The Abraham Accords will complete its third year of existence this summer. The agreement between an apartheid state and some of the world’s most autocratic dictatorships was initially based on shared security concerns, particularly regarding Iran, but is now trying to establish itself more on an economic basis. The record on this has been mixed.
For the United States and even more for Israel, the Accords were a way of moving their interests in the Middle East forward without having to address the rights of the Palestinian people at all. That, too, is turning out to be much more difficult than Donald Trump and Joe Biden—who were and are equally enthusiastic about the Accords and about being able to completely trample Palestinian rights—expected.
On Tuesday, Morocco announced that it was canceling the meeting of so-called Negev Forum—the key negotiating arena for the U.S., Israel, and the Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel, except Jordan— in response to an Israeli announcement to expedite and expand settlement construction. This was the second time the event has been delayed in response to Israeli provocations. It was also the latest sign of trouble for the Abraham Accords, even while the U.S. continues to scramble to pump more life into them.
Biden is working with members of Congress from both parties to try to breathe life into this moribund agreement. Expanding the Accords to include Saudi Arabia has been the ultimate prize for both Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, as I’ve explained, the value of such a deal, in and of itself, to Saudi Arabia is much less than it is for Israel and the U.S. So they have set a high price for their potential participation.
Biden has proposedand the House of Representatives has approvedan ambassador-level envoy as the special representative for the Abraham Accords, with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro set to fill that role. The renewed push to expand the Accords, and the effort Shapiro will likely bring to the task, could help the U.S. find a way to secure Saudi Arabia’s agreement or, if not that lofty goal, to potentially expand the Accords to more African countries. That would mean little for Israel’s military or economic interests, but it would mean something for them politically, and the United States would see it as a way to stem the rising influence of both China and Russia in Africa.
Congress also moved this week to bolster the Accords by advancing a bill that would set up U.S. Food and Drug Administration offices in countries that have joined the Accords. It’s another move meant to counter China, potentially reducing the U.S.’ reliance on China as a key supply hub for pharmaceuticals.
The United Arab Emirates and Israel concluded two deals last week for cooperation in the technology and health sector as bilateral trade between the two countries neared $1 billion for 2023 so far. And, of course, Israel is proudly pointing to 2022 having set a record for its best year in arms exports, a jump attributable in part to sales to the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.
But while some are trying to paint a rosy picture for the Accords based on those developments, almost three years in, the agreement has not flourished the way its architects and propagandists, in both Washington and Tel Aviv, hoped. The foundation of fear the Accords were based on has begun to evaporate quickly. The initial impetus for the deal, stated or not, was to form a regional alliance that brought Israel together with Gulf Arab states to confront Iran.
That was always a flawed theory. While there has long been contention between each of the Gulf Arab monarchies and Iran, it has also varied in intensity over time and between the different Arab states. Some, like Qatar and Oman, rely on good relations with Iran, even if there are serious issues between them. Others, like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, had sharper differences, yet still needed to find ways to co-exist. Iraq is in its own category of complexity regarding Iran.
The United States and Israel both chose a wholly confrontational course with Iran, with Israel, in particular, seeing neither a path toward nor a particularly enticing incentive to find a diplomatic way to resolve their differences with the Islamic Republic. Military confrontation and regime change made up Israel’s preferred course as well as being the preference of major segments of both the Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S.
But for the Arab states neighboring Iran, war was always a nightmare scenario, a potential conflagration that would end with only losers and no winners amid massive regional destruction. With the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran brokered by Iraq and China, a better way forward was presented. The U.S. and Israel, by contrast, continue to reinforce the Iran “threat” and top-down trade arrangements as the basis of the relationship.
Israel is worried because both Bahrain and the UAE are moving to shore up their relationships with Iran. The two Gulf monarchies were the first to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords process. The third, Sudan, suspended the process due to the outbreak of the conflict that is raging there, but it’s worth noting that the suspension came after months of Sudanese foot-dragging on finalizing the agreement due to the objections by Sudanese civil society.
Morocco’s cancellation of the Negev Forum confab is a more serious bump in the road. The event had already been delayed several times due to concerns not only in Rabat but also in several of the participating Arab states over the escalating crimes Israel has been committing in the West Bank. The latest assault on Jenin, coupled with Israel’s brazen announcement of thousands of new settlement units was too much for the Moroccans.
This also followed Saudi Arabia’s strong condemnation of Israel’s attack on Jenin and other actions in the West Bank. The kingdom issued a statement Tuesday condemning “…Israeli escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories, the latest of which was the aggression on the city of Jenin.” The statement went on to state that, “The Ministry (of foreign affairs) affirms the Kingdom’s total rejection of the serious violations carried by the Israeli occupation forces…”
That hardly sounds like a country about to sign a normalization agreement with Israel. Rather, it sounds more like what the United States had warned Israel about just before it attacked Jenin. After the UAE was reported to have said it was “embarrassed by Israel” last month, Morocco was reported to have expressed the same thing to the Biden administration in recent days prior to its cancellation of the Negev Forum meeting.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, who was on a visit to Israel when Israel decided to launch the attack on Jenin, reinforced the Biden administration’s warning that the U.S. was facing serious obstacles in expanding the Abraham Accords due to Israel’s behavior. Yet Israel went ahead with its biggest attack on Jenin in nearly twenty years as well as its first use of drones for a targeted assassination in the West Bank in about the same time period. All while Leaf was there, a direct affront to the State Department.
The weakness and fecklessness of the Biden administration mean they will continue to bear Israeli insults and try to work for Israel’s benefit despite these insults. With good reason, Israel believes it can act as it wants, and the Biden administration will still secure the gifts of normalization with the Arab world. They’re right about the Americans, but their behavior has already undone much of the enthusiasm among Arab states for normalization. They understand, even if the U.S. and Israel do not that the Palestinians are not going to simply be swept aside.