The “Abraham Accords” among Israel, the UAE and Bahrain came hot on the heels of mutual diplomatic recognition between Israel and Kosovo earlier this month. These events share a common refrain: a US-led shift in diplomacy away from multilateralism and democratization toward economic self-interest and a tenuous balance of power among competing alliances.
This shift reflects US disengagement, not strength. The United States appears to be focusing its diplomacy – such as it is – on a narrow economic agenda while disengaging from more intractable political questions. Israel benefits from closer diplomatic ties to Kosovo and, more significantly, the Gulf Arab states. But Israel’s relations with the EU, Serbia and the Palestinians could be set back by the way in which these agreements have been reached and by the perception that the United States – having disengaged from Syria and Iraq and given up on the Palestinians – will now move on.
As the accords were being signed in Washington, DC on September 15, I asked retired ambassadors Arthur Koll of Israel and Cameron Munter of the United States what this all means during an interview arranged by the MirYam Institute. They overlapped as diplomats in Serbia and, consistent with their national policies at the time, took opposing positions in response to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia. These are some of the many intriguing takeaways from our discussion.
The Balkan agreements reveal the United States’ unilateral, transactional lens. On September 4, 2020, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti each signed separate letters with US President Donald Trump committing to economic normalization. The agreements emphasize infrastructure – by referencing pre-existing agreements on roads and rail links – with access to US economic assistance through EXIM and the US International Development Finance Corporation. In a slap at China, both Serbia and Kosovo promise “to prohibit the use of 5G equipment supplied by untrusted vendors in their communications networks.” They make pledges in support of religious freedom and gay rights and against terrorism, but the letters avoid mention of open markets, press freedom, rights of political dissent, or efforts to thwart authoritarianism and corruption, all of which are critical for either Serbia or Kosovo to accede to the EU.
The letters signed by Serbia and Kosovo do little to bring them together, but they create awkward challenges for Israel. At the end of each letter, an incongruous short paragraph brings Israel into the Balkan dispute. In that clause, Serbia, long a close partner of Israel, commits to moving its embassy to Jerusalem while Kosovo agrees to mutual diplomatic recognition of Israel and to open an embassy in Jerusalem. Israel is not a party to the letters. Serbia’s president has since stated that formal Israeli recognition of Kosovo could severely damage bilateral relations. Israeli recognition of Kosovo also complicates Israeli-Palestinian relations, insofar as it runs counter to Israel’s stated opposition to unilateral declarations of sovereignty.
Serbia and Kosovo already have an ongoing diplomatic process under the auspices of the EU, ignored by the US letters. Inserting Israel into the two letters disregards Israel’s independent relations with Europe. Serbia and Kosovo promptly recommitted to the EU-facilitated Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue in a September 7 joint statement with the EU High Representative, stating that “they attach the highest priority to EU integration.” Meanwhile, the EU reminded everyone that Jerusalem embassy pledges outside of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process run counter to EU policy.
With the United States becoming less engaged in the Middle East, regional powers must control their own destinies against perceived threats. The accords reached by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain constitute significant milestones. With incredible speed, Israel is normalizing relations with Arab neighbors, with Sudan, Oman and Morocco potentially next in the queue. These are the first peace treaties Israel has signed with an Arab state since the treaties of 1994 with Jordan and 1979 with Egypt.
At a stroke, the new agreements make open economic and intelligence cooperation possible – mainly in opposition to Iran – but at the expense of Palestinian nationalism, which for the UAE and Bahrain now takes a back seat. And if the UAE can get permission to buy some advanced F-35 jet fighters in the process, so much the better for them and for US arms sales, and maybe even for IAI’s wing factory in Lod, Israel, though not for the Israel Defense Forces. Diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and the UAE took decades. At Mach 1.6, an F-35 fighter jet can cover the 2,133 kms from Dubai to Tel Aviv in about an hour.
One can expect closer Israeli cooperation with traditional Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Oman and (less openly) Saudi Arabia to confront emboldened regional powers like Iran (and its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon) and Turkey (aligned in support of political Islam with Qatar and Hamas in Gaza).
Turkey may be the bigger challenge. With less fanfare but great significance, on September 22 the charter was signed formally launching the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum by Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, with the EU, France and the United States also seeking roles, after a January 2020 MOU. The EMGF seeks markets for Israel’s huge new offshore gas fields under development in the Eastern Mediterranean. Some of the gas will serve Egypt’s LNG terminals, with most of it destined for Europe through a proposed pipeline to Italy via Greece and Crete. Similarly, an oil pipeline from the Persian Gulf through Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Israeli ports is now on the table. These developments would curtail Turkey’s dominance as a conduit for fuels from Asia to Europe and weaken Iran’s chokehold on the Strait of Hormuz. Turkey’s backing of Northern Cyprus – the very reason Cyprus rejects Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence – challenges the development of the Mediterranean gas fields by Israel and Cyprus.
These alliances all reflect economic interests with which geopolitics, diplomacy and military security are entwined. The question is: which interest should take precedence, and what does it mean for regional stability?