Normalizing Discontent: The Abraham Accords and the Perpetuation of Violence
A wave of optimism has swept the United States and Israel after King Mohamed VI announced that Morocco would normalize its diplomatic relations with Israel. The news came months after Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates agreed to do the same. This succession of so-called "normalizations of diplomatic ties" between Arab countries and Israel has been covered in the New York Times as net and unequivocal progress toward peace and stability in the region.
The opinion of populations in the MENA region on the issue paints a very different picture. As seen in figure 1, a vast majority of Arabs in these countries oppose the normalization of ties with Israel. The contrast between Western jubilee and the discontent among Arab nations deserves some kind of explanation.
Some might be quick to label the opposition as mere additional corroboration to the cynical and unfounded idea that pro-Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. This could not be further from the truth. I believe that an examination of the discontent behind the Abraham Accords will allow us to overcome this harmful cliche depicting Middle Eastern populations as warmongering fanatics.
Assessing the history of peace deals and negotiations since 1948 is largely out of the scope of this article (I strongly recommend Edward Said’s articles on Oslo compiled in his book “Peace and its Discontents” for further information). I believe that an examination of the discontent behind the Abraham Accords will allow us to overcome that harmful cliche depicting Middle Eastern populations as warmongering fanatics.
And that is the central issue concerning the Western media’s portrayal of this accord; The discontent has been largely discredited. But I believe that this discontent is rooted in a very legitimate and its discrediting will stifle any prospect towards a durable peace.
The incidents in Sheikh Jarrah and Gaza this Summer have already shown that the Abraham accords have failed miserably at preserving peace. Here are a couple of reasons why the Abraham Accords will not guarantee peace nor security for either party.
The Parties Involved
The first point that comes to mind has to do with the parties involved in the normalization. The first governments to sign the Abraham Accords-- Bahrain, Sudan or the U.A.E.-- are some of the most autocratic countries in the region. They have consistently ranked low in democracy and freedom indexes. Even Morocco, the last Arab country to have normalized ties with Israel and arguably "the best of the bunch", has recently been jailing historians and journalists with a renewed autocratic zeal.
Instead, Israel and the United States have sought pacts with autocracies. These pacts were done either through coercion or deals where the state of Israel pacted to allow and abet the human rights abuses of other autocracies. In the case of Sudan, Trump and Netanyahu bullied the fragile transitional government into signing an agreement to normalize ties with Israel by withholding international aid.
In the case of Morocco, Trump promised the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, further escalating the tension between Sahrawis and Moroccans. This recognition came at an especially tense time as the Sahrawis had just resumed armed struggle after a long ceasefire.
Netanyahu and Trump’s dodgy pacts and promises have destabilized the region in favor of the dictatorial states. In an ironic turn of events, the head of the “only democratic country in the Middle East” has tied the fate of Israeli-Arab relations to the prosperity of autocracies.
But the important issue here is not so much that the Israeli government normalized ties with the autocratic leaders of the Middle East rather that it did so despite the overwhelming evidence showing the opposition of those subjugated citizens in those autocracies. It is easy to understand why those oppressed by the signatories of the Abraham accords are distrustful of Israel’s foreign policy.
The Concessions that never were
The other and, to my sense, more troubling aspect of these accords is the dismissal of concessions as the principal instrument of negotiation. From Oslo to Madrid, concessions on issues such as land or mutual recognition have been the main instrument to achieve durable peace in the conflict. The Oslo accords’ leitmotif was the formula “land for peace” although its formulation in rhetoric did not translate into the actual negotiation. Simply put, the idea was that if Israel and Palestine could agree to the territorial demarcation of each state (or future state in the case of Palestine), a two-state peace would be assured.
The Abraham accords represent a stark departure from that form of negotiation. We see that today’s project for peace will not be attained through a change in the status quo of land distribution. In an interview with NPR, Netanyahu implied that the “land for peace” was obsolete and that it should be replaced for one of “peace for peace”’s sake.
The new slogan, under its benign appearance, implies that there is no need to take into account the demands of Palestinians or the populations of the Arab World to achieve peace. In fact, the Palestinians are not even mentioned in the Sudan, UAE or Bahrain peace deals. The status quo of internationally condemned settlements in the West Bank does not need to change so long as the Israeli-American alliance can bully Middle Eastern regimes or convince dictators to simply accept the situation in the region. And this is not a cynical interpretation, Benjamin Netanyahu himself said during that same NPR interview that “Israel doesn't need to cede captured land to the Palestinians in order to win friends in the Arab world.”
But the loss of “land” as part of the rhetoric of peace initiatives is not merely the loss of concessions; the concept of “land” encompasses much more than the national ownership of territory. For Palestinians, the “land” in the Oslo slogan was a necessary precondition for peace. The land in the formula referred to the land settled and stolen during the progressive colonization of the West Bank since the 70s. Even though this land wasn’t ceded in Oslo, the rhetorical departure draws concern on the fact that now, there is no getting it back.
And this is important because the land part of the equation means justice to the Arab world. But it also means the ability for Palestinians to move freely in the land accorded to them by the United Nations Security Council time and time again since the late 1960s. It means that settlements and martial law in occupied territories will be perpetuated. Rhetoric void of land concessions means diminishing hope for Palestinian territorial integrity, the bare minimum to establish a viable nation-state with functioning democratic institutions.
In short, the idea that the Israeli foreign policy establishment is trying to push under the seemingly benign formula of “Peace for Peace” ends up being tantamount to “peace without justice”.
Aside from concerns of justice or the opinion of Palestinians on the issue, scholarship seems to suggest that the new paradigm of the Abraham accords is not only unjust (note the irony here) but also might prove counterproductive to establishing durable peace.
Professors Jung, Lust, and Shapiro wrote a piece back in 2005 suggesting that for there to be a successful peace process in Israel-Palestine, concessions need to be made and reciprocated by the “moderates”. They further argue that if concessions are only made by one party, the factions that reject settlement gain popular support and consequently political capital. In the case of Israel Palestine, we see that these dynamics occurred already with the breakdown of Oslo and the subsequent rise to power of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Abraham accords and Israel’s radical change in paradigm, therefore, could potentially lead to a prolongation of the conflict and will serve the interest of the least reconciliatory Palestinian factions, i.e. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. The shooting of rockets by Hamas after the Sheikh Jarrah eviction seems to support Lust, Shapiro and Jung’s point.
Hamas’ position as the only party to wage an armed resistance against Israel has strengthened its position among Palestinians and more broadly Arab populations. Fatah, and more specifically Mahmoud Abbas, have proved their inefficiency in representing or fighting for Palestinian rights as they have rolled over to Netanyahu’s will. In an attempt to keep up with the unjust peace treaties put on the table by Netanyahu, Abbas has further lost credibility among his constituents. Historically, Israeli governments since Ben Gurion, have made it impossible for Palestinian leaders to sign “peace” treaties without losing all credibility with their constituents.
To sum up, if the goal is to establish peace through these accords, then scholarship, reason and recent developments lead us to think that without land on the table, no just peace can be achieved.
It is hard to say what the exact impact of these accords will be. The upcoming (delayed) Palestinian elections, Netanyahu’s loss of power in the Knesset, and the US’s increasingly strained relation with Israel after the bombing of the Natanz nuclear site are all dynamics that could change the course of events in the future.
But regardless of these dynamics, it seems that one thing is certain: the Abraham accords are not a steady foundation for an Israeli peace process. As a matter of fact, they will prolong the suffering of Palestinians and enable the rise to power of groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. The recent events in Sheikh Jarrah, the threat of Israeli annexation of the West Bank, and the constant bulldozing of Palestinian homes in the illegal Israeli settlements already show that this promise of peace is void. To rejoice over this peace would be to rejoice over the continued subjugation of Palestinians.
The Abraham accords have not lived up to their promises of security, they have, by their formulation tried to erase the participation of Palestinians in this peace process not only by foregoing any talk with them but by also discrediting their demands of land, justice, or peace. It seems as though those that believed in these accords had the feeling that if we just forget about the Palestinians and their grievances, they would vanish. As this summer has shown, Palestinians exist even when Israel and other Arab countries choose to deny them recognition in the peace process.
We must demand more than peace, we must demand durable peace. A peace that is not solely the absence of war, but the presence of a just order. A peace where the displacement of families and the application of martial law on stateless people in the West Bank is a thing of the past. So far, the Abraham Accords have proved all but conducive to a durable peace and the gleeful acceptance of these normalizations says a lot about the low standards we have come to adopt for the actions of Israel, the United States, and the signatories of the Arab World.
Ismael is a rising Junior in Saybrook college who has taken a year off to study land tenure in the Middle East during the colonial era. He is a history major with an undying love for George Carlin, Radiohead, and playing his guitar a little too loudly. You might catch him on campus singing with acapella group Shades of Yale or next to Durfee's waiting for chicken tender goodliness among friends.