Two Years Later, the Abraham Accords Are Losing Their Luster

Divorcing recognition from the Palestinian question has unleashed Israel’s worst angels.

By , a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.
Bahraini, Israeli, U.S., and Emirati leaders attend the signing of the Abraham Accords.
Bahraini, Israeli, U.S., and Emirati leaders attend the signing of the Abraham Accords.
Bahraini Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan attend the signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington in 2020. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last week, the Abraham Accords, arguably one of the Trump administration’s few foreign-policy achievements, marked their second anniversary amid growing signs that the accords’ bypassing of the Palestinian issue raises serious questions about their role as a vehicle for peace.

The accords—signed at the White House two years ago between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—set the stage for covert relations to emerge and flourish, finally putting an end to Israel’s near total ostracism in the Arab world. By opening the door to improved relations with some neighbors, the accords helped cement Israel’s place as a regional heavyweight.

There have been some major gains for Israel. A free trade agreement was signed with the UAE this year, paving the way for what officials predict will be $10 billion in bilateral trade within five years. The two countries have signed pacts in an array of areas, including medicine, bilateral investment, and space travel.

Last week, the Abraham Accords, arguably one of the Trump administration’s few foreign-policy achievements, marked their second anniversary amid growing signs that the accords’ bypassing of the Palestinian issue raises serious questions about their role as a vehicle for peace.

The accords—signed at the White House two years ago between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—set the stage for covert relations to emerge and flourish, finally putting an end to Israels near total ostracism in the Arab world. By opening the door to improved relations with some neighbors, the accords helped cement Israel’s place as a regional heavyweight.

There have been some major gains for Israel. A free trade agreement was signed with the UAE this year, paving the way for what officials predict will be $10 billion in bilateral trade within five years. The two countries have signed pacts in an array of areas, including medicine, bilateral investment, and space travel.

“We have not even scratched the surface of the potential for cooperation in all fields, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid told Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who visited Jerusalem on Sept. 15 to mark the anniversary.

At the symbolic level, there have also been milestones. Bin Zayed poignantly laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and spoke of the need for tolerance. For a nation still traumatized by what the Nazis wrought, it was a step toward puncturing rampant Holocaust denialism in the Arab world.

The second year of the Abraham Accords saw the beginnings of what Israeli officials call a “regional architecture aimed, in large measure, at countering Iran. A summit in Israel in March showed how much Israels strategic position has improved, bringing together the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the United States. Even Turkey has improved icy ties with Israel in the wake of the accords.

But two years on, the accords are losing luster because inside Israel, they are overshadowed by the intensification of conflict with the Palestinians. At the time, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the accords as a breakthrough because they divorced normalization with Arab states from any Israeli peace with the Palestinians. What looked like a breakthrough then now looks like the biggest drawback of the accords.

After two wars in Gaza and amid instability in the West Bank, Israeli military raids said to be aimed at thwarting violence and Palestinian attacks are largely setting the countrys agenda.

Haaretz reported last week that the Palestinian death toll in the West Bank for 2022 has already reached its highest total in seven years and that Palestinian attacks have also risen sharply. As part of a current spike in violence, Israeli Maj. Bar Falah was killed last Wednesday on the eve of the Abraham Accords anniversary by two Palestinian militants who were then shot to death by Israeli troops. Falahs loss sent waves of grief through tightly knit Israeli society. The next day, troops fatally shot a 17-year-old Palestinian, Oday Salah, during what the army said were armed clashes.

The Abraham Accords may have raised Israel’s regional profile, but that didn’t translate into a spirit of generosity with the problem closest at hand. “With unprecedented diplomatic capabilities, Israel could have said, ‘Lets be generous [to the Palestinians], but instead it said, ‘We can do whatever suits us, said Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry.

Lapid seemed to acknowledge those liabilities. In remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, he said, “An agreement with the Palestinians on two states for two peoples is the right thing for Israels security, economy, and for the future of our children. Netanyahu, who is hoping to oust Lapid in elections five weeks from now, criticized Lapid, saying his remarks would refocus world attention on the Palestinians.

Certainly for much of the Israeli public, the gains of the Abraham Accords abroad have been subsumed by a continued sense of malaise and insecurity at home. Rather than becoming more open to Arabs, Israeli chauvinism is increasing; far-right politicians who advocate the expulsion of Arabs are becoming mainstream.

“Yes, it is hard to be an Arab citizen in Israel these days, tweeted Haaretz journalist Sheren Falah Saab as UAE diplomats hosted a massive bash to mark the anniversary. “The poison and hatred against Arabs is so palpable and is only growing stronger.

Many Jewish Israelis also remain on edge. They are generally more concerned about security officials forecasting a surge of attempted Palestinian attacks during the upcoming Jewish holidays than they are excited that they can fly nonstop to Morocco.

“At the end of the day, there isnt such a difference compared to before the Abraham Accords,” said Tamar Weiss, a novelist who co-edited a Jewish-Arab literature anthology. “Always when there is change, it raises hope. But until now, things have not changed. All that is left is the hope. Meanwhile, we havent changed anything in our approach towards the Palestinians. Nothing has changed. As I see it, the feeling of the person on the street is that things are the same.

The conscious decoupling of the Palestinian issue from the Abraham Accords has, in practice, allowed Israel to weaken prospects for a two-state compromise on the ground. Israeli settlements are growing, and rights groups denounce what they say is increasing pressure to relocate Palestinians so their land can be seized.

The Janus-faced nature of the accords and their legacy can be seen in the figure of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Outside Israel, he travels the region inking security pacts with normalization partners, whereas closer to home, he has banned key Palestinian civil society organizations, arguing that they are terrorism fronts. (The European Union said Israel has not backed up those claims.)

And the accords aren’t exactly breaking up the Arab world either. A recent survey by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that only 26 percent of Emiratis see positive regional effects from the Abraham Accords. And as for the much vaunted “people-to-people” aspect of the accords, that’s not quite materializing. Although Israeli officials say tens of thousands of Israelis travel to Dubai every month, Emiratis aren’t returning the favor. According to figures cited by Haaretz last week, only 3,600 tourists from the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco have visited Israel since March.

That’s likely due in part to Israel’s growing image as a hostile place for Arabs, with a relentless political shift to the right and growing pressure on Palestinians. Indeed, Israel’s negative image may have something to do with Saudi Arabia continuing to balk at full normalization and an embrace of the Abraham Accords.

For Palestinians themselves, the accords have meant little change. “Israel now is more threatening than two, three, four, or five years ago, not because of the Abraham Accords but because of the internal changes in Israel that are making it more right wing,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former minister of planning in the Palestinian Authority. “The internal composition in Israel is moving more and more to denial of Palestinian rights.

Ultimately, the legacy of the accords—and their explicit decoupling of the Palestinian question from regional recognition—has given Israel an excuse to put off answering fundamental questions about what kind of country it wants to be: a Western democracy or a Jewish ethnic state?

Unless and until Israel’s new international partners put the Palestinian question back on the front burner, the link between normalization and real peace is likely to remain tenuous at best.

Ben Lynfield is a former Arab affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He has written for the National, the Independent, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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