The Abraham Accords, officially ratified at the White House on September 15, have diminished the sway of the Palestinian political leadership in the wider Arab world. The concept of a future Palestinian state has not been abandoned, although the rejectionist policy of the Palestinian leadership has been emphatically discarded. The presence of the Jewish state in the region is now accepted by the vast majority of the twenty-two Arab states as an irrevocable reality—like it or not. In the case of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, at least, it is a case of accepted and liked. Already the attitude of the Emiratis and the Bahrainis towards Israel looks very different from the cold peace that has existed between the Egyptians and Israel since 1979 and between the Jordanians and Israel since 1994. The story of Zionism and the Arabs is taking an unexpected turn.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The anti-Israel brigade, from the BDS movement and the Palestinian Authority to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran, are right to be dismayed. Rapprochement between UAE/Bahrain and Israel constitutes a sevenfold triumph for the Zionist project.
In the first instance, it is a crushing blow to the rejectionist argument that the Jewish state, founded on March 15, 1948, is an alien entity imposed on the region. If the broader Arab Sunni world is happy to give its imprimatur to the existence of Israel, then who are we to disagree? The League of Nations formally accepted the right of a Jewish nation to exist in the “historical Land of Israel” in July 1922. No less significant was the decision of the United Nations, in November 1947, to recognise a Jewish state within the territory of Mandatory Palestine (Resolution 181). The Abraham Accords further affirm the legitimacy of Israel. Theodor Herzl, Zionist prophet and author of The Jewish State (1896), would be pleased.
There is a second reason why the Abraham Accords are a triumph for Zionism and a defeat for the political leadership of Palestinian Arabs. Normalisation suggests that Sunni nations are now less prone to being taken hostage by the most radical or maximalist wing of Palestinian nationalism, which either repudiates the lawfulness of Israel’s existence or professes acceptance of the Jewish state but thwarts every overture to establish a complementary Palestinian Arab state. For the Palestinian rejectionists, the practice of spurning UN Resolution 181 and the partitioning of British Palestine—starting with Haj Amin al-Husayni in 1947 and maintained by the likes of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas—remains in force. The PLO/PA has rebuffed offers of statehood (based on clearly defined borders) in 2000, 2003-04 and 2013-14. To this day it does not endorse Resolution 181. The UAE and Bahrain know it suits the Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership to (a) perpetuate the unresolved Israel-Palestinian Arab dispute and (b) exploit this unresolvedness to slander Israel as an “occupier’, an “ethno-coloniser” and an “apartheid state” and, by so doing, prevent formal links between Israel and the wider Arab world.
Therefore, the second achievement of the Abraham Accords is that a full-blown Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance—once almost inconceivable—has overturned the cornerstone of the 2002 Saudi-initiated protocol, the Arab Peace Initiative, that proscribed the normalisation of relations with Israel until after the PLO/PA agreed on a final peace deal with Israel, something the current Palestinian leaders will never sanction. Theoretically, the Oslo Accords (1993 and 1995) transformed the intransigent Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) into the accommodating PA with only claims to the West Bank, Gaza and the Old City of Jerusalem. No longer did the terrorists-cum-statesmen seek to rule all the land from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. But then, like a thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky, Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s generous two-state solution at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and subsequently triggered the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which resulted in 1000 dead Israeli civilians and three times that number of Palestinian civilians. We were reminded twenty years ago, though we should not have needed reminding, that the PLO was created in 1964 by the Soviet Union with the purpose of destroying Israel, America’s Cold War ally. Back in 1964, the West Bank did not figure in anyone’s calculations. It was, until the 1967 Six-Day War, the westernmost province of Transjordan. It served the purposes of Yasser Arafat (and, more latterly, Mahmoud Abbas) to string along the world indefinitely with a feigned interest in creating a Palestinian mini-state in the West Bank. In the end, however, the PA’s pretence no longer served the interests of the Gulf states.
The present PLO leadership, unsurprisingly, has expressed its outrage at the Abraham Accords, calling it a “stab in the back”. Hamas articulated its displeasure in the time-tested fashion of firing Iranian-supplied rockets in the general direction of the inhabitants of Israel. The mainstream media in America has mostly downplayed or ignored this seismic shift in Israel-Arab relations, though some provided space for pro-PA opinion pieces. Zaha Hassan, writing for Newsweek, dismissed Israel-UAE rapprochement as not only a “mere sideshow” but “the death knell for a political solution”. Hassan, whose work is published by high-profile progressive outlets such as the New York Times and Salon, happened to be a senior legal adviser to Chairman Abbas in 2010-12 when the PLO/PA sought UN recognition of an open-ended “State of Palestine”. Significantly, the Arab League has declined the urgings of Mahmoud Abbas to condemn the UAE’s Zayed Al Nahyan and his overtures to Israel. In other words, it is the leadership of the PA, not to mention Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that is a mere sideshow and has all along been a death knell for a political solution.
A third accomplishment of the Abraham Accords is the belated public recognition by former foes that the advent of Israel did not trigger the millenarian psychosis affecting the Greater Middle East. Quite the opposite is the case if we consider that a shared opposition to the exporting of Iran’s revolution has finally drawn together Israel and several of the Gulf states. The neo-Ottomanism of Erdogan’s Turkey, at work in northern Syria, Libya and elsewhere, is another dimension of the negative cohesion unifying Israel and the UAE/Bahrain. Erdogan’s regime is a Turkish-flavoured brand of Muslim Brotherhood fanaticism and it has not only allied itself with Hamas but also begun to make ambit claims for future jurisdiction over Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (currently under Jordanian dominion). The real danger in the Greater Middle East is Iran, Qatar and Turkey and their (fissiparous) jihadist proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Jabhat Fatah-al Sham, Ansar al-Sharia, Libya Dawn and so on. The existentialist threat, then, turns out not to be the national liberation movement known as Zionism but a civilisational crisis in the Greater Middle East. It is this that has engendered the apocalyptic delusions of Islamic revivalism.
That there has been a civilisational crisis in the Greater Middle East is hard to deny. Ali A. Allawi’s The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation (2009) provides an insider’s account of a long-time hermetic world breached and undone by modernity. Allawi points to one or other version of Islamic revivalism as the answer to this civilisational challenge, even if that has been tried unsuccessfully for almost a century. For instance, Hassan al-Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood, formed as long ago as 1928 in Egypt, has always seen its mission as containing or vanquishing the threat of modernity or Westernism. The same can be said about the Shia-style Islamic revivalism of Iran’s 1979 Revolution. If America is the Great Satan, then Israel is the Little Satan. Religious bigotry informs not only the ideology of Gaza’s Hamas and the Islamic Jihad but also the nominally secular Palestinian Authority. Accordingly, the PA’s Supreme Shari’ah Judge Mahmoud Al-Habbash denounced the UAE’s diplomatic initiative as an engagement “with the enemies of Prophet Muhammad”. Anti-Zionism of this kind sounds like religious bigotry masquerading as a political worldview.
Zionophobia has penetrated all strata of Egyptian society after being promoted over the decades by Muslim Brotherhood activists and Arab-nationalist agitators. No wonder the 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel resulted in a cold peace. The same might be said about the connection between Israel and Jordan. Relations were put on an official footing as long ago as 1994, and yet their co-operation on various matters is pragmatic rather than enthusiastic. To comprehend the traditional mistrust felt by ordinary Egyptians towards the Jewish state, consider the uptake of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 2002, astonishingly, it predicated the forty-one-episode television series Horseman Without a Horse. Esther Webman, writing in the Journal of the Middle East and Africa in 2015, argued that the term Jew has become “a functional metaphor, an all-purpose villain, to explain the changing circumstances and catastrophes that have befallen Arab societies”. This kind of virulent anti-Semitism, mostly borrowed from Europe, has informed pan-Arab nationalism and Islamic revivalism (both activist Salafism and Salafi-jihadism) for almost a century. Time for the Arab world to appropriate a more positive feature of European thought—humanism.
The fourth achievement of the Abraham Accords, then, is the advancement of the humanist tradition. Its genesis is to be found as far back as Europe’s Renaissance period, if not before. This positive aspect of European civilisation favours a spirit of freedom, inquiry and open-mindedness, and is encapsulated in Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies (2006). The dangerous creed of humanism, much more so than the so-called Age of Enlightenment, points the way ahead for the Islamic world.
The Abraham Accords are an endorsement, or even an echo, of Hebraic humanism as practised in Israel. Take, for instance, David Ben-Gurion’s insistence that Israel adopt a parliamentary-based democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press and freedom of worship. The appointment of Israeli Arabs Abdel Rahman Zuabi (1999) and Salem Joubran (2004) to the Supreme Court is not proof in itself that Israeli society is without racism; but condemning Israel as an apartheid state is clearly a lie that has more to do with the jaundiced ideology of the denouncer than reality on the ground. The continuing status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built atop Temple Mount or Haram esh-Sharif (depending on your point of view) in the Old City of Jerusalem, speaks very much to the principles of Israeli humanism. Mainstream Israeli opinion has always agreed that the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound remain under the jurisdiction of Muslim authorities. Israeli Jews, from my experience, eschew thoughts of re-creating a Third Temple on the site, and restrict themselves to observing the sacredness of a remaining portion of the Second Temple’s containing wall, located at the base of Temple Mount, and known to us today as the Western Wall.
The current PA leadership, nominally secular but now warped by the vagaries of Islamic revivalism, displays little in the way of a humanist tolerance for (let alone interest in) ancient Jewish history. Yasser Arafat, during the 2000 Camp David Summit, coolly informed President Clinton that “Solomon’s Temple was not in Jerusalem but Nablus”. Archaeological finds in the vicinity of Temple Mount, such as 2000-year-old Jewish streets, are summarily dismissed by the PA’s pretend experts as “fake history”. The reason for this is not hard to fathom. Because Israeli Jews, out of respect for the sensibilities of Muslims, never enter Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock, the PA has upped the ante and asserted that every part of Temple Mount, including the Western Wall, must be reserved for Muslims alone.
At the same time, PA spokesperson Saeb Erekat has asserted that the Palestinian Arabs are the direct descendants of the Natufians, a semi-nomadic people who existed in the region some 15,000 to 11,500 years ago before vanishing from history—or, at any rate, vanishing from history before being rediscovered by Saeb Erekat. To put it another way: if Jewish civilisation did thrive in the Old City of Jerusalem before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, then the local Arab population can outdo that by tracing their provenance to the missing Natufians or, failing that, the Canaanites (who have also conveniently vanished from history). Erekat, obviously, is the kind of fanatic who cannot bring himself to grant Zionism a scintilla of credibility and is not going to accept a two-state solution under any circumstances. His response to the rapprochement between Israel and the UAE is a perfect illustration of PA hypocrisy: “I really believe that this step is a killer to the two-state solution.”
Some will argue that the UAE and Bahrain, by signing up to the Abraham Accords, are doing no more than engaging in the realpolitik of making their enemy’s enemy a friend. There is no doubt that the two Gulf states are seeking an alliance with Israel, which is a regional superpower in military terms, in order to protect themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxy militias throughout the neighbourhood. There is also Israel’s expertise in cyber-security, health, water purification and dry-land farming to consider. Equally, the Abraham Accords open up the possibilities of serious Gulf money being invested in Israel’s economy.
These security and economic matters no doubt represent the bottom line in any shift in the Israeli-Arab narrative, and yet the evidence points to the likelihood that the people of the UAE and Bahrain, especially the young, have welcomed the new opportunity to read Israeli newspapers and magazines and communicate directly with the people of Israel. Israel-UAE public online forums, which started up in August, suggest that young Emiratis are keen to travel to Israel, with one young participant openly expressing an interest in studying Judaism. There is, at the same time, talk of Emiratis providing kosher options for Israeli travellers to Dubai, a holiday destination that includes everything from the extravagant Atlantis Aquaventure Waterpark to Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Projects from joint film ventures to co-sponsored archaeological expeditions are all under consideration. We are, apparently, not talking about a cold peace.
Not the least reason why a warm peace between the Emiratis and Israelis might be possible is because the influence of activist Salafism in the UAE has been curtailed, with the Muslim Brotherhood designated a terrorist group in 2014. In Qatar, on the other hand, the anti-humanist intolerance of Hassan Al-Banna’s brainchild remains a key feature of its education system. A Year 7 Qatari textbook, for instance, disseminates unconcealed anti-Semitism: “Treachery and perfidy are among the traits of the Jews throughout history.” Qatari students learn that Judaism is a “distorted religion” and that the Jews themselves possess an “evil nature” and want to take over the world. Even if Emir Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani were not in league with Turkey and Iran, and Qatar Airways were given the green light to fly to Tel Aviv, could indoctrinated Qataris be expected to welcome the opportunity? Anyone hoping for a sympathetic account of UAE-Israeli rapprochement is unlikely to find it on Qatari-owned Al Jazeera.
The naysayers are keen to point out that the September 15 Abraham Accords Peace Agreement—its official designation—is not a “peace agreement” since the UAE and Bahrain have never been at war with the State of Israel. While it is true they did not directly participate in the 1948 Arab invasion of Israel or the 1967 Six-Day War, for decades the UAE and Bahrain kept to the spirit of the 1967 Khartoum Resolutions. The disparate Arab states were unified in a collective hostility towards the existence of Israel by the infamous “Three No’s”: no peace, no recognition, no negotiations. Any fair observer would acknowledge that the contrast between the Three No’s of Khartoum and the 2020 Abraham Accords is so vast that war, or something very much like war, has now given way to peace.
The subject of Khartoum, capital of Sudan, highlights one other element of the humanism or anti-extremism advanced in the Abraham Accords. Sudan was ruled by Omar al-Bashir, erstwhile friend of Osama bin Laden and all things extremist, from 1989 until 2019. The country was designated a state sponsor of terrorism, with good reason. Last year’s revolution has resulted in the joint military-civilian Sovereignty Council running the country with Abdallah Hamdok, a genuine reformer with expertise in international economics, appointed prime minister in a transitional government. Zionophobia is no longer the cornerstone of Sudan’s foreign policy. In the aftermath of the September 15 Abraham Accords, Prime Minister Hamdok, along with the head of the Sovereignty Council, Abdel-Fattah al-Burham, flew to the UAE with a view to normalising relations with Israel. No immediate breakthrough occurred, but that appears to be the direction in which things are trending, not just with Sudan but also Kuwait, Oman and even Saudi Arabia.
The critics may point out that any future rapprochement with countries like Sudan, given their terrible record on human rights, brings no credit upon the Jewish state. This would be to ignore the fact that Abdallah Hamdok, to take one instance, has recently appointed both women and Christians to his transitional ministry, scrapped laws against apostasy, legalised the consumption of alcohol for non-Muslims and outlawed corporal punishment (that is, flogging). It is, of course, not unreasonable to argue that Islamic revivalism is only experiencing a temporary abeyance in Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE—and we could add Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the list—but let us, at least, allow for the possibility that the Abraham Accords are an integral part of what might be an astonishing surge of latter-day Islamic humanism.
The fifth likely accomplishment of the Abraham Accords is that they strengthen the impression that momentum has swung decisively against Islamic millenarianism as exemplified by the “stealth jihadism” of the Muslim Brotherhood or the violence of radical Islamic terrorism. And that in itself is a victory. As Osama bin Laden himself once explained: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they will naturally want to side with the strong horse.” In 1979, to take one pivotal year, a brigade of Shiite revolutionaries established a theocratic regime in Tehran while, on the other side of the Persian Gulf, young Sunni insurrectionists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca before striking a deal with the Saudi ruling elite: we leave the kingdom alone and you fund the export of our radical ideology throughout the world. As many as fifteen of the nineteen hijackers directly involved in the September 11 attacks were Saudi nationals; two had Emirati connections. Osama bin Laden read Muslim Brotherhood literature as a young man and founded Al Qaeda during the Soviet-Afghanistan War. By 2017, when President Trump made his visit to Saudi Arabia, a rising generation of rulers in Riyadh had long regretted the cowardly pact with the Devil made almost four decades earlier in response to the challenge of religious fanaticism.
Trump’s denunciation of Islamic extremism while in Saudi Arabia was offset with a plea for a different kind of future: “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilisations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. It is a battle of good and evil.” The cynics were quick to deride President Trump’s speech as too lenient towards the Saudis on account of a $400 billion weapons sale to the kingdom. Certainly, the memory and meaning of September 11 should never be forgotten. Moreover, Saudi Arabia remains a brutal place in many ways. Inspiring Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, to give but one instance, is still in jail after five years for the non-crime of blasphemy. Still, an overly optimistic attitude towards the continuing reforms of Mohammed bin Salman makes more sense than President Obama appeasing Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood VIPs in his 2009 Cairo Speech or the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. It is the difference between a gamble and appeasement.
The sixth achievement of the Abraham Accords is that they make the outbreak of new wars in the region, contrary to the claims of many, less likely. After all, Iran has been a quintessential opportunistic power, inviting itself into local dramas—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and so on—only where the price of admission was cheap and the risk of blowback minimal. For Israel, on the one hand, the Abraham Accords provide an unprecedented degree of strategic depth. For the Emiratis, an increase in the effectiveness of Israeli-UAE long-range surveillance and air-defence systems, augmented by the future sale of high-tech US arms, is not going to reduce acrimony between the UAE and Iran. Still, it will make Tehran reconsider any new military adventures currently on the drawing board. Rapprochement with Israel, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash insisted, is “not directed at Iran”. Perhaps it is not directed at Iran in the sense of mobilising for war; but it is directed at Iran in the sense of deterring Tehran from embarking on any more foreign interventions.
The seventh—but not least—positive feature of the Abraham Accords is that they bring a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict that much closer. Most commentators, especially those sympathetic to the victimhood narrative promulgated by the current Palestinian Arab leadership, insist that the exact opposite is the case. American academic Ezzedine C. Fishere, writing for the Washington Post, put it this way: “The normalization of relations between UAE, Bahrain and Israel without a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority erodes further the prospect of a two-state solution”. This is faulty logic. What real evidence can Fishere furnish to persuade us that those presently in control of the PA (let alone Hamas and Islamic Jihad) have—or ever had—any intention to achieve a two-state solution? The PA television network, according to Itamar Marcus, showcases Palestinian Arab children reciting poems with the following messages: Jews are “monkeys and pigs”; Jews are “enemies of Allah”; Jews are “the evillest of creations”; and Zion is “Satan without a tail”. Is that the PA preparing Palestinians for a two-state solution?
And why did Barack Obama and John Kerry believe the cause of peace in the Greater Middle East would be advanced by countenancing UN Resolution 2334, which technically gifted the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter, to the Temple Deniers? Everything about the leadership of Fatah, the dominant faction in the kleptocratic PA, is nightmarish, from its crackdown on independent journalism to its refusal to act like a responsible government and start building a functioning state-in-the-waiting. It is effective at triggering the occasional pogrom, such as the 2015-16 Stabbing Intifada, but not so keen on providing democratic rights for the people its goal is to liberate. For genuine peace to break out between Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas et al will need to be replaced by a new generation of pragmatic leaders who ditch the River-to-the-Sea homicidal fantasy. The shock of the Abraham Accords may bring that day closer.
Israel’s Transport Minister, Yisrael Katz, back in April 2017, proposed that a railway network be built connecting Saudi Arabia with Israel’s port of Haifa, providing both Jordan and Palestinians in the West Bank with stress-free access not only to Mecca but also the Mediterranean Sea. Three years ago that seemed like a mirage in the desert. Not any more. The State of Israel, with all its start-up technology and brash modernity, is no longer an imposter in the Greater Middle East but a key piece of the puzzle.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and tweets at @dosakamccann.