The stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace process has been broken by a chain of peace declarations between ancient enemies. Where will the historic accords lead?
Sept. 15, 2020, a historic peace initiative was signed by the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It was the first of the Abraham Accords, named after the biblical patriarch honored by all three of the monotheistic religions founded in the Middle East—Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
The treaties recognize the Jewish and Arab peoples’ common ancestry; accept that Jews, as a people and a faith, are indigenous to the Middle East; and establish normal relations between the countries.
New road map to peace
At the White House signing, U.S. President Donald Trump pronounced it a historic moment for the region. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” he said. “This is,” added the president, “peace in the Middle East without blood all over the sand.”
The new blueprint for peace was set up by a number of moves that geopolitical experts initially dismissed as ghastly blunders that would destroy the American role in Middle East peace negotiations.
Breaking radically with the diplomacy of his predecessors, President Trump boldly displayed a fusion with Israel and cut funding to chronically anti-Western and anti-Semitic organizations that supported terrorism, while simultaneously highlighting the key role of regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia during his initial foreign trip in office.
He also became the first serving American president to go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2018 and moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Peace breaks out
Since its inception in 1948, Israel has been locked in a constant struggle with its Arab neighbors. The UAE’s courageous decision to break the ice and be the first Arab country in decades to declare peace and establish diplomatic relations with Israel was followed by shofar soundings in the capital of Dubai.
The crown prince of the UAE astonishingly announced that he hoped to see Passover visitors filling hotels in the Emirates. The goodwill dominoes kept falling as Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco quickly followed with similar deals, making it four Arab nations in four months seeking peace with Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, said, “This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace.”
An unfriendly neighborhood
This is not the first time that Israel and Arab nations have signed peace agreements. Previous peace declarations sounded splendid, but achieved only minor cosmetic changes, because enemies do not make peace. Only former enemies can achieve peace.
Israel currently maintains a “cold peace” with Egypt and Jordan, lacking any significant tourism or business ties that could sprout into grassroots goodwill.
The Camp David Accords, signed in 1978 between Egypt and Israel, were momentous, but lingering hostility from when the countries were at war meant Egypt’s state-run press remained overwhelmingly hostile to the Jewish state, and the Egyptian army continued to train for war with Israel. Despite sharing a border, Israel ranked 27th among Egypt’s trading partners in 2018, according to World Bank data.
Jordan’s 1994 peace accord with Israel had a short honeymoon period before public opinion soured dramatically and tourism came to a halt. Beyond security cooperation, the relationship is described as stable but frosty. More than a quarter century on from their celebrated peace signing, Israeli diplomats in Amman leave their compound only on Fridays, when they travel in armored convoys back home to Israel.
New perspectives, new opportunities
“Israel is a part of this heritage of this whole region,” declared Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa in the buildup to the accords. “The Jewish people have a place among us.” This contrasts with the Arab League consensus infamously known as the three noes: no recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel.
This bellwether treaty promises greater prosperity, as the UAE and Israel are two of the most advanced economies in the Middle East. Traditionally considered the vibrant gateway to the Middle East, the UAE’s unique geographic position, at the southern end of the Persian Gulf, provides a vital trade bridge to the Indian subcontinent.
Since the signing of the accord, investment, tourism and technological cooperation have ramped up at a frenetic pace. The UAE and Israel have since inked a $3 billion investment fund, known as the Abraham Fund, to facilitate trade in infrastructure, agricultural productivity and clean water projects.
The technological allure of Israel has Arab nations lining up to normalize relations with this creative, entrepreneurial country with a multicultural and educated workforce. With one of the healthiest economies in the world, Israel has a high concentration of engineers and PhDs and, similar to the UAE, is a powerhouse of innovation. The accords allow a win-win economic interdependence, helping to convince Arab neighbors that the peace dividend is prosperity.
The United States has been intensely negotiating for more Arab nations—notably Saudi Arabia, the biggest Gulf power—to grasp the olive branch of peace. As custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, Saudi Arabia has quietly encouraged the Arab normalization with Israel, and its own relationship with Israel is definitely warming.
Citing peace as “our strategic option,” the House of Saud has even begun to disengage from the business of supporting radical Islamism, but the monarchy remains wary of the religious perceptions.
The Abraham Accords reflect a major shift in regional dynamics over the past five years.The Abraham Accords reflect a major shift in regional dynamics over the past five years. Many of the grand narratives that shaped the region in the 20th century have largely vanished as new stability, security and economic concerns have arisen.
Four collapsed states in the region—Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq—are war-torn and impoverished, having sunk into bitter civil wars. Lebanon, long the financial capital of the Arab world, is conflict-ridden. Egypt, once the cultural and political powerhouse of the Arab world, has seen its trade and tourism-based economy crushed by the pandemic.
Economic dysfunction, burgeoning populations and lack of jobs epitomize the region. Add in enormous increase in the percentage of Arabs under the age of 30 who identify as “not religious”—as demonstrated in a 2019 BBC/Arab Barometer poll that also showed waning trust in religious leaders—and it is a potentially explosive mix.
Oil down, America out
For decades oil was seen as finite and critical to the world economy, but stagnant oil revenues have reduced Arab power. With the discovery of natural gas in its waters in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel has become self-sufficient in fossil fuels. America, by way of the fracking industry, is now the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer, reducing Washington’s geopolitical vulnerability to events in the region and giving momentum to a withdrawal from the Middle East.
The strongest force in international affairs driving changes is fear. “The Arabs,” according to noted geopolitical forecaster George Friedman, “framed their policy on the assumption that the United States would guarantee their interests, and even their existence . . . That remains possible, but what the United States has done is create a critical uncertainty.”
Wall Street Journal geopolitical analyst Walter Russell Mead observed, “Ironically, the current Arab nightmare is that the next U.S. administration won’t support Israel enough.”
The Iranian hurdle
Adding to the regional insecurity, the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president raises the possibility that the United States will rejoin the controversial 2015 nuclear deal, a move firmly opposed by many Arab countries and Israel. Many see the deal as providing Iran with a path to a nuclear weapon when it expires. Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic choke point at the exit of the Persian Gulf, the oil artery through which 20 percent of the world’s black gold travels.
The mullahs in Tehran already call the shots throughout the crescent-shaped region of the Middle East, where the majority population is Shiite Muslim. If Iran is able to topple some of the Gulf monarchies that are making peace with Israel and gain control over the guardianship of the Islamic holy city of Mecca, Iran could attempt to legitimize a theocratic supremacy over all Muslims in the region and across the world.
The more the U.S. withdraws, the more the Sunni Arab world values Israel. Growing numbers of Sunni Arab leaders have begun to hedge against an American pullback from the region by closing ranks and aligning with Israel—the only country with the experience, intentions and capabilities to act against a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.
“The Gulf states,” according to Mr. Mead, “increasingly see Israel not as an insect to be crushed by resurgent Arab power, but as a lion that can defend them from Iran.”
The rhetoric of hostility
The Abraham Accords have been hailed as “glorious” and a “pivot of history” by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but various Palestinian officials issued venomous rejections, calling them a “betrayal,” “a stab in the back” and “a black day” in the history of the people of Palestine.
Throughout the region, sympathy for the Palestinians runs deep. At times, Palestine has been the only matter Arab leaders could agree on. Previous peace agreements, which were based on the principle of land for peace, were continually bogged down by intractable Palestinian demands.
Arab nations, after rolling those boulders uphill for 50 years, have signaled they, too, believe the Palestinians have been chasing illusions and have missed many opportunities. With this in mind, many Arab nations have concluded there is more to be gained by casting the Palestinians aside for a strategic alliance with Israel.
World’s oldest family feud
After 4,000 years, the biblical patriarch Abraham has an impact on the Middle East that is still with us to this day.After 4,000 years, the biblical patriarch Abraham has an impact on the Middle East that is still with us to this day. The peace treaty is fittingly named after him, as it recognizes that both the Arab and Jewish peoples trace their shared ancestry to this revered figure, and both are indigenous to the region.
Because the Bible and the Koran divide on his legacy, the present religious and political turmoil in the Middle East is, at its heart, a family feud between Abraham’s descendants.
Abraham is described as a zealous pilgrim (Genesis 12:1-7; Acts 7:2-3; Hebrews 11:8-10), following God’s commands in the land of Canaan (later called the Promised Land and often referred to as the Holy Land). Like many in the Middle East today, Abraham was deeply devoted to his faith, hospitable to strangers and bravely protected family and neighbors (Genesis 14:8-17; 17:11; 18:1-8).
The patriarch had a crowded and increasingly antagonistic family living arrangement with his wife Sarah and son Isaac, along with Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael, also born to Abraham.
The divine revelation in the Bible describes Isaac as the son of promise who was willing to be sacrificed (Genesis 22:1-19), but most Islamic scholars see the Bible as corrupted and instead designate Ishmael—the ancestor of many of the modern Arab peoples—as the intended victim in the story.
The Koran further diverges from the Bible, as it describes Abraham establishing the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca by visiting Ishmael there, where they together built the famed Islamic holy shrine, the Kaaba.
The biblical account shows animosity between Isaac, Ishmael and their offspring. This perpetual and “ancient hatred” (Ezekiel 35:5) goes back for scores of generations and will not be healed immediately by signatures on parchment.
Countless deaths, oceans of blood and endless human suffering have been woven into the history of this inherently unstable and volatile region. Opportunities for dramatic change rarely arise in the Middle East, and the Abraham Accords could quickly fail. Each day can bring a new coup and yesterday’s peacemakers may be tomorrow’s murdered traitors.
Despite that, the Bible teaches, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and “as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).
As detailed in chapters 12 through 14 of the book of Zechariah, the Bible clearly indicates that at the end of this age the land of Israel will be a source of great controversy and conflict involving all nations. This will last until Jesus Christ, the “Prince of Peace,” returns to establish a permanent peace (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Watch for the fulfillment of these events, and learn more about the future of the Middle East and the world in our free booklet The Book of Revelation: The Storm Before the Calm.