September 14, 2021

IntelBrief: The Abraham Accords One Year Later

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Bottom Line up Front

  • The Biden administration is downplaying, but not abandoning, the “Abraham Accords,” and seeks to revive the traditional U.S. effort to resolve the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
  • The Biden administration’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran undermines the Trump administration’s strategic rationale for brokering the Abraham Accords.
  • The Biden administration is implementing its predecessor’s separate incentives provided to Arab states that signed onto the Abraham Accords. 
  • The Biden administration’s tepid embrace of the Abraham Accords makes it unlikely that other Arab states will join the pact in the foreseeable future.

At the White House on September 15, 2020, the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain signed the “Abraham Accords”, a joint statement pledging the normalization of relations between the signing parties. The Accords grew out of the August 2020 announcement that the UAE and Israel had agreed to establish formal diplomatic relations, the first public normalization of relations between an Arab country and Israel since the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. In the weeks following the 2020 White House signing, two other Arab states—Morocco and Sudan—agreed to join the Accords and take similar steps to develop formal ties with Israel. The Accords followed a decade-long process of increasingly close but informal security and cultural ties between Israel and several Arab states fostered to contain Iran and combat regional extremist groups. 

The Trump administration brokered the normalization agreements, at least in part, to further its “maximum pressure” strategy to contain Iran. According to Trump administration officials, drawing Israel and the Gulf states into a closer and open relationship would isolate Iran and help roll back its regional influence. The Accords also reflected the Trump administration’s decision to end the longstanding U.S. role as an honest broker of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, instead cutting off Palestinian assistance and backing the Israeli government’s opposition to a “two-state solution.” The UAE and Bahrain governments were criticized by some of their citizens, as well as by other Arab states, for deviating from an Arab consensus that peace with Israel should follow, not precede, a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The Trump administration’s strategic rationale for the Abraham Accords does not comport with Biden administration’s regional strategy. The Biden administration has stressed the need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, and has engaged in diplomacy with Iran on a mutual return to full compliance with the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal—an agreement the Trump administration exited in favor of its maximum pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. 

Yet, in order to express continued support for Israel and pro-U.S. Arab states in the Gulf and elsewhere, the Biden administration has upheld the Abraham Accords and incentives that the Trump administration used to induce the Arab parties to sign the pact. According to Biden administration diplomats, “We welcome and support the normalization agreements between?Israel?and countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States will continue to encourage other countries to normalize relations with?Israel, and we will look for other opportunities to expand cooperation among countries in the region.” The Biden administration has proceeded with the sale of the sophisticated F-35 stealth fighter aircraft to the UAE—a sale reportedly promised by the Trump Administration as an inducement for the UAE to announce normalization with Israel. The Biden administration has not reversed its predecessor’s incentive for Morocco’s participation—the recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. 

Additionally, in March 2021, the Biden administration certified to the U.S. Congress that it had restored Sudan's sovereign immunities pursuant to the Sudan Claims Resolution Act enacted in December 2020. That legislation paved the way for Sudan to settle claims from U.S. victims of acts of terrorism that were allegedly linked, to some extent, to Sudan, including: the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya; the 2000 attack on the USS Cole; and the murder of a USAID employee in Khartoum. The claims settlement was a condition of the Trump administration’s removal of Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which was in turn an incentive provided to Sudan to join the Abraham Accords. Bahrain did not request or receive any specific benefits for joining the Accords, but it remains a close U.S. ally, particularly with respect to hosting U.S. naval operations in the Gulf. 

The Biden administration’s acceptance, but not warm embrace, of the Abraham Accords virtually guarantees that no other Arab state will join the Accords in the foreseeable future. The Administration appears unwilling to offer any specific incentives to other states that reportedly have considered joining the pact, including the Sultanate of Oman. Qatar and Kuwait have rejected joining the Accords unless there is clear progress toward a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Saudi Arabia was the author of the 2002 Arab peace initiative that called on the Arab world to normalize relations with Israel only if a “just settlement” between Israel and the Palestinians is reached, a position from which they cannot they cannot easily deviate. The Saudi government faces far stronger domestic opposition than do the leaders of the smaller Gulf states, constraining the ability of Saudi leadership to act contrary to the Kingdom’s long-established policies. And, since the Accords were signed in 2020, the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas returned the Palestinian issue to the forefront of Arab discussion and bolstered the popularity of Hamas in the Arab world significantly. The conflict placed the Arab parties to the Accords on the defensive and increased the risk of backlash to any Arab leader who might consider a separate peace agreement with Israel. The strategic effect and legacy of the Abraham Accords is likely to remain minimal, at least throughout the Biden administration, though its preservation is a signal of the enduring U.S.-Israel partnership.