Although it was not the Biden administration that fathered the Abraham Accords, it proved willing to adopt them—hoping, with this endorsement, to assuage the dismay felt by many in the region with other aspects of its policy. Still, the president has done little, so far, to promote the Accords and their expansion. Moreover, the weakening of US influence in the region and the fear of Iran’s growing power may have further slowed down the process, possibly raising doubts in countries that have yet to decide whether to join the Accords.
The Iranian role in the war in Ukraine provides the White House with an opportunity to change course on the Iranian regime and take an uncompromising stance on Iran’s nuclear file, subversive activities in the regions, and the regime’s brutal suppression of the persistent protests. It could then translate this shift into gains on other fronts relating to the Accords.
It is vital for Israel to put together a comprehensive, systematic work plan, in consultation with the US and its regional allies, in order to strengthen, deepen, and expand the Abraham Accords.
As the Abraham Accords reached their second anniversary in September 2022, we can feel a sense of satisfaction with the relations woven between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. There are trade agreements, high-level diplomatic and security-related meetings, direct flights, and growing tourism.
These normalization agreements have withstood serious tests, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed down the rate of interactions and hampered the ability to implement significant aspects of the Accords. They survived a change of administrations in Washington with its attendant dramatic shift in US policy toward the Middle East. They overcame the implications of persistent political instability in Israel and held firm even in the face of violent crises in Gaza. The existence of the Abraham Accords has become a permanent reality.
Still, the Accords’ potential is far from being fully tapped, and the sense of satisfaction is tinged with concerns and worries about the continued process. The Biden administration did articulate a sincere will to maintain the momentum of the Accords, but the president’s policies and the weakening of US influence in the Middle East has worked against this desire. Thus, the circle of participating nations has so far not expanded, and the progress to date has occurred mainly in bilateral government-to-government channels.
True, the Negev Summit in March 2022 was a multilateral result of the Abraham Accords, and it was followed up with a meeting in Bahrain in June of foreign ministry directors-general. A formal steering committee, the Negev Forum, was created to monitor cooperation on security issues as well as education, energy, and tourism. Still, not much has happened in practical terms, and the significance of the Negev Forum is that it exists at all. Few major regional initiatives or private sector projects have occurred in the past two years, other than an agreement to build large-scale solar energy capacity between Jordan, the UAE, and Israel (and its implementation will be complex, owing to the lack of appropriate infrastructure in Jordan). The accession of Saudi Arabia to the Accords remains still a hope. The realization of the promise to let Israeli civilian aircraft to overfly Saudi Arabia and Oman on their way to the Indo-Pacific ran into difficulties, specifically because of Oman’s hesitations. Given the unstable relationship between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudis did not make an effort to deliver on this promise, which the Americans obtained during Biden’s July visit to the region. The fear of Iran’s growing power in the Biden era will never be mentioned as the reason for any of these delays—certainly not in official meetings or statements—but it is “the elephant in the room” and is reflected in other developments and events in the region. Hence the closer relations between the Gulf states on one hand and Russia and China on the other and their decision to limit oil production despite Biden’s entreaties; the rapprochement between the UAE and Iran, which led to the mutual return of ambassadors, after six years of disrupted relations; and also the Riyadh–Teheran dialogue, which resumed after Biden took power and has been sustained with a low-profile.
Difficulties have also occurred with Sudan and Morocco, the other two nations that joined the Abraham Accords. A bilateral normalization agreement between Sudan and Israel has yet to be signed, although the Sudanese leadership did sign the declaratory part of the Accords in January 2021. Therefore, the two countries have not yet opened diplomatic missions and still need to establish channels of civilian interactions. Israeli and American statecraft are not to blame, however; the internal turmoil in Sudan and the tensions between the power players in Khartoum go a long way toward explaining the delay.
Not all is going smoothly with Morocco, despite relations that are now flourishing at a level Israelis could barely dream of. There can be no doubt that Rabat seeks to advance the engagement with Israel. Visits by Israeli cabinet ministers to Morocco have become routine. Bilateral agreements have been signed in a long list of fields. Security cooperation has tightened, reflected in the mutual visits by the military chiefs of staff on both sides and arms contracts signed. Direct flights are almost always filled to capacity. Business delegations from both countries have paid mutual visits and established joint ventures. Channels of communication and cooperation have been established between universities and research centers, trade unions, cultural groups, and sport associations. More is yet to come.
Still, the diplomatic missions have yet to be officially upgraded to embassies. Israeli ministerial visits in Morocco have not been reciprocated, and the two heads of state, King Mohammed VI and President Yitzhak Herzog, have not yet met. It is not easy to ascertain to what extent this is due to Israel’s ambiguous stance on Morocco’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara. Clearly, there is an expectation, at the highest levels in Rabat, that Israel would join the US, Poland, France, Bahrain, and the UAE and to the dismay of Algeria, even Spain, who have either recognized Moroccan sovereignty or expressed some level of support for Morocco’s position. There can be no doubt as to the positive impact such a step would generate.
While it is not counted among the Abraham Accords countries, Chad should also be noted in this survey of Israel’s changing relations in the region. Led by the late Idriss Déby, this nation made its way to Jerusalem on its own, neither with a regional framework nor a supportive US position. Diplomatic relations were resumed in November 2019 but kept at a low profile. In May 2022 Israel’s ambassador to Senegal presented his letter of accreditation to Chad’s current president, Déby’s son Mahamat. The focus now should be on building trust in the peace process by manifesting the fruits of peace to the people in Chad. If the people see the balance sheet of normalization with Israel as negative, this could increase the risk of negative momentum, which could block and harm the achievements of the Abraham Accords.
What Is To Be Done: Six Steps for Israel, the US, and Regional Allies
First, do not take the Abraham Accords for granted or assume they are irreversible. The acts of signing the Accords did generate a true sense of celebration, gave rise to a new spirit, mobilized fresh energies, restored optimism, and offered new hopes. But as in matrimony, real life begins after the party, including the challenges of consolidating the relationship, enhancing and expanding it, preserving its vitality, its spirit, and its passion. It is therefore of critical importance to prepare a detailed work plan for bolstering, deepening, and widening the Abraham Accords—and to create a mechanism, led by the signatory heads of state, to monitor implementation.
Second, change course on Iran. The US administration should take the next steps from its current, growing expression of frustration and displeasure with Iran, given its involvement in the war against Ukraine. A firm approach toward Iran is the right stance and not only because of its role in the Ukraine war or activities to undermine the Abraham Accords. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its terrorist activities threaten stability and peace, both regionally and globally. This would serve the broader interests of the American administration and respond to the main challenges the West faces: weakening Russia’s ability to pursue the war, taking actions to resolve the global energy crisis, reversing the Gulf states drift toward Russia and China, blocking Iran’s destructive ambitions, and enhancing the process of normalization.
Rather than quarrel with Saudi Arabia, be pushed around by Iran, and tread water on three major foreign policy issues (the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, and Iran’s nuclear project), the Biden administration should decide to confront Iran, which is both morally and practically right, which, in addition to specific gains in the region, would enhance the place of the US in the emerging world order.
Third, advance joint projects aimed at solving urgent global problems, in the fields of energy, food, and water. Bureaucratic barriers should be removed and the comparative advantages of Israel and the Gulf states should be fully utilized. Thus, for example, regarding the global food crisis, African countries, including Sudan, can raise alternatives to wheat, using Israeli, Moroccan, and Emirati agricultural knowledge. It is also possible to harness the experience Israel has garnered as a leader in the field of alternative protein sources and meat replacements.
As for water, Israel, as a world leader in recycling and desalination technologies and in the extraction of water from the air, can provide solutions to problems of water shortage and management.
Fourth, open a land bridge of trade between Europe and the Gulf via Israel. Potentially cheaper and more efficient than some of the alternatives, a land bridge of trade could reap benefits both for the regional players and for European countries, which could use it also for their global import and export. It would also promote trade among the Abraham Accords signatories and would contribute to global growth.
Fifth, promote joint regional projects, for example, in the field of energy. Gas-related interests have already created new dynamics of cooperation in the region, embodied by the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which includes Israel and Egypt alongside other regional and European partners. Steps in that direction already have generated the prospect of linking the power grids of the Gulf countries and Africa with those of Europe via Egypt and Israel. Such projects would not only produce economic benefits but would also enhance the sense of partnership between the countries while also contributing to general security. In this context, it may also be possible to find solutions to some of the basic problems of the Gaza Strip, without incurring further security threats to Israel.
Sixth, enhance initiatives in the field of education and culture, to bolster basic attitudes in support of peace and weaken hostile positions and the hold of radical Islamist ideas. This is a critical component for grounding peace at the popular level, among citizens and peoples, and not only among governments.
Above all, preserve what has been achieved already!
Egypt: It remains the cornerstone of the agreements between Israel and the Arab countries. Strengthening links with Egypt is a strategic interest and of the highest degree of importance for Israel’s national security. The Abraham Accords provide momentum and a range of specific opportunities for projects with Cairo that could not be realized in the past. The combination of regional and global circumstances with security, economic, and political interests at this time create an opportune moment for cooperation.
Jordan: Despite the systemic constraints it faces in its relations with Israel, the Kingdom is an important partner. There are ways to preserve the relationship, to find opportunities for greater regional cooperation, and to tighten coordination through unofficial channels.
Morocco: Israel should recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, especially after the US and other countries have either done so or have expressed support for Morocco’s position. It would be unwise to leave this issue as a stumbling stone in the otherwise impressive trajectory of improving relations.
Sudan, Chad, and Kosovo: Steps need to be taken to accelerate the official signing of a diplomatic agreement with Sudan. Both Sudan and Chad should be invited to all working groups of the Accords’ signatories. The same goes for Kosovo, a Muslim-majority European nation, which has established relations with Israel and has an embassy in Jerusalem. When each and every signatory profits from its affiliation with the Accords, this will shore up the agreements and encourage other countries to come aboard the Peace Train.
In a speech I gave as head of an official Israel delegation to Abu Dhabi, shortly after the announcement of the Abraham Accords, I pointed out the meaning of this name: “Abraham, our first father, carried forward an innovative vision. He stood out against the fixations and false beliefs prevalent in his day and founded the monotheistic faith. Belief in God marked him out to be a source of blessing to us all, ‘And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).”
For Abraham, too, things were not easy. The vision was clear and the journey toward its realization was carried out with determination, faith in the justice of his cause, and an understanding that this is a long-term investment that will affect the future of all peoples in the region. The words with which I ended my speech still hold up well: “We take inspiration from our common father and break a new path, of hope and optimism, of fraternity and partnership, toward prosperity and peace.”