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Cui Bono?

Israel and two Arab Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have formally and publicly established diplomatic relations. The White House is calling the agreements “The Abraham Accords,” and President Donald Trump, in typically understated fashion, announced that “there’s going to be peace in the Middle East.” (Spoiler alert: no.) The U.A.E. and Bahrain are the third and fourth Arab countries to open diplomatic relations with Israel; Egypt and Jordan were the first two. Here is a brief, tentative analysis of the winners and losers in this new arrangement. (I say “tentative” because this is the Middle East, and no one actually knows for sure what any of this could mean.)

The Winners

The White House aides who named this agreement “The Abraham Accords”

A genius marketing move, though I would have preferred the “Isaac and Ishmael Summit,” or “The Treaty of Ghent,” for that matter. “The Abraham Accords” is grandiose for any number of reasons, including the fact that what was signed yesterday does not even constitute a peace treaty. Peace treaties are made between warring parties, and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have never been at war with Israel. My personal preference would have been to deploy the big gun himself, Abraham, the father of monotheism, for a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians, which would be the thing that actually ended that Middle East conflict.

The authoritarian leaders, or authoritarian-curious leaders, of four countries

The agreement is a victory for Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the Emirates; Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Benjamin Netanyahu, the forever prime minister of Israel; and President Donald Trump. Each of these men needed this agreement rather urgently:

(A) Bin Zayed, because he realizes that the U.A.E. is deeply unpopular with Democrats (the U.A.E. leadership put itself on President Barack Obama’s bad side and was a bit too ostentatiously relieved when Trump came into office), and so understands that he needs to make his country look helpful and constructive to Joe Biden, just in case.

(B)   Bin Salman, without whom these Gulf states, Bahrain in particular, would not dare make such a bold and public move, needs this agreement for much the same reason: He has to prove to Democrats (and to Europeans) that he is a constructive and moderate leader, and not merely a murderer of dissidents.

(C) Netanyahu benefits in at least three ways: First, he diverts attention from his miserable handling of the coronavirus pandemic (Israel is moving into a new, three-week lockdown on Friday). Second, he manages to make “peace” with Arabs who are not Palestinians, the particular group of Arabs he’d most like to avoid. And third, he buttresses his reputation among Israeli voters as a statesman on the world stage.

d)   Donald Trump, because he can tell his followers, particularly his more gullible followers, that he has brought peace to the Middle East. (Not that American voters reward presidents who bring peace to the Middle East; just ask Jimmy Carter.)

The makers of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

In many ways “The Abraham Accords” amount to an arms deal. The U.A.E. and other states that now engage with Israel will find themselves armed with a better class of American weaponry. The U.S. has pledged for a very long time to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge, but the U.A.E. in particular might have just arranged for itself a similar promise.

The ambassadors

The deal is a triumph for the Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba; the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer; and Jared Kushner, the Trump administration’s ambassador to all sorts of Semites. It was Otaiba, more than any other single figure, who organized this coming-out party. He is the canniest and most influential ambassador in Washington, in part because he has bin Zayed’s trust, and in part because he so assiduously cultivates his country’s image as a (relatively speaking) progressive, anti-extremist Arab state. Dermer, Netanyahu’s longtime confidante, gets to claim a diplomatic victory, one that bypasses the core of the conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. And credit where credit is due: Kushner brought energy and drive to this process, and secured a win for his father-in-law and for the Israeli right, to which he is partial. It was the regional players who made this happen, but Kushner was smart enough to help set the table.


They can now travel to Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and maybe, soon, to Morocco and Sudan and Oman). The crushing sense of isolation that Israelis feel in their own neighborhood may be partially lifted by this agreement.

The Losers

The Iranian leadership

Israel and the United Arab Emirates (along with other Gulf states) have secretly cooperated with each other against their common enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, for more than a decade. The normalization of relations strengthens this coalition, the members of which (mainly correctly) see Iran and its various terrorist appendages as threats to their stability and territorial integrity, and even to their existence.

The Palestinians

A dark and cruel joke I once heard in Saudi Arabia: What’s the difference between Arab Gulf leaders and Netanyahu’s Likud party? The Gulf states really despise the Palestinians. Once again, Arab leaders are signaling to the Palestinians that they have grown tired of what they see as Palestinian rejectionism and obduracy, and also that they would very much like to be partners with Israel in high-tech development and in the fight against Iran. Two years ago, bin Salman told me in an interview: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” This statement was seen, correctly, as an invitation to Arab states to deepen their ties to Israel.

In this new deal, Israel gets something for nothing: relations with two more Arab states without so much as a settlement freeze. (The Israelis did promise the U.A.E. that they wouldn’t formally annex any West Bank land, for the time being at least. But Netanyahu didn’t have Trump’s permission to annex such land anyway, and he certainly wouldn’t get permission from Biden, should Biden win the presidency).

There is a case to be made that this new push for normalization will aid the cause of Israeli-Palestinian compromise. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel, argued in The Washington Post: “History and common sense both show that Arab states that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel play a more active role in supporting Palestinian aspirations than those who do not.” A smart point, and true, but this deal does nothing at all to convince the Israeli right that gestures toward the Palestinians would be worth making.

My view aligns more closely with that of Tamara Cofman Wittes, of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, who told me, “The reality of Palestinian politics is that the overall stalemate, the threat of annexation, and now the Emiratis and Bahrainis making their separate arrangements will cause the Palestinians to dig in. This all just reinforces an instinct toward resistance.” She went on to say that the Emiratis, known in the region for their hostility to the Palestinians, are “not in a position to influence Palestinian politics unless they hope to replace Palestinian leaders with other, more malleable Palestinians of their own choosing.”

If the so-called Abraham Accords put Iran and its terrorist proxies on the back foot, then good. If they cause Israel to avoid coming to terms with the reality that its continued control over the lives of millions of Palestinians threatens its democratic nature, then both the Palestinian aspiration of nationhood and the Israeli dream of a free and strong democratic haven in the Jewish ancestral homeland could be victims of this agreement.

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