An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Abraham Accords Passed Their First Big Test

When war broke out in Gaza, Arab countries chose rapprochement with Israel over solidarity with Palestinians.

By , a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani pose.
Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani pose before they sign the Abraham Accords, where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, in Washington, on Sept. 15, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Barely days after Israel and Hamas signed a cease-fire to end the recent cycle of violence, a museum in Dubai called Crossroad of Civilizations featured an exhibition dedicated to the history of the Holocaust and the horrors of antisemitism. Soon after, on June 2, Israeli and Emirati businessmen at Dubai’s Global Investment Forum discussed bilateral trade as their governments signed a double taxation avoidance treaty, and the Emiratis invited Israel to set up shop in a free trade zone.

Israel’s disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians bothered its newest Arab partners but not enough to question the normalization of relations created by last year’s Abraham Accords. Those diplomatic deals triggered billions of dollars of economic activity and bolstered national security for Israel and the four Arab countries involved. No one was interested in sacrificing those gains, even during a war that killed around 250 Palestinians, including 66 children. It was an early test of the theory that peace in the Middle East would be attained not in exchange for land but for the sake of business and mutual protection against common enemies.

Although there was an outpouring of pro-Palestinian sentiment on social media in Abraham Accord countries, there were few signs of outrage on the streets. The agitation didn’t come close to rattling the governments, much less forcing them to change their policy. 

The recent clashes did, however, expose how the United Arab Emirates especially has little leverage on Israel. Israel embarrassed the UAE’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, when it stormed the al-Aqsa mosque, a revered place of worship for Muslims. The UAE condemned Israel without threatening any consequences. As Hamas fired rockets and Israel launched airstrikes, the UAE’s reproach was even more perfunctory. This reflected the antagonism of both the Emiratis and the Bahrainis toward Hamas, the Palestinian group whose parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the biggest internal threat to their rule. But it also displayed the Arab countries’ commitment to rapprochement with Israel. In March, the UAE announced a $10 billion investment in Israel in fields ranging from natural gas to technology to water desalination.

Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence officer and currently the owner of an Israeli software company that does business with many Arab nations, said his phone has been buzzing with texts from Arab well-wishers since the clashes started. “Nothing has changed,” Bar said. “I haven’t heard anyone say that the recent tensions have had a bearing on business deals. No one has called me to cancel any deal. I have at least 15 WhatsApp texts from contacts from various places in the Arab world who inquired if I was alright and that they hoped no rockets were falling near me.” 

There has been a marked rise in sympathy for Palestinians in the West, especially in the United States, where younger adults and liberal Democrats showed a clear tilt in their favor, according to a Gallup poll held in early February. But in the Arab world, experts say, people are burdened with so many other worries, and leaders so gripped with the fear of being ousted, that Palestine has been pushed far down on their list of priorities.

A rise in a Muslim or an Arab national identity, general fatigue with the Palestinian problem, economic and political crises at home, multiple wars, insurgencies, and brewing famines all have contributed to a slide in sympathy among the Arabs for their Palestinian brethren. 

The monarchies who either are signatories to the Abraham Accords like the UAE or wish to be like Saudi Arabia have been pushing Palestinians instead to be realistic. Their own desires to wean their economies off oil as well as the need to combat the internal threat from political Islamists and the external threat from an expanding Iran has changed their outlook toward the problem entirely. Some religious and academic influencers in the Emirates have said that the conflict is between Israelis and Palestinians, not Israelis and Arabs, a sentiment that reflects a tectonic intellectual shift in the UAE and also elsewhere in the region.

There was one big rally held in Qatar, which shelters Hamas, supports the Muslim Brotherhood, and is an ally of Iran and Turkey—the civilizational foes of most Arabs, including those who signed the accords. In Bahrain and Jordan there were demands to expel the Israeli ambassador, but to no avail. 

None of the Arab governments resorted to their diplomatic toolkit to send a stronger message to Israel. Rather, they used plain and routine condemnation. “Their criticism was mere rhetoric,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies specializing in Gulf politics and security. “They did nothing on the ground. They did not expel ambassadors or threatened to walk out of the accords or initiated intra-Arab negotiations.” 

Guzansky said the Arabs were undoubtedly unhappy with Israel over storming the al-Aqsa mosque, but as the conflict moved to Gaza, their tone softened. “They blamed Israel for what happened in the mosque, for what happened in the city. That is more understandable because of Jerusalem’s religious importance to Islam,” he added. “But as Jerusalem became quieter and Hamas started shooting rockets, it played into the hands of Abraham Accord countries. It offered them a chance to be more balanced and divide criticism between Israel and Hamas. I noticed that several Saudi outlets criticized Hamas very loudly. They blamed Hamas for the situation that the people in Gaza found themselves in. Saudi [Arabia] and the UAE didn’t want Hamas to come out of the conflict with an upper hand.”

Ibrahim al-Assil, a Middle East analyst, said a large segment of the Arab population is overwhelmed with their own struggles and priorities, and some of them even raise questions about why their struggles do not get the same attention globally. “It is an important and an interesting development in the Arab public opinion,” Assil said. “The Palestinians are getting much more global sympathy, but in the region itself, this trend is reversed. Many see it through the lens of their own conflicts with Iran and are concerned about how Iran will find a way to co-opt Palestinian grievances.”

He added the Abraham Accords were never meant to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—nor could they. “Even if all Arab states normalize with Israel, the conflict will continue because of its Indigenous local roots,” Assil said. But he admitted there was a hope the UAE and other Arab states would at least have leverage over Israel in such situations. “The relationship between Israel and the UAE is still newborn and wasn’t ready for the test. The UAE found itself in a difficult position and much faster than it expected.” 

It wasn’t the first and sadly won’t be the last of the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. The question is whether the UAE and its biggest ally, Saudi Arabia, which tacitly supports the Abraham Accords, would begin to pressure Israel and demand they have a say at times like these. If they don’t, they might still succeed in keeping their people quiet, but they might also enhance the appeal of Iran, Qatar, and the political Islamists they so detest. 

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent political scientist in the UAE and former advisor to the Emirati crown prince, said the accord is here to stay. “As far as the UAE is concerned, it is a strategic asset and irreversible,” Abdulla said. “The UAE is on two parallel tracks: Supporting Palestinians for a state of their own is one track, and Abraham Accords is another. There is no turning back on either.” 

But to walk on both paths simultaneously has become more untenable as far-right Israeli leader Naftali Bennett is set to replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister. Bennett has vehemently supported illegal Israeli settlements and opposed a two-state solution. 

The Abraham Accords have passed the first challenge. By the time there is a second or a third or a fourth test, relations may not be able to withstand the tensions—and the region will only discover the breaking point after it is too late.

Correction, June 10, 2021: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra