Well, so much for the vaunted Abraham Accords—Donald Trump’s signature diplomatic achievement that produced normalization agreements between Israel and many of its Sunni Arab neighbors.
That’s the refrain among left-leaning political observers today after nearly a week of civil conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, culminating in opportunistic missile strikes on Israeli territory by Hamas to which Israel proportionately responded.
“Now, with Trump gone and Netanyahu only barely clinging to power, regional politics may already be pivoting away from the Abraham Accords,” the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor insisted. Though he conceded that the tonally perfunctory condemnations of Israeli actions from Israel’s Sunni neighbors represented a “traditional line,” Tharoor maintained that even a hint of disapproval with Jerusalem is “more conspicuous now” as it “flies in the face of the ‘vision for peace’” negotiated during the Trump years.
The Post’s Max Boot appeared to concur. “The clashes in recent days between Israelis and Palestinians make clear that there is no ‘peace’ and no ‘new Middle East,’” he remarked. “The Abraham Accords were nice, but they did nothing to resolve underlying conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya—or the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
“I don’t understand,” best-selling author Don Winslow remarked coyly. “I thought Jared Kushner solved all conflict in the Middle East forever.” The unerringly conspiratorial Sarah Kendzior agreed. “Jared Kushner was installed in part to exacerbate this problem and his actions, particularly in the last few months of the Trump admin when he was meeting with officials in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries,” she said, “need to be scrutinized much more closely.”
New York Times diplomatic correspondent Michael Crowley reproduced these sentiments, well, more diplomatically. “Trump officials often insist they didn’t get more credit for achieving ‘peace in the Middle East.’ We are now seeing why,” he wrote. The Abraham Accords were a “worthy project that skirted a smoldering Palestinian dilemma that has again erupted.”
Indeed, the Accords deliberately “skirted” the Palestinian question. That was the whole point of this diplomatic project, and that is why the Abraham Accords remain a historic success.
By early 2017, it was clear to many observers of the region that the Middle East’s hardened geopolitical features were coming unstuck. The Trump administration entered office determined to test the pieties of the Peace Processors for whom a permanent resolution to Israel’s conflict with the two (increasingly distinct) Palestinian territories was the sine qua non for peace in the region.
In February of that year, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the new administration was engaged in talks with five Arab states to establish a bloc dedicated to containing a resurgent Iran. That arrangement would include an intelligence-sharing scheme with Israel, a de facto diplomatic relationship that seemed at the time rather far-fetched.
But the diplomatic progress that the Trump administration made toward creating the conditions for normalization progressed rapidly. And they did so not despite but because of the administration’s realization that the priority for the region’s Sunni states was containing Iran, not resolving the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The fact that Hamas was already an Iranian proxy and factions in the West Bank were gravitating toward Iran only made the Sunni Arab states’ revelation easier to reach.
Today, Israel enjoys a functional diplomatic relationship with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Oman. And those are only the openly declared normalization deals. Last year, Saudi Arabia terminated a 70-year ban on Israeli-bound flights. Egypt and Israel share the goal of limiting both Iranian and Turkish influence in their respective zones of control, and the two states’ mutual security-cooperation agreement has rarely been more relevant. Israel is a participant in regional economic expos hosted in states that were its erstwhile enemies. It serves as a mediating party to disputes between Muslim-majority countries at their behest. Jewish tourists are an increasingly frequent and, apparently, welcome sight throughout the region—an unthinkable condition only a few short years ago.
And while many of these states have condemned Israel’s actions—both its policing of domestic unrest and its retaliatory strikes against Hamas military targets buried within civilian infrastructure in Gaza—theirs has been a lethargic response. Not all that long ago, many of these Sunni states, in coordination with the Arab Bank, supported the provision of lavish monetary rewards to the families of Palestinian “martyrs” who killed or were killed by Israeli forces. The restoration of that awful status quo ante is all but unthinkable today. It certainly bears no resemblance to the passionless (and, more importantly, toothless) condemnations of Israeli behavior you’re hearing from Arab capitals today.
That is the genius of the Abraham Accords. By decoupling these Sunni Arab state’s relations with Israel from the state of its intractable conflict with the Palestinian territories, the accords paved the way for a more stable, predictable, and peaceful region. This conflict might have slowed progress toward full normalization of diplomatic and security relations between Israel and the Gulf states, but it has not reversed it. The violence we’re witnessing today doesn’t disprove the thesis that yielded those accords; the conflict and the lackluster regional response only reaffirm its logic.
An epochal concord is being tested, but it is emerging intact. That is a near-miraculous event that is difficult to overlook. It seems that only a foreign-policy professional could miss it.