Do the Abraham Accords matter?
The Biden team wants to push more normalization. But there are limits.
Image: US Department of State
Content Warning: IR Theory Ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
The normalization process between Israel and some Arab states under the label of the Abraham Accords has continued apace. The UAE and Israel recently announced a free trade agreement, accelerating the economic cooperation begun in the original accords. The Biden administration is reportedly pushing to bring Saudi Arabia more openly into the process as part of the President’s upcoming trip to the region, by brokering an agreement over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. With the President set to travel to the region, there’s an obvious desire to deliver something tangible beyond a humiliating handshake with Mohammad bin Salman. But with nuclear negotiations with Iran barely on life-support, Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects long deceased, meager hopes for US regional allies to actually support its defense of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion or work to lower energy prices, and no interest in pushing for democracy or human rights, encouraging the normalization process begun by Trump seems like the only policy idea left in town. Everyone is focused on the tea leaves from Riyadh, and whether Saudi Arabia might follow suit and join the Accords. Would it matter?
That makes this a good time to step back and think about the real signifiance of that normalization process. How much does any of this matter? In general, the first wave of response to the Accords polarized more politically than analytically. Supporters of the Trump administration, Israel and/or the UAE generally exaggerated their significance as a system changing peace agreement (it wasn’t). Critics of Trump, Israel and/or the UAE generally dismissed them as at best meaningless (simply formalizing an already existing reality) and at worst actively harmful (by relegating the Palestinian cause to the sidelines). Cutting orthogonally through the politics was the fact that Israeli-Arab normalization had been a bipartisan US goal for many decades; most thought that it couldn’t be done without a peace process establishing a Palestinian state, the Trump team set out to prove that it could be.
Two years on, the real significance of the Abraham Accords is coming into sharper focus. The initial hope for a rapid cascade of Arab states signing on to the Accords didn’t materialize. Bahrain followed suit. Morocco traded its signature for the United States recognition of its claim to Western Sahara, achieving its single top foreign policy priority without doing much in return. Sudan traded its promises to sign on for removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, a necessary condition for attracting desperately needed investment in support of its democratic transition; that transition and US aid tied to the Abraham Accords has since been derailed by a military coup. Iraq’s Parliament just passed a law expanding its criminalization of normalization with Israel in the wake of last fall’s somewhat odd pro-normalization conference/stunt in Erbil. Also, Jared Kushner walked away with $2 billion in Saudi cash for a fund promoting investment in Israel, and Steve Mnuchin raked in $1.5 billion from the Gulf, so there’s that.
Whether there’s something more interesting than the obvious politics depends on your working theory of regional international relations. Let’s start with Realism. For the most part, Realists shouldn’t be that impressed with the Abraham Accords because they did not change any alliances or alignments which would affect the regional balance of power. The UAE and Israel had been aligned within the US-led regional order for the past twenty years, with both viewing Iran as the greatest threat to their security and both looking to harmonize security cooperation with the United States. The Accords could help to harmonize that regional order, making it a bit easier for the US to coordinate its security architecture - or, less likely but possibly, make it easier for those states to cooperate on their own without US involvement.
From this Realist perspective, the Abraham Accords could shift the tactical balance of power a bit, for better or for worse. For better means that going public could facilitate more open military cooperation, arms deals, training exercises and the like. For worse means that at the extreme, the UAE could serve as an advance base for Israel to wage war against Iran, overcoming the distance which complicates Israeli military action against its nuclear sites, lowering the perceived risk of military action and shortening Iranian response times. That could be a genuinely destabilizing shift in the balance of power which could raise the risk of either intentional or unintended war, but at least for now UAE leaders seem to understand that this would go very badly for them as the first target for retaliation. As for the rest, Realists wouldn’t much care: of course Palestinians get ignored from the vantage point of self-interested states pursuing their interests under anarchy, and who cares about pan-Arab norms governing relations with Israel?
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The Abraham Accords are more interesting from the perspective of constructivism, the family of IR theories which emphasize the importance of identities, norms, and ideas. For constructivists, shifting from covert to public relations does matter. For generations, Arab states had largely honored (even in the breach) the normative principle that there could only be full normalization with Israel after an acceptable resolution to the Palestinian issue (as articulated by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative). The UAE’s normalization with Israel unequivocally broke this normative commitment, ostentatiously relegating the Palestinian issue to the margins. Israelis have clearly been thrilled with this, with their enthusiasm for the Accords suggesting how important such constructivist developments really are for the ostensibly uber-Realist Israel.
There’s a number of different ways to read this move, as a constructivist. One way would be to look at the extent to which the UAE suffered any kind of sanctions for its breaking of the taboo. It’s hard to say that it did. Criticism of its move by other states pretty much just fell into the extremely polarized divides which have characterized regional politics for the last decade. The UAE may not have been able to push all of its clients and regional allies into the Accords, but it could be sure that they wouldn’t criticize it too vocally for fear of alienating their patron and empowering domestic rivals aligned with the other side. The subsequent rapprochement between the UAE and Qatar/Turkey made any serious attacks over the Accords even less likely. This clearly has the effect of weakening the taboo and lowering the costs and risks to other states contemplating normalization.
The UAE’s approach has not been only defensive, however. What makes the Abraham Accords interesting here is that, in contrast to Egypt or Jordan after their peace treaties, the UAE has actively sought to change regional norms. It has crafted a “warm peace” in which good relations with Israel are presented as an actively good thing rather than as a necessary but unsavory reality. Here, the UAE has been less successful - not because of pushback by other Arab states, really, but because of Palestinian activism and the realities of Israel’s escalating repression in the West Bank. Last summer’s clashes in East Jerusalem, the murder of Shirine Abu Akleh, the racist slogans and violence on Jersualem Day - there’s really no way for the UAE to make most Arabs not care. The Palestinian issue may have been detached from Arab security cooperation with Israel against Iran, but it has manifestly not been marginalized from the core identity and moral commitments of most Arabs.
There’s another way that constructivist theories might read the Abraham Accords: the proposition that countries with shared values or identities are more likely to align with each other. This might seem a stretch to some: how could shared values or common identity bind a Gulf Arab state and Israel? But it’s not necessarily that big of a stretch. The UAE and Israel share a number of core commitments: both prioritize the Iranian threat, both view Islamism in all its forms as a major threat, both are actively hostile to Arab democracy, neither much cares about resolving the Palestinian issue or letting it stand in the way of pursuing other state interests. The connection between autocracy and normalization is pretty straightforward: where normalization is deeply unpopular, more autocratic regimes will be more likely to be able and willing to ignore public opinion than more democratic or less secure regimes. That may well continue to inhibit regimes which worry about public discontent — and, with food prices skyrocketing and memories of the 2011 Arab uprisings still fresh, most regimes do still have such worries. The US prioritizing shepherding the Abraham Accords these days is thus pretty consistent with its painful downgrading of any pretense of promoting democracy or defending human rights.
Finally, there’s another interesting lens through which to read the Accords. If you see the UAE not as “an Arab state” but as a key node in the global capitalist system, heavily invested in Western financial markets and real estate and sports clubs, then the Accords make even more sense. The UAE and Israel are both heavily invested in the technology sector - especially surveillance technology! Arab regimes do love their Israeli digital surveillance technology to spy on their dissidents. From this perspective, the Accords could be seen as a form of detachment from “the Arab world” in favor of these globalized networks of finance. The Kushner and Mnuchin “investment funds” fit that model quite nicely (the Trump family is of course as home in the world of global finance, real estate deals, money laundering and corruption as the Bush family was in the world of oil).
So: do the Abraham Accords matter? It depends on the analytical lens you apply. From the Realist lens, it matters a little - unless it paves the road to a war with Iran, in which case it will be devastatingly negative. From the Constructivist lens, it matters more — but its transformational aspirations quickly run into the limits imposed by the realities of Palestine. Biden’s team may manage to bring Saudi Arabia into the Accords. Maybe it won’t. But either way it won’t change those limits.
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