In a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements formally establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, becoming only the third and fourth Arab countries to do so after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. President Donald Trump, presiding over the ceremony, called it “an important day for peace” and made sure everyone knew that he had bagged two Arab–Israeli peace deals in one month, as much as every other U.S. president had managed in the previous 72 years.
These agreements, while historic in their own right, are not exactly peace treaties, as Israel was not at war with the UAE or Bahrain. These countries did not participate in the series of wars other Arab countries fought with Israel in the mid-20th century, but like all other Arab countries and many Muslim countries around the world, they had long refused to recognize Israel. These oil-rich Gulf states had already been engaged in backroom diplomacy and trade with Israel for some time; Tuesday’s agreements allow them to bring their existing relationships out in the open and deepen them with direct flights, tourism, and open access to each other’s markets.
The agreement with the UAE was announced last month; Bahrain’s participation was revealed only on Friday and drew considerably less attention. The addition of the tiny island nation to the so-called “Abraham Accords” signed Tuesday can be interpreted as a tacit nod from Saudi Arabia, of which Bahrain is a heavily dependent client state. Neither country’s head of state attended the ceremony; their foreign ministers represented them instead. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for whom Tuesday’s agreement was most politically salient, came to sign it personally.
For the Bahraini King Hamad Al Khalifa and Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, the de facto ruler of the UAE, the politics are a little more complicated, and neither leader was necessarily eager to be photographed shaking hands (or bumping elbows) with Netanyahu. These countries are by no means democracies, and these rulers’ subjects are much more motivated by the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel sentiment than they are. The Emirati leader’s absence in particular raised some eyebrows, as he is friendly with Trump and the president’s son-in-law/Middle East adviser Jared Kushner, and led to some speculation about why he would avoid Washington on such a historic occasion.
Netanyahu is the big winner here, having successfully manipulated two wealthy Arab states into normalizing relations — or given them sufficient cover to do so — with the help of Trump and Kushner. The UAE agreed to establish ties in return for Israel suspending (but not abandoning) an extremely controversial plan to annex the West Bank, which Kushner effectively invited with the one-sided, unworkable Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he unveiled in January. Perhaps this was the endgame all along, in which case the annexation threat was a clever if ham-fisted diplomatic coup.
In agreeing to this deal, the UAE and Bahrain appear to validate Netanyahu’s long-held theory that Israel can normalize relations with its Arab neighbors without resolving the Palestinian crisis first (and without ever resolving it justly). Indeed, if the threat to annex the West Bank was what motivated their decisions, he proved that it can do so even while throwing the Palestinians completely under the bus. The Kissingerian reality of today’s Middle East is that Israel and the Sunni Arab states are more united by their view of the threat posed by Iran than they are divided by their attitudes toward the Palestinians or Jerusalem. They are already allies in a regional cold war, and the need to keep up the appearance of historical enmity diminishes with each passing year.
Also, Netanyahu desperately needs some big political wins right now. He is tenuously clinging to power at the head of a fragile unity government, he is going on trial for corruption in January, and two-thirds of the Israeli public disapprove of how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis. Israel currently has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infections of any country in the world and is going into its second national pandemic lockdown on Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year, after the government failed to agree on a more targeted lockdown plan. Israel’s economy has taken a massive hit from the pandemic, and the coming lockdown is expected to tank it even further. In this context, it’s an open question how much anyone in Israel really cares about direct flights to Dubai right now.
Trump, too, is desperate to spin the agreement as a major success story and bolster his apparently flailing reelection campaign. This is a cause Israel and the Gulf states support, as they fear a Joe Biden administration will pursue a more balanced Middle East policy and seek diplomatic engagement with Iran rather than aggressive containment.
However, it doesn’t appear likely that this move will win Trump any votes. Recent polling shows that Jewish voters, the most obvious target of pro-Israel politicking, strongly disapprove of Trump for a variety of reasons and are overwhelmingly likely to vote for Joe Biden in November. The handful of Florida retirees who will turn out in November to reward Trump for sealing the “Abraham Accords” are most likely Republicans who are going to vote for him anyway. A more promising target, evoked by the agreement’s programmatic title, are Evangelical Christians, who tend to be more fanatically pro-Israel than Jews and were the target audience for Trump’s previous panders like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But foreign policy doesn’t tend to win presidential elections, and Trump’s overall record in that department is hardly stellar. This event is mainly useful to the Trump campaign as a distraction from the president’s pandemic failures, a flagging economic recovery, and his own daily litany of scandal and outrage.
So what is the U.S. really getting out of this deal? The simple answer is money: specifically, Gulf oil money that will be spent on advanced U.S. armaments like F-35 stealth fighter jets. Kushner helped coax the UAE into this deal with the incentive of high-tech weapons sales, to which Trump agreed. Upgrading the defense capabilities of allied Gulf states has its own logic for the Trump administration, as the chief foreign policy goal advanced by this agreement is to encircle Iran and strengthen the regional coalition against it. And of course, with Trump, the opportunity to brag about multi-billion-dollar arms sales is a huge upside. Making F-35s available to the UAE and potentially other Arab states is a highly controversial step, however, as the U.S. is committed by agreement and by law to maintaining Israel’s conventional weapons superiority over its neighbors: This is such a bedrock element of U.S. foreign policy doctrine that it comes with its own abbreviation, QME (Qualitative Military Edge). Arms sales to Arab states are supposed to be evaluated and approved by Congress to ensure that they don’t erode Israel’s QME.
The Trump administration has evaded congressional oversight in the past by declaring a dubious “emergency” to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE after lawmakers raised concerns over these countries’ complicity in atrocities in Yemen. Trump could probably sideline Congress once again to fulfill this deal, but Israel is also raising concerns. Netanyahu opposes the sale of F-35s to other Middle Eastern countries, which he claims he didn’t agree to. That problem could potentially be solved by selling Israel even more and better weapons. However, an Israeli defense official and Qatar’s foreign minister both expressed concern to the Washington Post that the proliferation of U.S. weapons in the Middle East could spark a regional arms race.
What does this historic agreement mean for the future of Middle Eastern politics and the U.S. role in that part of the world? Probably its biggest impact will be in opening the door to more Arab states normalizing relations with Israel, now that the taboo has been broken. Trump claimed on Tuesday that several other Arab countries were lined up to do so, “including the big ones.” Asked if he was hinting at Saudi Arabia, he responded, “at the right time, I think they will come in.”
In fact, Riyadh is unlikely to move too quickly in openly embracing Israel given its unique role in the Muslim world and its leaders’ ties to the Islamic clerical establishment. The Saudis might use Bahrain as a proxy for conducting indirect diplomacy with Israel, but they will probably hold off on opening an embassy of their own for as long as possible. Instead, Oman is seen as the country most likely to follow suit.
Meanwhile, kicking the Palestinians to the curb and amplifying pressure on Iran are both risky steps that will heighten tensions and possibly lead to fresh violence. Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip greeted the agreement by firing some rockets into Israel. As the reality sinks in that the Arab states are openly abandoning the pretense of supporting the Palestinian cause, will this spark a new uprising, or force the Palestinian leadership to capitulate to a peace settlement on Israel’s terms? Netanyahu, Trump, and Kushner are banking on the latter. And how will Iran react to its adversaries strengthening ties while amassing more weapons?
Somehow, this historic “peace deal” doesn’t seem to have moved anyone further away from the next catastrophic war in the Middle East.