On August 13, 2020, a landmark event took place in the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), an Arab country, agreed to normalise relations with the state of Israel, in return, Israel assured to halt its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. This seemingly unexpected news was announced by the United States (US) President Donald Trump, who is being credited for brokering the agreement. This was followed by a statement from Bahrain, which also joined the UAE to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The foreign ministers from both the Arab states gathered with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US President Trump at the White House patio to shake hands and ink the agreement, known as Abraham Accords, on September 15, 2020.
This turn of events has resulted in scholars and experts from the region and beyond to become infatuated with the agreement. Moreover, what has followed is a flood of extensive articles and commentaries exploring various ramifications of the deal. A large pool of them has identified this agreement as a critical step to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas, others have viewed it as an abandonment of the Palestinian cause. Some have argued on the political dividends that the agreement will afford to the parties of the agreement, particularly Israel and the United States (US). In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces the stability of Unity government amidst political criticism. Whereas, in the US, President Donald Trump faces re-election bid in November 2020, where the agreement would be counted as a foreign policy accomplishment. Other frequent analyses mention the technological exchange, trade and geo-economics as the prime outcomes of the agreement. Few have also touched upon the agreement's geostrategic value, especially with regards to the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey. Moreover, a plethora of speculations are revolving around the question of 'who is next?' to normalise relations. Yet, the long-term analysis of the agreement has largely remained unheeded. For the better part of history, it has been prudent not to assume and predict the things about the Middle East. Regardless, one needs to ponder upon certain themes, in the pretext of the Abraham Accords that would play determining role in the Middle East in future.
Palestinian supporters, sympathisers and different political factions have unequivocally criticised the agreement. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesperson, [Nabil Abu Rudeineh] denounced the “surprising agreement” by calling it as “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause.” Whereas, Hamas referred it as a “stab in back of Palestinians.” Hazem Qassem, Hamas spokesperson carped, “This agreement does absolutely not serve the Palestinian cause, it rather serves the Zionist narrative. This agreement encourages the occupation to continue its denial of the rights of our Palestinian people, and even to continue its crimes against our people.” Such responses hardly come as a surprise, but indicative of weak and fragmented Palestinian leadership. Within the Palestinian movement in Israel, the considerable fissures exist between Fatah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). It was in 2007 when the animosity between Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) resulted in Hamas ousting PA from Gaza by force. The root cause of the differences lies in their approach in pursuing the Palestinian statehood. The degree of concession that different groups are willing to make is another indicator for the same. Nonetheless, this year, as these two phenomenal developments (Deal of the Century and normalisation agreements) have taken place, the questions and speculations about the unification of Palestinian movements have arisen.
On September 3, 2020, PA under Mahmoud Abbas hosted a meeting in Ramallah to discuss reconciliation of their differences. The meeting featured 14 major Palestinian factions, nearly after a decade and a half. Abbas said that all factions should reconcile and let everyone, “Know that we are one people.” Abbas appealed for an “inclusive intra-Palestinian Dialogue,” and said that “we [all factions] must expedite the end of the political division and achieve reconciliation and national partnership.” From Hamas side, Ismail Haniyeh said, “Our plan is national unity, total resistance, and building an Arab and Islamic alliance which supports our cause.” The meeting concluded with the creation of three committees — to formulate a strategy for popular struggle, reforming Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and national reconciliation — that are mandated to present recommendations to the Palestinian Central Council, in five weeks. The meeting itself was extraordinary for bringing Hamas, PA and PIJ together. However, this should not be read as definite steps towards unification. The differences between the groups remain at large. For instance, Hamas spokesperson, Ismail Haniyeh, who joined in through video-conferencing from Beirut contended, “We as Hamas will not recognize Israel, and will not renounce on [sic] inch of Palestinian land, and Israel will remain our enemy.” The status of Israel’s existence is one of the primary bones of contention between Hamas and PA, which needs to be addressed before any grandiose claims of unity can be reached.
Now, amidst these developments and question of Palestinian unity, one needs to consider the crucial role of the regional heavyweights, in particular, the case of Turkey and Iran. The two countries are jockeying for influence as the regional hegemon and leadership within the Islamic world. Both countries have been in a sort of competition, which is only going to grow in future. This was perceptible in the criticism and rejection of the normalisation by both the countries. Turkey, which had established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949, has been one of the loudest critics of the agreement. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “We may either suspend diplomatic ties or recall our ambassador because we stand with the Palestinian people. We have not let Palestine be defeated.” Later, a statement from Turkish foreign minister read, “Neither history nor the collective conscience of the region will ever forget and forgive the hypocritical behaviour of the UAE.” Despite such rhetoric, Turkey has neither severed diplomatic relations with Israel nor with the UAE.
Similar sentiments have poured from Tehran, where foreign ministry regarded the normalisation as a “strategic mistake” by Israel and that “the move by the UAE to unfairly stab the Palestinian people and the whole Muslims in the back would backfire.” The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said, “this betrayal will not last long, but the stain of this infamy will remain on them forever.” For Iran, the implications can be understood under two broader aspects — security and ideational. Traditionally, the UAE has served as the hub for Iran to circumvent sanctions. On the security plane, Iran fears the increased presence of Israeli intelligence and listening posts in the Persian Gulf. Even though Emirates have consoled Iran that the agreement is not targeted towards it, but given the threat perceptive environment of Iranian foreign policy, the agreement presents troubling aspects for Iran’s security. Iran seeks to present itself as the most ardent supporter of the Palestinian issue, politically, as well as, militarily. Already, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is known to have provided support to Hamas and PIJ, through its Quds Force division. The agreement will put Israel in strategic proximity of Iran, which stands opposite to the situation in Syria, where Iran has tried to build a base of operation closer to Israeli border. In this way, the pressure that Iran wanted to build on Israel with its presence in Syria will now be mollified. An extension of this would be that Iran’s strategy within these countries would need to be seriously re-evaluated. For instance, in the Red Sea, close to Yemen, where Iran supports the Houthi rebels, Israel is said to have established the listening post that will impact the Iranian support to Houthis and Tehran will have to reconsider the way it formulates its Yemen policy.
In terms of ideational aspects, the issue of Palestinian statehood features very prominently in Iran’s quest for leadership in the Islamic World. The agreement also allows Iran to criticise Saudi Arabia for failure to stoutly condemn the agreement. But in this regard, Iran is not the only country which seeks to capitalise within the Islamic world. The assertive stance of Turkey under President Erdogan competes to champion the great Islamic cause. One such move by Turkey is its increasing affinity towards Hamas, which may come at the cost of its relations with Israel. In the third week of September, Turkey organised a meeting between Hamas and PA representatives, where the issue of elections within Palestinian territories was discussed. Such moves may be viewed by Israel as provocative and buttressing the narrative of an assertive Turkey.
For the states in the Middle East, the ideological musings have started co-opting with impending raison d’etat of the states, if not absolutely replacing it. This evolving emphasis on national interest over ideology can be discerned through a reply from the UAE foreign minister, Anwar Gargash. While disavowing the criticism of the agreement he called the agreement as a “badly needed realism.” The post-Arab Spring Middle East has seen the changing priorities for the countries within the region. The rentier economies of the Middle East no longer seek to rely on rents but to diversify their economies and increase the economic activities that rely more on locals than expatriates. Amidst the pandemic, the global economic slowdown and low oil prices are going to contribute to this change. The onus, as perceptible within the Gulf economies, has been on to pursue economic dividends for its people. The normalisation agreement opens the countries (UAE and Bahrain) to the Israeli market and vice-versa. This would stimulate economic demand within the region that has had low intra-regional trade. The compounding effects of which would be felt more in few sectors, particularly information technology (IT), artificial intelligence (AI), space, nuclear energy, among others. Nevertheless, in the long-term, this will contribute to more national interest-centric policies by the states in the region, where the agreement is expected to have a trickle-down effect over the general public. This trade-off by the UAE and Bahrain, at the cost of its traditional ideological commitment, indicates the changing preferences within the Gulf monarchies. Now the way the Gulf countries have approached this agreement also represent a curious case. The change does not mean abandoning the traditional position, but merely an accommodation of new development. This co-option is the telling of the changing priorities in the Middle East.
The agreement is historic, and just like any other significant development, will have inevitable consequences — intended and unintended. This poses an opportunity for the fragmented Palestinian leadership. However, a tangible unity would involve the cognisance of changing political and economic realities within the Middle Eastern states. The Gulf monarchies can no longer rely unconditionally on ideological commitments, since such rigidness may cost a crisis of legitimacy within their own countries. This does not mean an abandonment of ideological commitments, but accommodation through co-option. In this regard, Abraham Accords presents all the parties with lucrative benefits in economic terms at a time when the global economies are struggling amidst the pandemic. The interests for regional supremacy between Iran and Turkey also accounts for the crucial factor that needs to be considered. Both have their respective interests and interpretation of their role in the region. For Turkey, the ideological and economic interests will guide their behaviour following the agreement. Whereas, Iran faces security concerns, and quest for leadership in the Islamic world will push Tehran to present itself as a counterweight for leadership against Saudi Arabia and its allies. At the end of the day, the agreement is indicative of changing priorities of the states within the region that suggests a preference for national interests over ideological commitments.
The author is a Research Intern at West Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.