This week marked the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords which, in my view, are biggest step towards peace that Israel has made since 1980. There are two basic diplomatic principles that Israel followed which brought them into being. I elaborate on this below, but first some background is necessary.
From the day that Israel became a state in 1948 until the end of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, peace for Israel meant peace with the countries that surrounded it. Over and over again Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon attacked it with the intention of wiping Israel off the face of the earth. Israel’s response, really the only one it could make, was to build armed forces strong enough to be able to defend itself. It succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. It won the 1967 war in six days. After some initial losses, it won the 1973 war as well. Egypt agreed to stop the fighting in that war only after Israel’s Ariel Sharon and his tanks had crossed the Suez canal and were bearing down on Cairo unopposed.
It was in that context that Anwar Sadat, whose Egyptian forces had now been beaten by Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, came to Jerusalem with an offer of peace. That led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel which was signed in 1980. In 1994, Jordan, which had also been defeated in the 1967 and 1973 wars, entered into a peace treaty with Israel. Those treaties have provided Israel, Jordan, and Egypt with peace among them now for decades.
The Abraham Accords signed in 2020 by Israel and Bahrain as well as Israel and the United Arab Emirates are substantially different. These accords do NOT resolve matters between countries which at one time were at war with each other. Rather, they are the result of diplomacy in which all of the parties sought to improve their current situation based on mutual interests. Moreover, even though the Accords have only been signed by three states, there has been a marked change in the way that Israel is being treated by other Sunni Arab countries, most importantly, Saudi Arabia.
The Accords were the result of negotiations between the affected countries. The United Nations was not involved. No mediators were involved. The Accords were the result of old-fashioned diplomacy with the countries involved focusing on their mutual interests.
The Abraham Accords were signed in September, 2020, just before the American presidential election. Donald Trump took great credit for them, conveniently, just in time to get more votes. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to let him do so. Apparently, Netanyahu was reciprocating because Trump had recognized the Golan as part of Israel in 2019, just before one of the many Israeli elections which were being held that year.
In fact, Israel had been working on the Accords since at least 2017, with Netanyahu using the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, to negotiate them. The details of these negotiations are set forth here: https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/exclusive-as-trump-exits-the-full-mossad-story-on-normalization-into-focus-656108. The key points are these:
At some point in 2017, Cohen began participating in the discussions, including discussions with Saudi Arabia, which led to the establishment of the Accords. The key breakthrough came in September 2017 when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman came to Tel Aviv. After that, Netanyahu and other Israeli officials were able to pursue the negotiations with Sunni Arab countries that led to the Accords.
There were two keys to Israel’s approach to these negotiations. The first is relatively simple. For well over 1,000 years, the Sunni Muslims have been at war with the Shia Muslims. Those wars are sometimes hotter than at others. Right now, they are extremely hot. Sunni Saudi Arabia is at war with one of Shia Iran’s proxies, the Houthis, in Yemen. The Houthis have fired numerous missiles into Saudi Arabia. Since Israel is on the brink of war with Iran, the Sunni countries see it as a military ally. In fact, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been sharing intelligence.
The second issue, which is much more complicated, is an outgrowth of Netanyahu’s conservative commitment to free-market economics, something that is not surprising for someone who has an M.B.A. from M.I.T. In negotiations, Israel emphasized the economic opportunities for both the people in the Sunni Arab countries and Israel, if the countries recognized each other. Given Israel’s enormous economic success, that was an attractive approach. It was obvious to the parties that the Accords would provide opportunities for investment as well as the prospect of increased markets (including tourism) for all involved.
Netanyahu’s approach emphasized what the countries had in common and ignored the matters which divided them. It was irrelevant to Netanyahu that none of the Sunni countries with which he was dealing had any democratic traditions at all. Indeed, most of them are monarchies. Nor was their human-rights records, appalling as they may be, an issue for Netanyahu. He treated those as internal problems which were not Israel’s business.
Israel’s approach to these negotiations was very different from the way that the United States negotiates, but that is because Israel has neither the United States’ military nor economic resources. Most importantly, it does not give Billions of dollars in taxpayer money annually to other countries in foreign aid. Because the United States does, it feels that it has a moral obligation and the right to interfere in the recipient country’s human-rights policies. It also seeks to spread democracy, as a long-term goal. While the foreign aid gives the United States enormous leverage over the countries which receive it, Israel cannot conduct foreign policy this way. Rather, it needs to focus on making peace with its neighbors — a peace based on mutual interests. That is what Netanyahu bargained for and that is what Israel is getting.