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Israel's far-right in power: A test for the Abraham Accords?

Israel's far-right in power: A test for the Abraham Accords?
9 min read
05 December, 2022
Analysis: Israel's new political reality could slow, but is unlikely to reverse, normalisation agreements, despite their unpopularity with Arab publics.

It is too early to confidently predict exactly how the fanatical worldviews of extremists such as Avi Maoz and Itamar Ben-Gvir will impact the new Israeli government’s policies.

But it is safe to conclude that Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with Noam and Jewish Power will constitute the most right-wing and Jewish nationalist Israeli government to take power since the country’s establishment in 1948. In the words of Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Noam is “full-on crazy”.

Palestinians have every reason to be terrified about what the future has in store for them. Violent settlers will be emboldened like never before, especially given that Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party who will probably become Israel’s next national security minister, advocates that police shoot stone-throwing Palestinians and expel “disloyal Arabs” from Israel.

It is critical to ask what the rise of this new government means for Israel’s relationships with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states, particularly those in the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, which has not normalised with Israel but works with Tel Aviv across various domains. These Gulf states see themselves in a vulnerable position as they prepare for a new political reality in Israel.

“It is safe to say that the Arab states are now extremely worried about the new Israeli hawkish government and whether the Abraham Accords and the normalisation agreements that have been signed can stay in place if the Israeli government does what everyone is predicting - stepping up repression against the Palestinians,” Dr Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, said in an interview with The New Arab. “The question of Palestine is a core marker of identity in the Arab-Islamic world.”

“Racist settler parties hate the Arabs, raise the slogan of death to the Arabs, and believe in the superiority of the Jewish race and that every inch of Palestine is a divine right of the Jewish people,” tweeted the Dubai-based Emirati scholar Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla. “Israel will rule under the leadership of their leader Netanyahu for years to come. I think it is appropriate to freeze the Abrahamic Accord temporarily, and I hope that Netanyahu and those with him will not set foot on the land of the UAE.”

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Prior to the Israeli elections, the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned Netanyahu about how the inclusion of extremists such as Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in his new government could harm the Abraham Accords. But after the elections, the Emiratis invited Ben-Gvir to the UAE’s National Day reception in Tel Aviv.

For now, the UAE has essentially embraced a wait-and-see approach. Dr Hashemi told TNA Abu Dhabi is seeking to pre-emptively prevent potential future crises by sending the incoming Israeli government messages about negative consequences for Emirati-Israeli relations in the event of provocative actions on Israel’s part. However, there are no signs that the UAE is attempting to disengage with Israel.

“It’s very much ‘let’s still work with the hawkish Israeli government regardless of its deep-rooted anti-Arab policy and position of Jewish supremacy over the rights of Palestinians,’ but the UAE is not backing down,” explained Dr Hashemi. “They seem to be very much interested in engagement and trying to get ahead of any potential problems rather than waiting for them to erupt.”

Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, will probably become Israel's next national security minister. [Getty]

Trigger points

There’s no guarantee that the Emiratis will succeed on this front, which brings us to potential scenarios that could stress the Abraham Accords even more than Israeli brutality in East Jerusalem and Gaza did in May 2021.

“I expect that the Arab state parties to the Abraham Accords will initially keep silent. There may be one or two admonitions to the Israelis for-the-record. If the US reacts more strongly this could change,” Patrick Theros, a career diplomat who served as the US ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998, told TNA.

“The Abraham Accord states will react only when a headline-grabbing incident forces their hand. Continued violence in the West Bank at current levels will not be the catalyst, nor do I believe they will react with much more than protests for-the-record to incorporation of Jewish settlements into Israel as threatened by Netanyahu's new allies. The outbreak of major fighting with Gaza would test their resolve. If the casualty figures are high, we may see more symbolic acts such as withdrawal of Ambassadors,” added Theros.

“Jerusalem is a different story. Major violence in Jerusalem, further incursions on to the Haram ash-Sharif, or seizure of Muslim Holy sites will strike at the legitimacy of the Abraham Accords. I doubt any of the states will formally abrogate the Abraham Accords, but we could see the breaking of diplomatic relations in response to a very serious high-profile incident.”

Dr Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TNA, “When—and I don't say if—Israel moves to annex significant chunks of the West Bank, which could well be accompanied by a third wave of mass expulsions of Palestinians after those in 1947-48 and 1967, the stability and viability of the Accords will be severely tested.”

When asked if there’s any chance of the UAE freezing the Abraham Accords or possibly refusing to extend invitations to Israeli leaders to visit the Gulf Arab country, Dr Ibish said, “Not unless there is major unrest, violence and chaos in the occupied West Bank and, above all, in occupied East Jerusalem”.

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He believes that such developments “could lead to a slowing or even reversal of at least some of the normalisation and partnership processes. Anything to do with the Muslim and even Christian holy sites is especially volatile. But if that doesn’t occur, then I don’t think they’re likely to make any changes to the current trajectory”.

Beyond Israel’s relations with the Abraham Accord states, other friends of Israel might be forced to reassess their cost-benefit analyses of maintaining partnerships with Tel Aviv. “This far-right government is going to test everyone's relations with Israel,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North African analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, said in an interview with TNA.

“I don't see any breaks in the near future, but if the far-right shifts Israel's political spectrum in its direction, and things like anti-LGBTQ, anti-Arab, pro-annexation, anti-Supreme Court, etc. ideologies become the norm on the Israeli right, then Israel will risk relations with many of its allies and feed into an evolving global conversation critical of its Palestinian policies that is growing more nuanced,” added Bohl.

Netanyahu's coalition with Noam and Jewish Power will constitute the most right-wing and Jewish nationalist government in Israel's history. [Getty]

Taking stock of an evolving region

It is important to not lose sight of profound shifts in the Middle East’s geopolitical order and security landscape along with a decline in US hegemony, which all contributed to the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. Those factors will remain relevant irrespective of the incoming Israeli government’s right-wing extremism.

“There will be no immediate changing to the status quo of the Abraham Accords, primarily because the underlying reasons that have brought Israel and these Arab states together hasn’t changed. There are national security arrangements that draw these groups of countries together and those considerations remain in place,” explained Dr Hashemi.

“The Abraham Accords were not just some haphazard symbolic set of arrangements,” Aaron David Miller, the vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who served for two decades as a State Department analyst, negotiator, and adviser on Middle East issues, told TNA.

“They grew and developed out of certain changing realities. The rise of Iran was one. The second was the rise of Sunni fundamentalists in any number manifestations - al-Qaeda on one hand, Islamic State in any and all of its derivatives. Third was the growing sense on the part of the Gulf states - quite correctly -reflected in the Biden’s administration national strategy document that Washington is deprioritising the region,” Miller added.

“When a great power changes and shifts, smaller powers recalculate and recalibrate. That’s precisely what Israel has done, what the Saudis have done, and what the Emiratis are doing. That’s the source that gives the Abraham Accords more durability and resilience than you might have imagined.”

At the same time, for some GCC governments there have been decades of exhaustion over the Palestinian question. “There’s a growing frustration [with the Palestinian situation] that has been in the Gulf and the absence of large Palestinian populations in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Bahrain really has given these countries a freedom of manoeuvring and action that the Egyptians and particularly the Jordanians - let alone the Syrians and Lebanese - don’t have,” observed Miller.

Describing the relatively stable Gulf as “the new fulcrum of American policy in the Middle East,” the former US diplomat explained that Biden’s administration “inherited a kind of working peace process…between Israel and [some GCC] states and a dysfunctional Israeli-Palestine peace process”.

To the point, although Washington’s influence in the Gulf has declined, the growing importance of GCC states to US foreign policy decision-makers have given Gulf capitals “a real stake in getting from Washington as much as they can,” Miller told TNA. Within this context, Gulf countries have followed Anwar Sadat’s lead by assessing that going through Jerusalem is the best way to obtain what they want from Washington.

No new normalisation accords for now

Even if the UAE and Bahrain’s formalised relationships with Israel prove resilient throughout the period in which the far-right government is in power, experts agree that the chances of the Abraham Accords expanding in scope are extremely low. “Saudi Arabia is even more unlikely to join the process now, and it was already firmly in a ‘wait-and-see’ mode. The extremism of this [incoming Israeli] government will be another of many disincentives for Riyadh to join the normalisation camp any time soon,” Dr Ibish told TNA.

“I see it very unlikely that the Abraham Accords countries will expand to include a number of other countries, both in the region and outside, as a consequence of this new right-wing government,” said Miller. “I think that any further expansion of the Abraham Accords is highly unlikely whether or not the [incoming Israeli] government executes and tries to implement its right-wing agenda.”

As Theros put it, “I believe new accessions to the Abraham Accords by any Arab or Muslim country will be frozen indefinitely”.

To state the obvious, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to be optimistic about their future. However, the suspended expansion of the Abraham Accords in light of the incoming Israeli far-right government is perhaps one bright side for them.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero