On September 15, 2020, the most significant diplomatic breakthrough of the 21st century in the Middle East was signed at the White House. The United Arab Emirates agreed to recognize Israel and normalize relations, while Bahrain also agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. Standing on the balcony of the White House in an immortalized picture, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan held up their signed agreements for the world to see. The list of Arab countries recognizing Israel doubled in just one day.
While this should have been a reason to celebrate, the Accords were decried by many. Some doubted their significance since Israel and the UAE and Bahrain weren’t at war. More importantly, the Palestinian leadership and their supporters slammed the deal. From Gaza to Ramallah, portraits of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi were burned in the street as Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, called the deal a “stab in the back.” On top of that, some fear this could push Palestinians further away from the bargaining table.
Some have labeled the pomp and circumstance and media attention surrounding the signing uncalled for. Critics, such as Karen DeYoung and Steve Hendrix at the Washington Post, even attempted to downplay the Accords by saying that “two of the countries involved — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf — have never fired a shot at Israel.” What they fail to mention is that since 1948, when Israel declared independence, not a single neighbor (except Jordan and Egypt after losing multiple wars) has recognized Israel. The UAE and Bahrain are both part of and signatories of the Arab League, which spearheaded the infamous “three no’s” of the Khartoum Summit in 1967 following the Six Day War (no peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel). Poetically enough, Sudan became the fifth MENA country to normalize ties with Israel, announced on October 23rd, 2020. So, those who attempt to downplay the accords on the grounds that Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain were never at war are not making a fair argument, especially because Israel has fought four wars with its Arab neighbors in the past 72 years.
The claim that this is a stab in the back is slightly more nuanced. Both the PA and Hamas leadership feel the UAE and Bahrain now stand fully with Israel and reject the Palestinian cause, but this belief is unfounded. The UAE still supports the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the UN’s charity agency for the Palestinians. In December of 2019, the UAE even upped their contribution to 184 million AED (approximately $50 million). Christian Saunders, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, said, “We are extremely grateful to the UAE for their outstanding generosity and for the promptness of their disbursement. The state of the UAE has been amongst the strongest supporters of Palestine refugees since its establishment in 1972, especially through its regular humanitarian contribution to UNRWA. We at UNRWA truly value this partnership.” This, however, seemed to be forgotten by the Palestinian leadership in both May and June when they rejected millions of dollars of cargo shipments of COVID-19 aid from Abu Dhabi because they landed in Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
Furthermore, the claim that the Abraham Accords move Israel further away from a two-state solution is also false. Israel, as a sign of good faith, suspended all plans to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank when the deal was signed. After suspending security ties with Israel, the PA resumed them on November 17, a sign of continued cooperation between Israel and the PA. As Israel’s new allies grow increasingly frustrated with Palestinian rejectionism and express greater willingness to work with both sides, peace in the region could be within grasp.
In the wake of Iran’s rise as the biggest threat in the Middle East and US officials’ tireless efforts to implement normalization agreements, the Middle East has seen unprecedented historical deals. In the short span of a few months, Israel’s Arab allies more than doubled, and more countries could soon follow suit. US delegations have met with Oman, Morocco, and other Gulf states to discuss normalization with Israel. Most recently, on November 23, it was reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Saudi Arabia. There was once a longstanding belief that Israel’s only path towards regional acceptance was through a peace deal with the Palestinians. Time and again, the PA and leaders of Hamas have either refused to negotiate, or have abruptly rejected peace agreements brokered by the US, EU, and others. The Abraham Accords are the most recent proof that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the only roadblock to peace in the Middle East. As a proud Zionist and ardent believer in the state of Israel’s right to exist, I was beyond proud to watch this historic peace deal signed and am excited to see who’s next to normalize ties with Israel.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the CAMERA on Campus Medium blog.
Contributed by 2020-2021 University of Pennsylvania CAMERA Fellow Jesse Fox.