A year on from the Abraham Accords: Normalisation has nothing to do with peace

A year on from the Abraham Accords: Normalisation has nothing to do with peace
Opinion: The Abraham Accords have been characterised by empty promises to the Palestinians, American bribery, repressive Israeli security technology, and a lack of public Arab support, writes Muhammad Shehada.
5 min read
17 Aug, 2021
(L-R) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on 15 September, 2020. [Getty]

When the UAE was the first of four countries to break decades of Arab consensus on the Palestinian cause by normalising relations with Israel, it promoted this sell out as a step towards peace, prosperity, and stability in the region, as well as alleviating Palestinian suffering.

The past year, however, has made crystal clear that the Abraham Accords had nothing to do with genuine peace, let alone improving the situation for Palestinians.

Instead, the deal had everything to do with autocratic regimes' desperation to secure their own thrones and bolster their power, by appealing to Israel's allies and learning from Israel's decades-long experience in brutally suppressing and containing Palestinian resistance.

Throwing Palestinians under the bus

On 13 August, 2020, the UAE, US, and Israel announced the Abraham Accords. Emirati rulers condescendingly touted the suspension of Israel's annexation of the West Bank as a gift for Palestinians. 

"We normalised relations for Palestinians' sake" was a central message pushed by the UAE - and later - Bahrain. When Morocco followed suit, Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani similarly reiterated that normalisation will make the country "more capable of supporting the Palestinian cause".

"The past year has made crystal clear that the Abraham Accords had nothing to do with genuine peace"

The accords' seriousness, in terms of preventing annexation, was quickly shown to be farcical, at best. Instead, Israel has escalated and accelerated its settlement expansion and dispossession of Palestinians, including in Jerusalem's Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhoods, amid formal Arab silence.

Then the deal demonstrably failed its first test, vis-à-vis the Palestinians, as the normalising clique stood deafeningly silent and motionless while Gaza was being savagely pounded by Israeli airstrikes last May. The UAE's Abdullah bin Zayed, who in 2014 had condemned Israel's killing of children, changed his tune last May to meaningless bothsideism.

Absent popular support

Israel's unconstrained destruction of Gaza further stripped the Abraham Accords of the false pretence that they enjoyed popular backing, as Arab streets exploded with protests across the Middle East. In Morocco, demonstrations broke in 46 cities, while Bahrain and the UAE saw popular protests in the streets and on social media, despite their regimes' strict restrictions on freedom of expression.

More recently, Olympic athletes reflected the real Arab attitude towards Israel, as almost every Arab contestant refused to face an Israeli competitor, even if that meant forfeiting their spot. 

Only Saudi Arabia forced its Judo contestant Tahani Alqahtani to face an Israeli player, and Alqahtani got spectacularly battered within seconds.

The uncompromising boycotts of Israel in international sports confirmed recent polls that the overwhelming majority of Arabs reject formal recognition of the apartheid state.

Transactional at best

No matter how much effort is put into sugarcoating the Abraham Accords with meaningless state-sponsored pandering, fawning, and venerating, the deal reflects manufactured normalisation forced by government and business interests. These widely detested arrangements only serve the cynical interests of autocratic regimes and a settler-colonial nuclear state.

Each announcement of an Arab country's normalisation with Israel during President Trump's tenure was immediately and openly coupled with a bribe: the UAE received F35 warplanes, the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty on Western Sahara, the US lifted sanctions on Sudan, and Bahrain was officially designated as a "major US security partner".

In return, the Abraham Accords handed Israel's government a major victory. They were a fig leaf to hide the occupation, branding the Palestinian cause a minuscule issue compared to the "threat of Iran", and showcasing Israeli eagerness for regional "peace" and integration with regular photo ops of Israeli-Arab "love" and "friendship".

"Each announcement of an Arab country's normalisation with Israel during President Trump's tenure was immediately and openly coupled with a bribe"

Since Trump and his quid-pro-quo politics left office in January, no further normalisation deals have been struck. It appears that no countries want to form a friendship with Tel Aviv without an American reward. 

Even some of the normalising regimes appear to have gotten cold feet. For instance, Sudan's pace of normalising relations has been noticeably slow that Israel's president recently called his Sudanese counterpart to ask for pushing the process forward.

Despite the UAE's desperation to keep the accords alive, normalisation has not lived up to its hype as a gamechanger. Over-marketed initiatives like the Gulf-Israel Business Council don't have much to show aside from a website, while the amount of Israeli-Gulf trade a year after the agreement is estimated to be around $570m at best. Israel's trade with Gaza alone is estimated to be around $4bn annually.

NSO spyware

Perhaps the issue most emblematic of the transactional core of the Abraham Accords is Arab regimes' heavy importation of Israeli spyware technology to crackdown on dissent and civil liberties, most recently exposed in the NSO scandal.

The services Israeli hacking companies offer - with the Israeli government's blessing - have been the strongest selling point for normalisation between autocratic regimes terrified of their own people ever since the Arab Spring. 

For decades, the security apparatus of Israel has been showcasing its ability to utilise cutting-edge technologies in brutalising, suppressing, and containing an occupied population, making it a regional touchstone for authoritarian rulers.

This dependence on Israel's repressive skills and expertise to safeguard the thrones of Arab regimes was reflected in the UAE's willingness to forgive and forget Israel's killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Emirati soil in 2010 in return for Israel's help with establishing the mass civil surveillance apparatus "Falcon Eye" in 2015. Last month, Morocco formalised its transnational relation with Israel by signing a "cybersecurity cooperation" agreement.

But a throne built on foundations so shaky that it requires censorship, repression, and policing of its own populations to stay afloat can never stay stable for long. Normalisation agreements and pretentious adulations of an apartheid state despised by the Arab public will only further exacerbate Arab popular resentment towards their autocratic rulers.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.