of the West Bank in July 2020. Ultimately, however, Netanyahu’s acquiescence to this demand merely took international eyes off Israel’s daily, inch-by-inch de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. Further, even under Israel’s new government, the country’s policies of settlement expansion remain similar to those of Netanyahu.32
The Abraham Accords, therefore, appear to have superseded the so-called Arab Peace Initiative of 2003. At that time, the Saudi-led initiative intended to produce a final status peace accord with the Palestinians by offering Israel, in return, the incentive of full Middle East normalization (via the Arab League). Saudi Arabia appears to have neglected pursuing the initiative in recent years, and the Abraham Accords provided the prize without the price. Israel received normalization without conceding anything to the Palestinians; instead of being asked to take any steps toward a final status accord, Israel agreed not to declare an official policy of annexation, even though, in practice, its unofficial policy is essentially de facto annexation.
The question of Israeli–Palestinian peace almost seems out of place in the context of the Abraham Accords, which had no clear material gain for Palestinians.
The Abraham Accords have had no clear material and economic gain for Palestinians. They contained no specific promises or provisions for Palestinian economic investment, carrying only the most vague possible aspiration that “peace and full normalization between [the Emirates and Israel] can help transform the Middle East by spurring economic growth.”33 But even if the accords had provided economic gains, there was little reason to expect that a trickle of economic improvement would advance peace.34
Not only have Palestinian–Israeli relations failed to improve, but relations between the Emirates and the Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas—which were already poor—have almost completely deteriorated.35 If the Emirates seeks to advance a more prominent role as a regional negotiator or facilitator, it will be unable to win the trust of Palestinians, in the current situation.36
Israel has meanwhile kept up the spirit of deepening friendship with the Emirates and Morocco, sending delegations to both countries in late 2021, culminating with Naftali Bennett’s December visit to the Emirates—the first official visit of an Israeli prime minister to the country—and to Bahrain in February.37 These visits did not require any concessions from Israel, or progress toward peace.
Peace between nations is positive in itself. But this summary of substantive implementation to date paints a dark picture for progressive foreign policy aims.
The Potential for a Better Path
The original architects of the Abraham Accords in Israel and the United States are gone, at least for now. Can the edifice they erected be repurposed to benefit the people of the Middle East and advance a progressive U.S. foreign policy?
Of the progressive aims outlined here, advancing a more democratic Middle East through the framework of the Abraham Accords seems the most unattainable, considering that deepening democracy is simply not among the shared interests underlying the accords.
However, there are some limited scenarios that could help advance Israeli–Palestinian peace, demilitarize the Middle East, and strengthen the rules-based international order.
Israeli-Palestinian Conditionality and Facilitation
Israel still has an interest in adding future partners to the Abraham Accords. The United States and Arab countries should leverage this interest to get Israel to recommit to a future Israeli–Palestinian resolution. The United States was successful at the quid pro quo strategy for the first round of the accords. It can just as easily lean on future partners to condition Israel for additional normalizations.38
Former U.S. ambassador and longtime negotiator Dennis Ross has advocated a simple formula of conditionality: potential future partners can demand that Israel take steps to advance conflict resolution with the Palestinians. The incremental steps he has cited, such as Israel ceasing settlement construction beyond the separation wall or beyond the large settlement blocs, are consistent with the Oslo Accords he helped broker.39
The list can easily be extended: Israel can stop administrative demolitions or evictions from Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem; implement economic policies that support the employment prospects of the skilled Palestinian middle class in the long term (not only cultivating unskilled labor); roll back Israel’s attack on Palestinian civil society and political opposition; or support the conditions for future Palestinian elections.40 Notably, these steps do not require Palestinian acceptance of the accords, or any direct action from the Emirates on behalf of the Palestinians.
Further, a primary reason for Palestinian anger with the Abraham Accords was the belief that the accords did not offer any incentives of value to Palestinians. Partner states pressuring Israel to provide such incentives could prove the potential of the accords to Palestinians better than vague and seemingly far-fetched promises. These steps would build on the Biden administration’s efforts to revive relations with the Palestinian leadership, and could help to thaw Palestinian–Emirati relations. Success could mean a Palestinian leadership and people that are less isolated and have more opportunities for regional engagement.
Further, existing partners could leverage the deepening relationship for various forms of progress. This progress might include advancing interim steps and helping mediate for short-term needs to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations. But it would also keep long-term objectives in mind, by ensuring that any interim steps do not become a permanent substitute for final status political resolution of the conflict.
Former U.S. ambassador Dennis Ross has advocated a simple formula of conditionality: potential future partners can demand that Israel take steps to advance conflict resolution with the Palestinians.
The list of potential new parties to the Abraham Accords is highly speculative. Saudi Arabia is one obvious prize. (Normalization with Bahrain might have been a trial balloon; it likely received Saudi Arabia’s approval.)41 Oman is often cited as a candidate. A longer candidate list includes a total of six Muslim-majority countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Oman, Uzbekistan, Mauritania, and Indonesia)—though it looks unlikely that any of these countries will join in the near future. Meanwhile, optimistic Israeli sources envision the accession of many countries of the Middle East and North Africa.42 In a bizarre turn, in September 2021, the leaders of the Sons of Iraq Awakening, an Iraqi group, called for normalization, but then retracted following a dangerous backlash, saying they had been duped.43 Still, each such statement or rumor seems to float trial balloons and possibly whets the Israeli appetite.
In practice, the most obvious partner for advancing conditionality is the Emirates. Abu Dhabi could continue its initial bargain of getting Israel to hold off on annexation. Emirati analysts have suggested that normalization would provide greater “greater economic, diplomatic, and geopolitical leverage over Israel,” to advance concessions.44 Moran Zaga, an Israeli expert on the Emirates, also sees certain reasons for the Emirates to keep conflict resolution on the agenda, in part because Abu Dhabi seeks a more prominent role as a mediator in the region. “The Abraham Accords do not necessarily mean neglecting the Palestinian issue,” she said in a conversation, while visiting the Emirates.45 As evidence of Emirati interests in Israeli–Palestinian relations, Zaga pointed to the Emirates joining the UN Security Council as a rotating member from January 1, and the fact that the Emirati ambassador to the UN has a Palestinian family background. The ambassador, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, has also earned considerable credibility among Jewish Diaspora communities.46 The Emirates also hosts approximately 200,000 Palestinians living in its territory, Zaga noted, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Emirati foreign minister, has made supportive statements to local Palestinian communities—perhaps seeking to reassure the people despite poor relations with the Palestinian leadership.47 Additionally, the Emirates proposed supporting mediation efforts during the Israeli–Palestinian escalation in May 2021.48
Reconceptualizing Regional Relations
In recent years, a broad-brush analysis has viewed the countries of the Middle East as members in one of two large, competing blocs rotating roughly around Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. This has always been a crude paradigm through which to analyze the Middle East, and it may be changing. With a revised strategic long-term aim, the Abraham Accords could conceivably be a model for new forms of regional cooperation—rather than feeding an explosive, binary, big-power style competition.
Israeli discourse broadly accepts and reinforces the binary axis image. Through this lens, Iran leads the sloppily named “Shia crescent” (or what Iran has called the “Axis of Resistance”), which includes Iran’s proxies, militias, or influence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. Iran has also had erratic but overall supportive relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the years. For these reasons, Israel has long viewed Iran as the single greatest threat to its security coming from an outside regional actor. In fact, Israel’s relentless campaign against Iran’s nuclear program is most likely not driven primarily by fear of a nuclear strike, since the density and proximity of the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian populations render a nuclear attack on Israel almost impossible, not to mention Israel’s second-strike capability. Israel is far more focused on limiting Iran’s power through the proxies in its bloc, and its ballistic missile programs, if backed by nuclear weapons.49 As Israeli Bennett put it in December, Iran has “enveloped [Israel] in a … ring of rockets.”50
Opposite Iran in the binary-axis view of the Middle East is the U.S.-backed anti-Iran alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and most of the Gulf states. Israelis commonly speak of these “moderate Sunni states” as natural partners in the existential, militarized struggle against Iran.
More than a bipolar face-off, the Middle East is a multi-vector set of discrete interests pointing in many directions.
The separation of the region into these two poles might recall the great power alliances that set the stage for World War I, but it also recalls dynamics between Europe and Russia in the present. In this analogy, Iran takes the role of Russia, and the so-called Sunni alliance recalls Western European countries united in their fear of Russia. The United States is even said to have harbored a “dream” of a NATO-like Middle East military alliance.51
But the Middle East is much more a multi-vector set of discrete interests pointing in multiple directions than a bipolar face-off.52 The religious divide is a myth. The “Sunni” axis includes Sunni-led but Shia-majority Bahrain, while the “Shia crescent” includes support for the Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a power base in Sunni-majority and Alawi-led Syria, and robust relations between Iran and Sunni-majority Qatar. And aside from the Sunni–Shia divide being a myth, Arab states were already divided over prior normalization with Israel (Egypt and Jordan), and over their stance on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s support for both Iran and the Brotherhood led Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to establish a multi-year boycott of Qatar, starting in 2017.
But the binary-axis image has eroded even more dramatically recently.
In 2019, the Emirates and Iran apparently reached a quiet arrangement to de-escalate: Iran ended its attacks on Emirati ships in Emirati territorial waters of the Gulf and—presumably in return—the Emirates began to draw down its military support for Yemen against the Houthis.53
In early December 2021, Emirati national security advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Iran, notably just a week ahead of Bennett’s historic visit. In his meeting with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, Sheikh Tahnoun stated that “warm and friendly relations” ought not to be influenced by “other countries,” according to news reports—presumably referring to Israel.54
In another sign of change, the Saudi–Gulf boycott of Qatar ended in 2021, by agreement between the relevant states.55
The nascent diplomatic thaw even extends to the archrivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Over 2021, the two countries held no less than four rounds of talks on a range of issues.56
Israeli analysts reflexively sounded “alarm bells,” over cracks in the security alliance against Iran. But notably, one analyst attributed the Emirates’ emerging regional gravitas to the Abraham Accords.57
What if the cautious détente between Israel’s friend (the Emirates) and enemy (Iran) means the latter might not be an enemy forever? Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, offered one proposal: should Israel one day wish to send a message to Iran, the Emirates is well-placed to be a trusted messenger. Few other states can play such a role, in Zimmt’s view.58 Nevertheless, the logic might be extended: Qatar is expected to maintain its tight links with Tehran, and in mid-2021 expressed willingness to mediate between the United States and Iran. Qatar has denied its intention to normalize with Israel, but mediation doesn’t require normalization.59 And sometimes a well-placed denial is another way to float ideas about the future.
Strengthen International Norms in North Africa
The regional and political realities put the main focus of the Abraham Accords, at present, on the Gulf states. But the escalation between Morocco and Algeria should not be neglected, as the issue touches on the very fundamental rules of the international system—and is edging dangerously toward violence. Morocco conquered the territory through military force, and the United States should not have rewarded such actions with recognition. The recognition undermines both self-determination and U.S. diplomacy as a path towards peace.
It would be ideal if the United States, having sparked the escalation by recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, could simply reverse course. Such a reversal appears unlikely. However, if Washington can find direct or indirect means of supporting a final status resolution to the conflict, it can demonstrate its recommitment to advancing peace, despite the recognition undermining that cause.60
How to Shift Course?
Despite these potential avenues to advance critical goals in the region, partners to the Abraham Accords are just as likely, if not more so, to continue on the current path that directly opposes the progressive foreign policy values of de-escalating the Middle East, advancing democracy, strengthening the international system, and advancing Israeli–Palestinian peace. When Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Bahrain, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was nearly absent from the public agenda. There is no clear trend of regional de-escalation—the Houthis directly attacked the Emirates in February, and the United States sent F-22 fighter planes to the Emirates in response.61 Most countries involved in the Abraham Accords have shunted the Palestinian problem aside, and seem disinclined to introduce conditionality (or “transactionalism”) linking normalization to progress on peace.62 The Biden administration has signaled its commitment to arms sales to the Gulf, contributing to militarization of the pro- and anti-Iran axes and raising the danger of escalation. The democratic deficit in the partner countries continues unabated—but these authoritarian states now have stronger alliances with each other. Further, the double legitimization of military territorial conquest via U.S. policies toward Israel and Morocco further weakens the international system.
Yet clear American leadership can still transform the Abraham Accords into a source of improvement for the region. Washington can lead through a number of policies and positions, which can clarify its regional aims regarding Israel, even if the United States cannot directly transform the policies of Israel or the partner states.
Conditionality—recognition and negotiations: The United States has the clout to insist that the Abraham Accords take an approach of conditionality vis-à-vis the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. So far, the United States has acquiesced to Israel’s preference and suspended efforts to revive a peace process; instead, it must act to compel Israel to build and maintain the conditions for a future peace. Washington should clarify and direct this position to current and potential future partners. The United States can also work with European allies to forge a united position tying the accords to advancing conditions to revive conflict resolution efforts.
Economic support for Palestinians: The United States can encourage partners to the Abraham Accords to leverage the economic opportunities for Palestinian economic development—an approach entirely consistent with the Biden administration’s stated aim for Israeli–Palestinian relations. Formalizing the regional economic cooperation to include Palestinian society can be materially and symbolically valuable, as long as it avoids the trap of expecting economic improvement to replace political resolution of the conflict.
Self-determination: The United States must recommit itself to the right of self-determination of all peoples—including Palestinians, and the Sahrawi people of Western Sahara. Declarative support must be backed by policies to support self-determination of each group through political processes. The right of self-determination is a key element of strengthening the international system, and the United States’ message to the international community should reinforce this principle.
International law and conquest: Closely linked to the previous point is the U.S. responsibility to reinforce another essential law of the international system: the prohibition on conquering territory by military force. At the least, the United States should consider reversing its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Realistically, it will be politically impossible to reverse U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. But that only makes it even more critical for Washington to take a strong stance against Israeli de facto annexation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem—instead of treating Israel’s convenient retreat from de jure annexation as if it changes the ongoing annexation juggernaut on the ground.
The Abraham Accords are a framework rapidly being filled with the wrong types of policies and values. However, in a region sorely in need of diplomacy, no peace agreement should be treated dismissively. The United States and its allies can take the lead on guiding all partners to the accords, fulfilling the lofty but noble promise that the new agreements could advance peace and a better Middle East.
This report is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.
header photo: Houses that are part of an Israeli settlement stand in front of an Arab town on January 16, 2017 in Amona, in the West Bank. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
- Barak Ravid, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East (Rishon Letzion: Miskal—Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books, 2021), chapters 4–5.
- Dahlia Scheindlin, “Netanyahu’s Foreign Policy Is Bad for Israel,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/israel/2019-02-08/netanyahus-foreign-policy-bad-israel.
- Grant Rumley, “Unpacking the UAE F-35 Negotiations,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch 3578, February 15, 2022. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/unpacking-uae-f-35-negotiation.
- On U.S. QME and arms export regulations, see Jeremy M. Sharp et al., “Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge: Possible U.S. Arms Sales to UAE,” Congressional Research Service, October 26, 2020, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46580.
Andrew England and Simeon Kerr, “UAE Suspends Talks with U.S. over Purchase of F-35 Fighter Jets,” Financial Times, December 14, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/7ab35684-d536-4908-89d6-a730d844c8d6; Reuters, “UAE Told the U.S. It Will Suspend Talks on F-35 Jets—Emirati Official,” December 14, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/business/aerospace-defense/uae-threatens-pull-out-23-bln-f-35-drone-deal-with-us-wsj-2021-12-14/.
- AFP, “Blinken: F-35 Deal With UAE Still on Table but Israel Must Retain ‘Military Edge’,” Times of Israel, December 15, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/blinken-f-35-deal-with-uae-still-on-table-but-israel-must-retain-military-edge/; Jon Gambrell, “American Official: U.S. ‘Fully Committed’ to F-35 Sale to UAE,” Defense News, November 15, 2021. https://www.defensenews.com/air/2021/11/16/american-official-us-fully-committed-to-f-35-sale-to-uae/.
- Paul Iddon, “Israel Is Going to Market Its Weapons Systems in the United Arab Emirates,” Forbes, February 3, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauliddon/2021/02/03/israel-will-soon-begin-marketing-its-weapons-systems-in-the-united-arab-emirates/?sh=3a669dbf51a5.
- “Israel Said Ready to Sell Iron Dome to UAE, Build Regional Defenses against Iran,” Times of Israel, February 1, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-said-ready-to-sell-iron-dome-to-uae-build-regional-defenses-against-iran/.
- “Israel Exports to United Arab Emirates,” Trading Economics, February 2022, https://tradingeconomics.com/israel/exports/united-arab-emirates; “United Arab Emirates Exports By Country,” Trading Economics, https://tradingeconomics.com/united-arab-emirates/exports-by-country.
- Yousef Saba, “UAE Seeks $1 Trillion in Economic Activity with Israel by 2031,” Reuters, September 14, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/uae-aims-1-trillion-activity-with-israel-by-2031-2021-09-14/.
- “Israel’s Trade with Arab States Has Surged since 2020 Peace Deals, Data Shows,” Times of Israel, September 4, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israels-trade-with-arab-states-has-surged-since-2020-peace-deals-data-shows/.
- For the far-reaching economic potential, see Daniel Egel, Shira Efron, and Linda Robinson, “Peace Dividend: Widening the Economic Growth and Development Benefits of the Abraham Accords,” The Rand Corporation, March 2021, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PEA1149-1.html.
- “Proclamation on Recognizing The Sovereignty Of The Kingdom Of Morocco Over The Western Sahara,” archived Trump White House website, December 10, 2020, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-recognizing-sovereignty-kingdom-morocco-western-sahara/.
- Amit Dadon and Janna Ramadan, Western Sahara, the Biden Administration and Human Rights,” Lawfare, September 21, 2021, https://www.lawfareblog.com/western-sahara-biden-administration-and-human-rights; John Bolton, “Biden Must Reverse Course on Western Sahara,” December 15, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/15/biden-reverse-course-western-sahara/.
- Jennifer Holleis, “Morocco-Algeria Relations: What Is Fueling the Current Tension?” Deutsche Welle, November 5, 2021.
- Judah Ari Gross, “Israel–Morocco Defense Deal Opens Door to Intel Sharing, Joint Drills,” Times of Israel, November 24, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-morocco-defense-deal-opens-door-to-intel-sharing-joint-drills/. On drones in the Azerbaijan–Armenia war over Karabakh in 2020, see Seth J. Frantzman, “Israeli Drones Used by Azerbaijan under Spotlight in New TV Report,” Jerusalem Post, March 13, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/israeli-drones-in-azerbaijan-raise-questions-on-use-in-the-battlefied-644161.
- Dahlia Scheindlin and Limor Yehuda, “Israel’s Excuses for Annexation Are All Factually, Legally and Morally Wrong,” Newsweek, June 30, 2021, https://www.newsweek.com/annexation-factually-logically-legally-wrong-israel-palestine-1514453. Supporters of Trump’s policy could argue that the Trump peace plan was intended to provide Palestinians with a state, but the plan itself mainly offered limited parcels of territory that did not amount to statehood—moreover, the plan did not represent Palestinians—in that sense the “self” in self-determination was absent.
- “U.S. Official Says Biden Not Changing Position on Western Sahara,” Times of Israel, July 28, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-official-says-biden-not-changing-position-on-western-sahara/.
- Dahlia Scheindlin, “The Logic Behind Israel’s Democratic Erosion,” The Century Foundation, May 29, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/logic-behind-israels-democratic-erosion/.
- Freedom House, “United Arab Emirates,” Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/united-arab-emirates/freedom-world/2021; Freedom House ranks Morocco marginally higher than the Emirates but still only “partly free;” see “Morocco,” Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/morocco/freedom-world/2021; Bahrain and Sudan both receive dismal scores and a “not free” rating. See “Countries and Territories,” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores.
- Rori Donaghy, “Falcon Eye: The Israeli-Installed Mass Civil Surveillance System of Abu Dhabi,” Middle East Eye, July 15, 2015, https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/news/uae-israel-surveillance-2104952769; Chaim Levinson, “With Israel’s Encouragement, NSO Sold Spyware to UAE and Other Gulf States,” Haaretz, August 25, 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-with-israel-s-encouragement-nso-sold-spyware-to-uae-and-other-gulf-states-1.9093465.
- Meir Orbach, “Israel Defense Ministry Slashes Cyber Export List, Drops Saudi Arabia, UAE,” Calcalist Tech, November 25, 2021, https://www.calcalistech.com/ctech/articles/0,7340,L-3923361,00.html.
- Jonathan Hoffman, “Why Arab States Are Normalizing with Israel,” Washington Post, September 24, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/09/24/why-gulf-nations-are-normalizing-ties-with-israel/.
- Yoel Guzansky and Sarah Feuer, “The Abraham Accords at One Year: Achievements, Challenges and Recommendations for Israel,” Institute for National Security Studies, November 21, 2021. https://www.inss.org.il/publication/abraham-accords-one-year-insights/; “Sudanese FM Downplays Israel Ties, Says No Plans for Israeli Embassy in Khartoum,” Times of Israel, September 26, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/sudanese-fm-downplays-israel-ties-says-no-plans-for-israeli-embassy-in-khartoum/.
- Payton Knopf and Jeffrey Feltman, “Normalizing Sudan-Israel Relations Now Is a Dangerous Game,” United States Institute of Peace, September 24, 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/09/normalizing-sudan-israel-relations-now-dangerous-game.
- Mohy Omer, “Israel Can Only Make Real Peace with a Democratic Sudan, Not with Coup Leaders in Khartoum,” Haaretz, November 1, 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-israel-can-only-make-real-peace-with-a-democratic-sudan-1.10341376.
- “Sudanese Envoy in Israel to Promote Ties, Source Says,” Reuters, February 9, 2022,
- Ben Samuels, “Why Biden’s Point Man on Sudan Is Visiting Israel,” Haaretz, February 3, 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/why-biden-s-point-man-on-sudan-is-visiting-israel-1.10585164. In December, critics observed that the Trump administration’s policy of outsourcing Sudanese stability to nearby American allies has been replaced by an inchoate policy that is helping little to restore civilian rule. See Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer, “The Battle for Khartoum Exposes Waning U.S. Influence,” Foreign Policy, December 3, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/12/03/sudan-military-coup-khartoum-us-influence/. The new U.S. envoy appointed in January might indicate increased U.S. attention to the issue since that time.
- Dahlia Scheindlin, “Netanyahu Cozies up to Despots as He Degrades Israel’s Democratic Culture,” Haaretz, December 15, 2016, https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-netanyahu-cozies-up-to-despots-as-he-degrades-israels-democratic-culture-1.5474813.
- Quint Forgy, “‘The Dawn of a New Middle East’: Trump Celebrates Abraham Accords with White House Signing Ceremony,” Politico, September 14, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/15/trump-abraham-accords-palestinians-peace-deal-415083; also see “Remarks by President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Minister bin Zayed, and Minister Al Zayani at the Abraham Accords Signing Ceremony,” The White House, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-prime-minister-netanyahu-minister-bin-zayed-minister-al-zayani-abraham-accords-signing-ceremony/.
- “‘Black Day’: Palestinians to Mourn Normalisation Ceremony between Israel and UAE,” Middle East Eye, September 14, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/black-day-palestinians-to-mourn-normalisation-ceremony-israel-uae-bahrain.
- Dahlia Scheindlin, “New Israeli Government’s Scorecard for Peace: Poor,” Century International, December 8, 2021, https://tcf.org/content/commentary/new-israeli-governments-scorecard-peace-poor/.
- “Abraham Accords Peace Agreement: Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization between the United Arab Emirates and the State of Israel,” Department of State, September 15, 2020 https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/UAE_Israel-treaty-signed-FINAL-15-Sept-2020-508.pdf.
- Dalia Dassa Kaye, “Why the Abraham Accords Won’t Bring Israeli–Palestinian Peace,” Foreign Policy, October 29, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/29/why-the-abraham-accords-wont-bring-israeli-palestinian-peace/.
- Moran Zaga, “The UAE and the Israeli–Palestinian Peace Process,” Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, April 2021, https://mitvim.org.il/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Moran-Zaga-The-UAE-and-the-Israeli-Palestinian-Peace-Process-April-2021.pdf.
- Moran Zaga, a researcher at the University of Haifa and Mitvim Institute focusing on the Emirates, argues that this is among the overriding aims of the Emirates in recent years; Zaga, conversation with the author, December 13, 2021.
- Andrew Carey and Hadas Gold, “Israeli Prime Minister Meets UAE Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi in Historic Visit,” CNN, December 13, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/13/middleeast/naftali-bennett-mbz-meeting-uae-intl/index.html.
- This does not refer to specific negotiating concessions, such as compromise on Jerusalem or settlement evacuation, since there are no final status negotiations in sight. Rather, this refers to changing Israeli policy to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state in some form, and providing confidence-building measures, in order to strengthen the conditions to support a future negotiation.
- Gerald Feierstein, “First Anniversary of the Abraham Accords,” Middle East Focus (podcast), Middle East Institute, August 2021, https://www.mei.edu/multimedia/podcast/first-anniversary-abraham-accords. Note that Ross had a prominent role in the Iraqi fiasco, in his role as chair of the Center for Peace Communications, the organization that appears to have initiated both the conference statement and opinion article calling for Iraq to normalize with Israel. See Jane Arraf, “Talk of Iraq Recognizing Israel Prompts Threats of Arrest or Death,” New York Times, September 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/29/world/middleeast/iraq-recognizing-israel.html.
- On demolitions, see “Demolitions in the Jerusalem Area, November 2021: 61, Including 26 Minors, Lose Their Homes,” B’tselem, December 12, 2021, https://www.btselem.org/video/202112_demolitions_in_jm_area_nov_2021#full. On the attack on civil society, see Thanassis Cambanis, “Israel’s ‘Terrorism’ Designation Is a Dangerous Escalation,’ World Policy Review, October 25, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/30067/ngo-terrorism-designation-a-new-low-for-israel-palestine-relations.
- Guzansky and Feuer, “The Abraham Accords at One Year.”
- For six additional Muslim-majority potential future partners to accords, Egel, Efron, and Robinson, “Peace Dividend.” For potential normalization throughout Middle East and North Africa, see Jacob Magid, “Israeli Official Hopeful for More Normalization Deals within Year,” Times of Israel, October 6, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-official-hints-oman-may-be-next-country-to-normalize-ties/.
- Thanassis Cambanis, “Recognizing Israel Is a Dangerous Distraction for Iraq,” World Policy Review, September 27, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/29993/israel-iraq-relations-are-a-dangerous-distraction-for-baghdad.
- Michael Koplow, Shira Efron, and Evan Gottesman, “The New Normal: Israeli–Arab Normalization and the Israeli Palestinian Conflict,” Israel Policy Forum, October 2021, 24–25, https://israelpolicyforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/The-New-Normal-Arab-Normalization-and-The-Israeli-Palestinian-Conflict-Full-Study.pdf.
- Moran Zaga, conversation with the author.
- Colin Shindler, “The Emirati Power Family Steeped in Jewish Learning,” Jewish Chronicle, August 20, 2020, https://www.thejc.com/comment/opinion/the-emirati-power-family-steeped-in-jewish-learning-1.505811.
- United Arab Emirates Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, “UAE Will Continue to Embrace, Unswervingly Support Palestinians: H. H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed,” September 1, 2020, https://www.mofaic.gov.ae/en/mediahub/news/2020/9/1/01-09-2020-uae-palestine.
- Martin Chulov, “UAE Offers to Play Role in Israel-Palestine Peace Talks,” Guardian, May 23, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/23/uae-offers-to-play-role-in-israel-palestine-peace-talks.
- The Israeli security establishment broadly assumes that Iran cannot use a nuclear bomb against Israel due to the impossibility of avoiding Arab and Palestinian casualties, and triggering second-strike capability.
- Quoted in interview for Kann News radio, December 28, 2021 available at https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-886732. Full quote: “We have built a very robust strategy to cope with the Iranian threat, and not just regarding the nuclear issue, but also the fact that Iran has enveloped Israel over the course of thirty years in a sort of ring of rockets, and over the last decade, unfortunately, allowed Hezbollah to arm itself with more than 100,000 rockets.” (In Hebrew.)
- Ksenia Svetlova, “On the Flight to Abu Dhabi, Don’t Forget the Palestinian Suitcase” (in Hebrew), Haaretz, December 15, 2021, https://www.haaretz.co.il/blogs/mitvim/BLOG-1.10465791.
- For a succinct summary of this argument, see Eyal Zisser, “The Middle East Dances at Both Weddings” (in Hebrew), Israel Hayom, December 18, 2021, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/opinions/article/6353950.
- “Understanding the Recent Contours of UAE’s Foreign Policy,” Emirates Policy Center, September 21, 2021, https://epc.ae/details/brief/understanding-the-recent-contours-of-uae-foreign-policy; also Moran Zaga, conversation with the author.
- Nasser Karimi and John Gambrell, “Top UAE Adviser Makes Rare Trip to Iran, Seeking to Boost Strained Ties,” Times of Israel, December 6, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/top-uae-adviser-makes-rare-trip-to-iran-seeking-to-boost-strained-ties/; also Moran Zaga, conversation with the author.
- Simeon Kerr, “Saudi Arabia and Allies to Restore Ties with Qatar,” Financial Times, January 5, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/ad2eb477-b8f8-4dae-9e4c-a441759fc897.
- Mohammed Alsulami, “Where to Now for Saudi-Iranian Dialogue?,” Middle East Institute, October 21, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/where-now-saudi-iranian-dialogue.
- Zisser, “The Middle East Dances at Both Weddings.”
- Raz Zimmt, interview with the author, December 19, 2021.
- Brett Sudetic and Giorgio Cafiero, “Iranian-Qatari Relations after Al-Ula,” Sada Journal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 1, 2021, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/83771; Abigail Ng, “Qatar Unlikely to Establish Ties with Israel Unless Palestinian Conflict Is Resolved, Minister Says,” CNBC, June 4, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/04/qatar-foreign-minister-on-ties-with-israel-and-the-gcc-countries.html.
- Riccardo Fabiani, “Getting Diplomacy Back on Track in Western Sahara,” World Politics Review via the International Crisis Group, November 5, 2021, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/western-sahara/getting-diplomacy-back-track-western-sahara.
- John Gambrell, “U.S. F-22 Fighter Jets Arrive in UAE after Houthi Attacks,” Associated Press, February 12, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/houthis-abu-dhabi-united-arab-emirates-middle-east-dubai-6435d9d38ecc374955d28778f69da65c.
- Koplow, Efron, and Gottesman, “The New Normal.”