Arab Street Resents the Abraham Accords

By Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh is a retired Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a founding director of the CIA's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and the Global and the National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Since retiring from the government, Nakhleh has consulted on national security issues, particularly Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and the Arab states of the Middle East. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

OPINION — Wednesday’s trilateral meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterparts from Israel and the United Arab Emirates capped a series of events celebrating the “Abraham Accords” — the “peace” agreement between Israel and four Arab states led primarily by charter Arab signatories, the UAE and Bahrain.

On the Accords’ one-year anniversary last month, Blinken pledged to “build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward” during a Zoom meeting he convened with Israel’s Yair Lapid and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Sudan and Morocco which signed on to the Accords later last year.

On Monday this week, Jared Kushner, a key architect of the Accords and former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, marked the anniversary with a speech to the inaugural meeting of the Israeli Knesset’s “Abraham Accords Caucus” by recounting how the agreement “shocked everyone” and “created …a new paradigm in the region.”

The festivities were themselves preceded the week before by the first-ever visit to Bahrain by an Israeli cabinet official — Foreign Minister Lapid — who flew to Manama to open Israel’s embassy there.

Despite this flurry of celebration, the Abraham Accords continue to engender anger among Arab publics in contrast to the support they have received from their regimes.

Indeed, Lapid’s visit to Manama offers an instructive lesson to the Biden administration about the divide between Arab regimes and their publics and the downsides of its attempts to expand “normalization” between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

On his arrival in Bahrain, where Shia Muslims constitute the majority of the population, Lapid was met with street protests denouncing the visit and the Accords. More than 240 Bahraini Shia clerics signed a statement on October 1 renouncing “normalization with the Zionist enemy.”

The mostly Shia protesters were led by the banned al-Wifaq movement. Others, from Sunni or mixed organizations of both sects — including the Salafi group al-Isala al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented al-Minbar al-Islami, and the National Unity Coalition — expressed outrage at the embassy’s opening but did not sign the anti-normalization petition.  

The three domestic and regional factors driving such opposition include the poor human rights records of Bahrain and other regimes in the region that support normalization; popular rejection of the Accords themselves; and a growing opposition to what the new Israeli government refers to as the “shrinking” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Human rights

In Bahrain, the Al Khalifa regime continues to attack and repress peaceful human rights advocates through illegal arrests, sham trials, and death penalty convictions. According to Human Rights Watch, the Bahraini regime last year escalated its already fierce assault on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful dissent and continued “its suppression of online and social media activity.”

Dozens of individuals are currently on death row and have minimal to no chance of escaping execution. Bahraini security officers routinely torture political prisoners at detention centers, especially the notorious Jau Prison. The regime has stripped nearly 300 Bahrainis of their citizenship and rendered them “stateless.” The suspension of al-Wasat newspaper in 2017 has left the country with no independent media.

In Saudi Arabia, whose de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, is a tacit supporter of the Accords, the suppression of the opposition has become known worldwide for its brutality. In recent years, MBS has used sophisticated Israeli cyber technology to track peaceful dissidents in Saudi Arabia and overseas. The UAE and Bahrain have used the same technology to track their dissidents.

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A Gulf Arab human rights activist told me recently that Arab publics view the Accords as yet another effort to expand Israel’s regional influence and hegemony and to help Israel-friendly regimes cement their control over their peoples. A cynical observer of the region could conclude that maintaining an Arab state system grounded in plutocracy, kleptocracy, corruption, repression, poor governance, and misogyny and devoid of tangible commitments to human rights or to Palestinian national rights serves Israel’s interests in the long run.

Instead of genuine elections, most Arab regimes, including the signatories to the Abraham Accords, have based their perceived legitimacy on a combination of traditionalism, tribalism, autocracy, cultism, and male-dominant religious narratives. The recently released Pandora Papers have revealed the vulgarity of wealth that a few named Arab leaders, including the King of Jordan and successive Lebanese prime ministers, have hidden their wealth away from their publics. They live in luxury while their economies collapse and their people struggle to survive.

Abraham Accords

The anniversary’s celebratory events highlight the second factor that underpins popular Bahraini and other Arab opposition to the emerging Israeli-Arab “normalization” and draw attention to what is wrong with the Accords. Whether an opportunity or a threat, the Accords are clearly not about the Palestinians or their future welfare.

Of course, establishing relations between Israel and more of its Arab neighbors is a good thing. But doing so through a transactional deal serving the interests of the previous American president and his family, as well as the Israeli government’s anti-Palestinian policies and the short-term interests of Arab potentates without engaging the Palestinians is not a good thing. On the contrary, such a self-serving deal is detrimental to both the region’s long-term stability and U.S. credibility, effectiveness, and interests in that part of the world.

Whatever economic benefits the Accords are expected to yield, they clearly won’t trickle down to Arab publics. It’s ludicrous, according to a Palestinian contact of mine, to think that an economic formula hatched in Washington, Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Manama without involving the main aggrieved party, the Palestinians, will usher in a period of peace or economic prosperity in the region. Furthermore, the Accords have done nothing to push Arab regimes to improve their own dismal human rights practices. In the long run, the ongoing diplomacy around the Accords will offer little more than photo-ops with the evocative backdrops of Jerusalem, Manama, or Washington D.C.

‘Shrinking’ the conflict?

The confusion surrounding the Israeli prime minister’s supposedly new “shrinking the conflict” paradigm is another factor fueling popular rejection of the Abraham Accords. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been parroting the “shrinking” phrase — Lapid prefers “minimizing” — as a public relations gimmick to mask his opposition to ending the 54-year-old Israeli occupation and appease the United States and other Western nations.

Bennett’s supporters in Washington, including the influential Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have enthusiastically heralded this phrase ostensibly as a new and innovative means to end — or at least freeze — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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But it isn’t. The shrinkage approach — originally developed by Micah Goodman, an Israeli thinker and supporter of former Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as Bennett — is a throwback to the first Camp David era more than 40 years ago. The talk in Washington and Tel Aviv at that time focused on so-called Confidence Building Measures, or CBMs, as a way to move the “peace process” forward. It failed for all kinds of reasons and will most likely fail again. High-level official visits and anniversaries — and additional financial aid and investment from the Gulf states — will prove unable to sugarcoat this pill.

Shrinking the conflict is an easy way out for Bennett to avoid dealing with the occupation, the future of a Palestinian state, or other Palestinian demands for security, personal safety, human rights, equal economic opportunity, and dignity. The twin burden that Palestinians suffer under the occupation — the daily humiliation inflicted by Israeli security forces and the repressive, corrupt regime in Ramallah — seems to be unshakeable. If Bennett’s shrinkage formula is adopted as policy and given overt American support, Palestinians’ simmering anger and humiliation could turn to violence and terrorism.

If Bennett and Biden are truly committed to resolving the conflict while encouraging Israeli-Arab rapprochement, they should explore creative ways to allow both peoples to live between the River and the Sea in security, equality, and dignity. They should jettison the old CBMs and two-state paradigms as well as the new “shrinking the conflict” mantra.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Emile Nakhleh was first published by Responsible Statecraft

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