The Abraham Accords story has been unfolding with new developments at breakneck speed since details were first announced last month. The meditative nature of the High Holidays presents an opportunity to reflect on Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and their most meaningful elements. Here are my picks.
Best Dividend (So Far): The accords reframe the expectations for Middle East peace by creating conditions for real opportunity and growth. Israel, the UAE and Bahrain are proactively cementing bonds by jointly working on Covid-19 research, planning television and film productions, and building bridges for tourism, to cite a few examples. Journalists and ordinary citizens, meanwhile, are meeting their counterparts via social media in advance of travel to each other’s countries.
It is shaping up as a warm peace between people, not just governments.
This all means that the Palestinian leadership no longer holds as hostage peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. That was evident in the recent refusal of Arab League foreign ministers to endorse a Palestinian draft resolution condemning the Israel-UAE normalization agreement, as historic a development as the accords themselves.
Still, the new accords create conditions for a break in the largely Palestinian-imposed impasse between Jerusalem and Ramallah. To pave a path for the accords, Israel suspended plans to extend sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. And the accords, endorsed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other regional players, give Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the cover to get back to the negotiating table.
Instead, the PA is relying on the muscle memory of intransigence, further aligning itself with the region’s most hostile players—Iran, Syria, Turkey and Qatar.
Time and again, a corrupt Palestinian leadership rejected Israel’s generous offers that could have led to statehood. Each time, given incentive by volleys of criticism of Israel that Abbas could count on as routine, the PA responded with more incitement and violence against the Jewish state. No matter what it did, the PA knew much of the global community would continue with its “two-state solution” mantra. Little skin in the game, yet big reward.
A remarkable dividend of the accords is that this era of overindulgence appears to be ending. The pressure is on the Palestinians to try to build a state, not destroy one. It can do so by returning to the negotiating table with reasonable positions.
Most Predictable Media Coverage: Despite Abbas for years choosing stasis over sincere efforts to advance peace, some media outlets are quick to parrot the Palestinian narrative that the Abraham Accords are an unfair backhanded blow to the Palestinians.
It’s no surprise that this was the case with The New York Times, typically slanted against Israel. Its front page reporting of last week’s White House signing ceremony featured a shadowy photo four columns wide, showing President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE, their backs to the camera, walking in a dimly lit Oval Office.
Accompanying the story to the left of the dark, sinister-looking photo was a subhed that read, “Little Said of Palestinians in Pact With Bahrain and Emirates.” The lead paragraph described accords “that failed to address the future of the Palestinians.”
In contrast, the full front page of the more right-of-center New York Post featured a photo of the four smiling leaders on the sunny White House balcony. Columnist Michael Goodwin mentioned the Palestinians in his story’s lead paragraph, but only to cite the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel during the signing ceremony.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, also sported a front-page photo of the leaders smiling and waving over the White House South Lawn. Its inside story cited the Palestinians in the second paragraph but suggested the onus to reap the benefits of a peace agreement was on them. Palestinians, the story noted, have not “engaged with the Trump administration and its peace efforts since Washington recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”
Worst Spins on Netanyahu, Trump Roles: There’s no doubt Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of the UAE, deserves accolades for leading his country to be the first in the Gulf to fully make peace with Israel. Career critics of Israel and the Trump administration, however, are downplaying the Netanyahu and Trump contributions or erasing them altogether.
In a Foreign Affairs article, Martin Indyk, US ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton, positioned the Abraham Accords as a lucky break for Trump, an unintended byproduct of the green light the administration gave Israel to extend sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. Indyk argued that years of relatively quiet relations between Israel and the UAE laid the groundwork for the accords.
Never mind the “peace through strength” doctrine that the Israeli and US leaders acted on through their diplomacy.
Not to appear partisan, Indyk, US special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama presidency, similarly framed the 1977 Sadat initiative to travel to Jerusalem and the 1993 Oslo accords as unintended by the Carter and Clinton administrations, respectively.
Similarly, John Kerry, secretary of state under President Obama, in a tweet credited the UAE’s ruler and Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, for the historic agreement while making no mention of Netanyahu or Trump.
Instead, Kerry said the accords mark “a welcome step that builds on years of work to advance regional peace,” strongly implying that the Obama administration is partly responsible for the accords.
Sure they’re responsible. If by responsible you mean frightening the Sunni Gulf states into a closer relationship with Israel by empowering their common bitter enemy Iran with pallets of cash and a nuclear accord that gives Iran, the world’s worst terror sponsor, a path to acquiring nuclear weapons.
It takes a special kind of chutzpah for Kerry to take credit for the accords. It was Kerry, after all, who in 2016 declared that “there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
Most Uncomfortable Expression: Netanyahu has heaped plenty of praise on Trump. Still, every sensible foreign leader knows not to play favorites when it comes to US presidential candidates. Not publicly, anyway. That may explain why Bibi, during a pre-signing ceremony joint appearance before reporters in the Oval Office last week, averted his eyes and wore a pained look as Trump knocked Democratic rival Joe Biden and invoked “Sleepy Joe” several times.
The Signing Ritual Proven Most Overrated: With the threat of Covid-19 still looming, the leaders avoided shaking hands to help seal the deal after the White House signing ceremony. We’re not so sure handshakes, or elbow bumps, for that matter, would have been that meaningful. Consider the photo of the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat at the 1993 White House signing of the Oslo Accords.
The Arafat-Rabin handshake became an iconic image of the Oslo agreement. Yet Arafat’s intifadas, incitement to violence, double talk and refusal to move peace forward proved that a handshake, along with the broad grin he wore that day on the White House lawn, can be an empty and spurious ritual.
Best Myth-Busting Moment: One of Trump’s biggest rebukes of Abbas, without naming the Palestinian leader, was when he busted what he called the lie that Jews want to take control of the Al-Aqsa mosque. “Constantly, they would say it was under attack,” the president said of the false spin on the mosque by Israel’s enemies.
Abbas and Arafat have uncorked that old Al-Aqsa lie whenever they wanted to foment Arab anger at Jews. Turns out the two men were chips off the old block. A century ago Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, the father of the Al-Aqsa libel, fired up Jerusalem crowds over alleged Jewish plots against the mosque. Al-Husseini engineered riots against Jews, cooperated with the Nazis and met with Hitler in 1941.
That Trump took aim at the generations-old Al-Aqsa libel on such a momentous occasion is itself a major peace dividend.
Image Best Summing Up the Jewish Vote: After the White House signing ceremony, observant Jewish men davened afternoon Mincha services on the South Lawn. It was an emotionally moving image, but it also presented a snapshot of the Jewish demographic most likely to give Trump its vote in November.
Jews have for decades overwhelmingly voted Democrat but Orthodox Jews are bucking the trend. Conservative social issues like support for school prayer and opposition to abortion appeal to Orthodox Jews. And the Democratic Party’s drift left is further driving Orthodox Jews to the right, as is increasing criticism of Israel by the left.
The conventional wisdom is that most Jews will continue to vote for Democrats for the foreseeable future. But a recent poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 57% of Orthodox Jews approve of Trump while 43% disapprove. Republicans hope to boost those approval numbers even more in coming years as birth rates among the Orthodox are higher than those of other Jews.
Most Spiritual Moment: Who will ever forget the photo of Jared Kushner gifting a Torah scroll to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa? Or the image of Jews davening afternoon services on the White House lawn?
Although those both easily qualify as highly spiritual offshoots of the accords, I give a slight edge to one that can’t be captured in a photograph, but on the calendar: The timing of the accords just before the High Holidays.
As the setting sun ushered in Rosh Hashanah, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose Judaism was entwined with her hunger for justice, added a solemn but spiritual dynamic to the holiday. Jewish tradition, many observed, ascribes great righteousness to someone who dies on Rosh Hashanah.
It’s not a stretch, then, to see the righteousness and justice of a peace delivered as the anniversary of the birth of creation approached. After months of pandemic-induced darkness, the Abraham Accords, like the beginning of time, arrived with a burst of much-needed light.