Renewed Push to Revitalise Abraham Accords

It seems as if the United States has taken another step towards being a relevant player in the Middle East, after an ill thought hiatus, leading to relations with regional players like Saudi Arab hitting rock bottom. The latest American initiative in this regard is through vitalising the Abraham Accords. This may also lead to it normalising its strained ties with Saudi Arabia besides efforts to contain Iran.

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the visiting White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan a fortnight ago, in Jerusalem. The two discussed ways to broaden the Abraham Accords and reach a breakthrough that could lead to the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After becoming the prime minister for the third time in December 2022, hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set normalising ties with Saudi Arabia as one of his two main foreign policy goals. Though the Israelis admit that it won’t be possible if relations between Riyadh and Washington remain tense.

Reports say that Sullivan and Netanyahu also discussed the Iranian nuclear programme, Iran’s actions in the region and its military assistance to Russia in its war in Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the normalisation process between Israel and its neighbours.

Abraham Accords

The Abraham Accords, which were signed on 15 September 2020, normalised diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and so far have achieved mixed results.

As anticipated, normalisation has opened new opportunities for defence and security cooperation, especially among Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE, which share a common perspective on the security threat posed by Iran.

But there are shortcomings at the level of bilateral cooperation. Most notably, despite the initial goal of the Arab nations, cooperation between Israel and its Arab partners has failed to produce tangible improvements in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.

In reality, the Israelis are now, arguably, more cautious about managing relations with the Palestinians to avoid conflict with their newfound Arab partners, affecting trade ties.

The Palestinians have not yet embraced the American vision. 86% of Palestinians believe the normalisation agreement with the UAE serves only Israel’s interests and not their own. There is indeed a possibility that the Palestine quest might be ignored further.

Netanyahu told Sullivan that the latest Palestinian moves in the international arena, especially the Palestinian Authority’s push for the International Court of Justice to issue a legal opinion on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, “are an attack on Israel and oblige us to respond”.

Sullivan also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. Abbas is reported to have warned Sullivan that the new Israeli government’s policy could have dangerous consequences and stressed the Biden administration must intervene “before it is too late”.

Abbas told Sullivan that the Israeli government’s policy and the recent sanctions it has imposed on the Palestinian Authority, destroy the way to two-state solution, violate the agreements between the parties and ruin the chances that are left for achieving peace and stability in the region.

Getting the Israeli government and PA agree to any understanding, might be a bit tough, as the issue has many intertwined political and legal elements to be resolved, but on the other hand, Abraham Accords have been a boon to both Israel and other Gulf nations to bolster economic and trade ties.

Economic Growth

Statistically speaking, the Abraham Accords seem to have made a positive impact on entrepreneurs and investors in Israel and the Gulf.

Besides facilitating a pro-business environment in the region, it has indirectly brought positive momentum to deals such as the maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon, reached last year, which was mainly driven by local economic interests.

In particular, the economic and trade ties between Israel and UAE have grown substantially, besides notable steps in strengthening the economic relations between both countries, like the decision by the Dubai International Chamber to open up an office in Tel Aviv.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, trade between Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached $212.6 million in August 2022, constituting a 163% increase in trade from August 2021. For the first eight months of 2022, bilateral trade was just over $1.62 billion, constituting a 121% increase in trade from the first eight months of 2021.

Israel’s new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has said that the volume of trade with Arab countries that normalised relations with Israel under the US-negotiated Abraham Accords in 2020 broke the 10 billion-shekel ($2.8 billion) barrier in 2022. Cohen said the Abraham Accords have dramatically changed the face of the Middle East. He added that a summit would be held in March with other Arab countries to boost regional trade.

Though the Abraham Accords might not have been able to resolve the regional schisms and rivalries, yet they have indeed paved the way for greater economic and trade relations, which seems to be the way forward also.

The writer can be contacted at @AsadMirzaND

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Israeli Elections: Dwindling Popularity Of Netanyahu

The Israeli parliament was dissolved in December 2020 on the advice of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who wanted to improve his party’s position in the legislature, and the nation went for early elections in March 21, the fourth in two years. In the proportional representative system of parliamentary democracy, in Knesset, a house having 120 seats; no single party by itself has ever got 61 seats to obtain a simple majority. Likud, a Right wing ruling party has lost six seats from the earlier 36 and along with allies, has once again fallen short of nine seats by securing a total of 52 seats. The political instability in Israel is likely to continue in the near future.

Netanyahu has been the youngest ever and the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel since 2009. Bibi, as he is affectionately called, comes from an affluent secular Jewish family, and was based both in Jerusalem and Philadelphia. While he was born in Jerusalem, he graduated from high school in US and returned to Israel to join Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in 1967; after the Six Day War, and took part as a team leader in Yom Kippur war of 1973.

He was also wounded in 1972 during Operation Isotope and returned to US for doing college after his military service. He became a technocrat after doing Bachelor and Master of Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Benjamin Netanyahu is the younger brother of Yonnie Natanyahu, a national hero who was commander of the Special Forces in raid at Entebbe airport to release the hostages in July 1976. Yonnie was the only fatal casualty in the mission.

Based on his worldwide exposure and command over English language, Bibi Netanyahu was appointed Permanent Representative (ambassador) of Israel to UN in 1984 and was elected to Knesset on return to Israel in 1988. Netanyahu was appointed as Israeli’s youngest PM ever, in 1996, after he led the Likud party to power as the Chairman for three years from 1993 onwards. An articulate and wily leader, he has steered Israel through tough times, three wars and the economic boom that Israel has witnessed due to its technological prowess especially in information technology, defence industry, cyber security and drip irrigation.

Netanyahu is also the first PM in harness who has been indicted for bribery and corruption in November 2019. He was officially charged of deception and breach of trust and bribery. For the last two years, Bibi’s sole aim has been to stay in power and thereby avoid being tried by the court of law. He has been an advocate of one state theory and has encouraged new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem thereby shrinking the areas that were to be given to the Palestinian state as per the UN-sponsored Two Nation Theory wherein equal contiguous amount of areas were to go to both Israel and Palestine with the latter having Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem. Nationwide rallies and protests have been held urging Netanyahu to resign while his own party has held rallies to support him.

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Netanyahu had two concurrent tenures with President Obama in power in the US and both held opposing views on the modus operandi of handling the Palestinian conflict resolution. Thanks to the Jewish lobby in the US which supported the election of President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an American Jewish businessman and his special envoy for the West Asia peace process; in the last four years, President Trump gave unstinted support to Israel and almost buried the Two Nation Theory, which simply means that the Palestinians will never get a separate state of their own.

Under Trump, the Israelis got a moral ascendency by US recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a fact all his predecessors desisted. As per the UN, Jerusalem is supposed to remain an international city. In 2020, thanks to Kushner again, peace treaties were signed between UAE and Israel and Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both the Arab countries have recognised Israel and have commenced diplomatic and economic relations with Israel giving a death blow to the cause of return of Palestinian refugees and formation of a Palestinian state as per the Two Nation Theory.

A large section of populace is fed up of successive elections and ongoing corruption charges and would like to see Netanyahu go. Unfortunately, there is no leader of the same stature as Bibi either in the Likud party or in the opposition. The closest who comes to fill in his place is Benny Gantz of Kahol Lavan (White and Blue) Party, the present Defence Minister who has been the erstwhile CDS of IDF and has acceptance of a large section of population who has been looking for a change in government. Yair Lepid of Yesh Atid-Telem Party who has secured 17 seats is another leader who may also lay a claim for the top job in the anti- Netanyahu camp.

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The Israeli parliament, the Knesset has 120 seats conforming to the biblical tradition of an assembly of 120 scribes, sages and prophets. The members are elected for a four-year term from a single, nationwide, electoral district. To form the government a coalition must come up with 61 seats. Interestingly, in the previous elections, both Netanyahu and Gantz (of Blue and White or Israeli Resilience Party) with allies had 60 seats each and then formed a national government that did not last long.

While Netanyahu (Likud 30) with the three religious parties with Right-wing leanings namely Shas (9),United Torah Judaism (7) and Religious Zionism (6) can muster 52 seats, he will still have to woo his old ally cum competitor Naftali Bennett (Yamina -7) and Unites Arab List (4).

The anti- Netanyahu bloc with Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid as the leader have 57 seats and they also need to get Yamina (7) or United Arab List (UAL) / Raam Party (4) headed by Mansour Abbas, to their camp.

Naftali Bennett (Yamina) and Mansour Abass (UAL) who have not shown their hand so far with 11 seats amongst them are going to be the King makers. The Arabs (UAL) in Israel are 20 percent of the population and the Ultra Orthodox Jews (Hardim) are 10 percent.

Even if Netanyahu is once again able to stitch an alliance with 61 seats, it is not likely to be a stable government and the political situation in Israeli will still be in a limbo till the next elections. A new inclusive national government with fresh leadership, new ideas and centric orientation, can only bring in political stability. It is about time Bibi Netanyahu recognises the writing on the wall and hang up his political boots with grace or whatever is left of it. Whoever forms the Govt, has to deal with post COVID-19 problems of slowdown of the economy and the loss of jobs that many Israelis are reeling under.

(Lt Gen Ike Singha was the Head of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission between Israel and Syria on Golan Heights)