The Abraham Accords normalized Israel’s relationships with a slew of Gulf Arab countries and locked in a core group of states that have hostile relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The agreement was the main focus of former President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy. After a year of formal ties, the factors that drove Israeli-Arab engagement remain in place, despite political changes in both Tel Aviv and Washington. The agreements have created some tangential, bilateral tension for the Arab states. The developments signal that, on the one hand, Israel is being incorporated into the region’s security and political framework. However, at the same time, this engagement has not led to any progress on the multi-decade-old effort to establish a Palestinian state.
The main thrust of the Arab engagement with Israel stems from mutual security challenges. With support in Washington, the prevailing regional tensions stemming from the slate of normalization agreements have not hindered Arab-Israeli cooperation on Iran and the opening of Arab states to Israeli tourists, and mutually beneficial economic relations.
On September 15, 2020, former President Donald Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with foreign ministers with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to sign off on Israeli-Arab agreements that would usher in a new and historic wave of normalization in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords indicated a shift in the regional dynamic, Israel poised for more peaceful relations with the UAE and Bahrain. The Israeli government has long had quiet contact with the Gulf Arab states. The two sides have a mutual interest in containing Iran and had used intelligence ties to pass information to one another. The Gulf Arab states also maintain close defense ties with the United States, which is the region's main security guarantor, and on which Jerusalem and much of the Arab world rely to balance against Iranian aggression.
The UAE, in particular, had shown willingness to engage with Israel by sending aircraft to joint exercises where the Israeli Air Force was also present. The UAE and Bahrain’s formal commitment to normalize relations created a political space for other countries to follow. The agreement also included commitments to establish embassies and collaborate on areas of mutual interest, including; finance, economics, maritime, and energy. Additionally, a regional focus was on the establishment of a High-Level Joint Forum for Peace and Co-Existence as well as a strategic agenda for the Middle East aimed at developing joint aid and development programs.
Over the past year, a mutual visa exemption agreement and direct flights began, and embassies in Tel Aviv and Dubai were opened. In October Israel gave the green light for UAE’s purchase of the F-35 fighter jet, and a week later a $10.4 billion US-UAE sale was approved by the American Defense Department to include as many as fifty of the F-35s and drone technologies. President Biden and his administration have been reviewing and renegotiating the deal since taking office in January, but there are clear signs that the deal will eventually be approved.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the Accords from the beginning, despite Turkey's long-standing recognition of Israel. The Turkish government threatened to suspend relations with Bahrain after condemning the agreements with Bahrain, UAE, and others. Ankara has promoted itself as the regional advocate of the Palestinian cause, and its support for Palestine has grown since the 2006 election and the 2009 Operation Cast Lead. This support for the Palestinian cause, however, has not precluded Turkey from deepening its trade relationship with Israel. Moreover, the Turkish government has sought to moderate its foreign policy in the past two years. This shift, in all likelihood, stemmed from Turkish isolation and the deleterious impact its foreign policy was having on its economy.
Over the past year, Ankara has sought to ease tensions with much of the Arab world. This approach has also coincided with a concerted effort to repair ties with the United States. In one such move, Ankara and Abu Dhabi have sought to quell tensions dating back to the 2011 Arab uprising. On August 30, 2021, President Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed held a phone call discussing potential for bilateral relations and regional challenges. The call took place two weeks after UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Ankara to discuss potential investments in Turkey. A similar rapprochement has been underway with Egypt. Following a May 2021 visit by senior Turkish officials to Cairo, a second round of talks took place on September 7, 2021 in Ankara.
A year has passed, and the Abraham Accords remain in place. Gulf Arabs have sent diplomats to Tel Aviv, and Israel has done the same to various Arab capitals. The regional reaction to the agreements has also softened, as the Turkish case has clearly demonstrated. The American position remains unchanged and the Biden administration has signaled that it would like to build on the progress made to facilitate more Arab-Israeli normalization agreements. While these agreements may not portend progress on the Palestinian issue, they do underscore how security concerns can drive normalization by self-interested parties.