Posted by on May 26, 2023 10:18 am
Categories: News The Hill

The Abraham Accords may not be the best path toward Arab-Israeli normalization

In the heady days of 2020, when the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab nations seemed to herald a new dawn for the Middle East,  pundits were competing to guess who the next nation would be to sign on.

Unfortunately, the perception that America is withdrawing from the region, heralded by President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal and President Trump’s failure to respond to an Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facilities, sent a chilling message to the Gulf states that America was an unreliable ally, putting any chance of other Gulf nations joining the Abraham Accords on the back burner.

It didn’t help that in the first year of the Biden administration, the words “Abraham Accords” barely crossed the lips of administration officials, quite possibly to avoid giving the previous administration any credit. However, since then, Secretary of State Blinken has done a 180, now enthusiastically endorsing the accords, hoping to entice the Saudis to join before year’s end, an excellent kickoff for the presidential campaign.

The Saudis have seemed interested in normalizing relations with Israel, but as Saudi diplomats recently told me, they must take the Palestinian issue seriously as the leaders of the Arab world. The going price for a rapprochement with Israel has been reported to be American help with a Saudi civilian nuclear program and removal of restrictions on Saudi procurement of advanced U.S. weaponry.

The conventional wisdom is that full normalization, within or outside the Abraham Accords, is unlikely as long as the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman, is still alive, as he is committed to the Palestinian cause. However, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman knows his grand plans for advancing Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 would be accelerated by open working relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel’s innovative technology industry.

What I was struck by first while visiting Saudi Arabia and then Oman was that, when the time comes for better relations with Israel, it might not fall under the Abraham Accords banner at all. Israel and the U.S. should pursue any normalization, small or large, without even necessarily imposing the rubric of the accords, if that is what it takes to foster relations. The Omanis fear joining the accords before the Saudis, as they are a stone’s throw from Iran, whose revolutionary and hegemonic desires hover ominously over the whole Gulf. However, in meetings with Omani officials, smaller steps toward normalization could be possible — just don’t call it the Abraham Accords.

So, what are those baby steps? According to a high-ranking Israeli official, Israel must prioritize economic development in places like Oman and shouldn’t expect political relationships to come first. Israel had trade offices in Oman and Qatar for a while. Oman closed the Israeli trade office in October 2000 during the Second Intifada, and the Qataris closed theirs in November 2007. The Omanis were proud to tell me that their former Sultan met with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1994) and Benjamin Netanyahu (2018). Unlike the Qataris, they seemed genuinely warm to closer relations with Israel.

It is an open secret that Israel is doing business in the Gulf. Reopening the trade office in Oman would benefit both parties and should be mediated with the encouragement of Secretary of State Blinken. Before the Abraham Accords, Israel had been doing business with those nations for years.

The path to open relations with Israel will be different for each Arab nation. What all approaches will share is that normalization will economically benefit the Arab countries. But a prerequisite for relations in this region is mutual respect and trust, something the Saudis told me is needed to improve their relationship with America. 

The American withdrawal from the region also undermined, in the eyes of Arab nations, an alignment against Iran. Theoretically, they liked being aligned with the regional power, Israel, but only if America was part of the package.

The perception that there is no credible American military threat has undermined the Gulf states’ desire to align with Israel against the Iranians.  Hence the Chinese-mediated Iranian-Saudi rapprochement. The Saudis know this is not a permanent solution to their intractable differences with Iran. Recently, at least rhetorically, America has been more belligerent in its statements against Iranian nuclear progress.

Time will tell, as the Arabs and Israel are watching to see if President Biden really has a red line to act against a nuclear Iran.

It is the potential for economic advancement that will drive small and large normalization agreements between Israel and its Gulf neighbors. For Oman and the Saudis, trilateral financial arrangements incorporating Israel and the PA in projects that deal with water or agriculture offer the best potential for success. Israeli, Palestinian, and Omani desalination joint projects could bypass the political divide.

American foreign policy interests are best served in the Middle East when stability increases. One path is new Israeli-Arab economic agreements under the leadership of America. But for Arab nations to “save face,” they may need to be outside the Abraham Accords’ umbrella.

Eric R. Mandel is the director of the Middle East Political Information Network and senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg

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