Crown Center for Middle East Studies

On the Third Anniversary of the Abraham Accords

A Conversation with Shai Feldman and Sanam Vakil

Organized and edited by Ramyar D. Rossoukh, Assistant Director for Research, and Naghmeh Sohrabi, Director for Research and the Charles (Corky) Goodman Professor of Middle East History

September 15, 2023

On September 15, 2020, Israel and two Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, signed the Abraham Accords, officially establishing diplomatic relations. Later expanding to include Sudan and Morocco, the Accords represent the first instance of Arab-Israeli normalization since Israel's peace treaty with Jordan in 1994.

To mark the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords, we asked Shai Feldman, the Raymond Frankel Professor in Israeli Politics and Society and founding director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, to assess the impact of the Accords on the region, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and the prospects of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

From a Gulf perspective, have the Abraham Accords been successful?

Sanam Vakil:
Through normalization with Israel, underpinned by their most important partner, the United States, the Accords provide the two Gulf Arab countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates with three important gains: an opportunity to build stronger economic and technological exchanges, to build out security and intelligence cooperation over shared regional threats ranging from Iran to terrorism, and above all to secure long-term security cooperation with Washington. 

In all three areas, the Accords have been delivering for the Gulf states, albeit at varying levels of momentum. For both countries, bilateral ties with Israel have developed at a rapid rate through public political and economic exchanges. Signaling the long-term durability of the agreement, the UAE signed a free trade deal with Israel in April 2023, having already implemented visa-free travel alongside a plethora of investment deals. Minilateral frameworks and increased regional dialogue have also been an outgrowth of the agreement. The I2U2 agreement, a quadrilateral framework between India, Israel, the UAE, and the U.S. to build commercial and technological cooperation, and the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), promoting trade and energy cooperation, are just two of the groupings that have emerged as a result of the Accords.

Shared threat perceptions over the Islamic Republic of Iran’s destabilizing regional activities remain a key challenge for all Middle East states. Despite increased Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) outreach and wider reconciliation with Tehran, jump-started by Emirati-led diplomacy in 2019 and culminating in Saudi-Iranian rapprochement in 2023, GCC states see Iran as a long-term regional threat that requires strategic long-term management. As part of this shifting approach, Gulf states see de-escalation with Tehran as a tactical maneuver that will be important for economic and regional stability. There is also awareness in the Gulf that the outcome of negotiations between Tehran and Washington on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or arriving at a crisis management understanding will not solve their Iran dilemma. Thereby, the Accords provide an opportunity to build stronger bilateral security and intelligence ties between Israel and the Gulf states while also allowing the Gulf states to upgrade their defense capacity.

From Israel's perspective, have the Abraham Accords been successful?

Shai Feldman: The signing of the Abraham Accords was a spectacular U.S.-orchestrated Israeli achievement. Historically, the Accords comprised the fifth breakthrough in the phased process of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. The previous milestones in this process were the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Agreement, the 1993 PLO-Israel Oslo Accords, the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty, and the Arab League’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). As such, the Accords comprised a gradual but complete reversal of the Arab League’s early 1948 decision to invade Palestine in order to prevent Israel’s creation. In the Accords’ aftermath, only two facets of the conflict—the Palestinian-Israeli and Hezbollah-Syrian dimensions—remain unresolved.

The Abraham Accords added the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan to the circle of Arab states normalizing their relations with Israel. With that, two Israeli grand-strategic objectives were met: Horizontally, by broadening Israel’s acceptance by its regional environment, and vertically, by deepening Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors through an array of agreements in economic, scientific, technological, and security realms. Together, these interactions—ranging from small and large business deals and joint projects to arms sales and joint military exercises—contribute significantly to Israeli security, stability, and sense of acceptance and permanence in the MENA region.

What have been the implications of the agreement for Israel-Palestinian relations?

Feldman: The Abraham Accords further tilted the imbalance between the Palestinians and Israel in the latter’s favor by broadening the circle of Arab states that accept Israel as a diplomatic, economic, and security partner. By signing and implementing the Accords, Arab states entered into a web of relations with Israel without reference to the conditions stipulated in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This is critically important because some of these conditions were regarded by the Palestinians as existential, especially with regard to the demand that Israel accept a “just solution to the Palestinian refugees” issue. With important Arab states like the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco committing to normalize their relations with Israel while dropping such conditions, the Palestinians lost the little leverage they still possessed to compel Israel to accommodate their demands. As such, the Accords significantly narrowed the number of Arab states that could press Israel to take steps that would improve the odds of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Moreover, at least in the short run, Palestinian reactions to the Abraham Accords only exacerbated their loss. By accusing the Arab signatories to the Accords of betraying them and abandoning their causes, the Palestinians invited expressions of deep disappointment and counter-accusations of ingratitude from the Accords states, noting their many years of generous financial and other forms of support for the Palestinians.

Have the right-wing policies of Israel’s new Netanyahu-led coalition government had any effect on the Accords, particularly on the Palestinian issue?

Vakil: The Accords have become a framework to promote regional security integration in the Middle East. The Negev Forum initiative, which was convened in March 2022 to bring together normalized Arab states and Israel for regular coordination on thematic issues, held a number of regional gatherings. For the time being, progress on this stream has stalled over Israel’s Palestinian policies, particularly the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which will continue to remain the key stumbling block limiting broader regional integration. Mindful of optics, the government-level public embrace of Israel and welcoming of high level figures in the Gulf has slowed since Netanyahu’s government formation. But it’s important to remember that for Bahrain and the UAE, the agreement was never about kickstarting a Palestinian peace process.

Feldman: The formation of the new Israeli government further exacerbated the Palestinian sense that they were betrayed by the Accords. But during the months that followed its creation, even steps taken and statements made by the most extreme elements of the new coalition did not halt the implementation of any of the significant clauses of the Abraham Accords. At most, these statements or steps resulted in some cancellation of meetings and some postponement of visits.

Other than the continued self-interest of the Accords states in implementation, an important factor that seems to limit their reactions to Israeli-Palestinian violence is that more often than not these states were not convinced that Israel is solely responsible for the violence. There is, however, no guarantee that this will remain the case in the future. Indeed, the Abraham Accords states may react strongly to violence in the Palestinian-Israeli realm if they assess Israel to be solely or mostly responsible for the incident, especially if the provocation and the resulting violence take place in Jerusalem. The importance attached to Jerusalem and especially to the holy basin by both Muslims and Jews could cause even a marginal incident to escalate rapidly. In such a scenario, the Accords states—likely encouraged by Jordan and possibly by Egypt as well—could find themselves halting or even reversing the direction of the process of Arab-Israeli accommodation.

In the lead up to the anniversary of the Accords, there has been a lot of talk about the prospects of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. What is your take on it?

Feldman: An important impact of the Abraham Accords has been the extent to which the Accords created a more conducive political environment for Saudi Arabia to normalize its relations with Israel. While it seems that this next step is not imminent and that, as the initiator of the 2002 API, King Salman remains reluctant to drop the conditions stipulated in the API for normalizing relations with Israel—especially the demand that Israel accept a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee” problem—there is little doubt that the Abraham Accords created a regional environment that is more conducive to making even broader peace with Israel.

Vakil: The prospect of Israeli-Saudi normalization, while very much in the news because of the Biden administration’s belated support for the project, will not be easy to deliver. For normalization to take place, leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. will have to make bold political choices. Not only does Washington again have to underwrite the deal and build consensus in Congress, but it will also have to negotiate with Riyadh on its civilian nuclear program and the latter’s demands for a NATO-like defense treaty. The bigger challenge would be arriving at a compromise on the two-state solution for Palestine at a time when Netanyahu’s right-wing government seeks settlement expansion, if not annexation, of the West Bank. From a Gulf perspective, Netanyahu cannot have it all, and for the Accords to expand, he will have to prioritize regional integration over domestic security priorities. While it is true that younger generation Gulf leaders do not have the same connection to the Palestinian cause that mobilized Arab solidarity in the 20th century, it is unlikely that Saudi leadership would normalize with Israel without a significant concession on Palestine that would showcase Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership.  

For more Crown Center publications on topics covered in this Conversation, see: A Changing Middle East: The View from Israel,” and “The Impact of the May 2021 Hamas-Israel Confrontation.”

The opinions and findings expressed in this Conversation belong to the authors exclusively and do not reflect those of the Crown Center or Brandeis University.