On 19 August 2020, an article in Foreign Affairs argued that a “botched peace plan” in the Middle East accidentally produced the Abraham Accord between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel and the US. On the surface, the Abraham Accord appears to be a ‘botched peace plan’. However, it is consistent with the goals of the Trump administration to forge closer ties between pro-US Arab countries and Israel for several reasons that help promote America’s Middle East and global geopolitical and economic interests, while coinciding with Trump’s reelection efforts to contain Iran, limit China’s regional role, and achieve a diplomatic victory amid high unemployment and an economic recession right before the election. These goals do not amount to anything of historical significance that entails lasting peace, but do signal a hasty attempt to preserve Pax Americana amid China’s rising global economic power that will eventually translate into geopolitical power.
Among other Arab nations, the UAE has been quietly moving toward closer ties with Israel for the past decade, especially amid Saudi-Israeli-US efforts to isolate and weaken Iran and its allies China and Russia that have coalesced in the UN Security Council against the US. Considering that the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Iran Nuclear Deal – on 8 May 2018, largely to pursue a tougher containment policy that would weaken Iran’s role in influencing the regional balance of power, especially in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Abraham Accord was a logical conclusion to salvage US efforts at a regional peace deal. The goal is in essence continued militarization as leverage to maximize the influence of regional US allies coalescing around Israel and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, given that Iran has forged much closer ties with China and Russia, US containment strategy imbedded in the Abraham Accord follows the long-standing US policy of relegating the Middle East as its historic zone of influence ever since the Truman Doctrine (1947) that created the “Northern Tier” as a buffer zone against the Soviet Union. As reflected in the Accord, Middle East realignment under the aegis of the US uses Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey, are catalysts to a containment policy along the lines of Cold War “containment militarism”, as Jerry Sanders argued in his book forty years in analyzing NSC #68 of 1950.
The State Department has made it clear that the Abraham Accord aims to counter Iran, although Israel and to some degree want Turkey included in the containment policy. However, this accord, as opposed to the Truman Doctrine of 1947 when Greece, Turkey and Iran were US strategic satellites, China’s economic and geopolitical expansion is what the US fears more than any other power in the world, including Russia. Former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov has argued that Russian trade would actually benefit from the UAE-US-Israel deal. Moreover, Russia advocated regional rapprochement since 1992 under Boris Yeltsin. At the same time, Russia’s concern that the Abraham Accord could signal an end to UAE as a peace broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia has forced Moscow to consider strengthening ties with Tehran. Therein rests Moscow’s ambiguity about the deal which China views in somewhat the same light. With expanding economic ties throughout the Middle East and Africa, China praised the Abraham Accord, especially since it sees Erdogan’s Turkey, not Iran, destabilizing the region with aggressive adventures of recapturing some of the Ottoman Empire’s glory. More so than Russia, China views the Abraham Accord as a containment policy toward Iran and Turkey, but also commercial containment of China in the region, as the US is committed to greater militarization of the Gulf States.
In delivering the Abraham Accord, Trump, who takes pride in bypassing America’s NATO partners and pursuing unilateral policies, has provided the US defense industry with pre-election gifts. Considering the Abraham Accord was contingent upon US sales of EA-18G Growler, made by Boeing, and a pledge to sell more advanced weapons to placate Israel, is it any wonder the Arab-American scholar Hussein Ibish noted that: “The president (Trump) thinks like a salesman, and this is what he wants in the Middle East.” In August 2020, the US announced the sale to UAE of advanced weapons (F-35 fighter jets and Reaper Drones, and EA-18G Growler jets — designed for stealth attacks by jamming enemy air defenses).
Privately approving the arms deal, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly denounced US arms sales brokered by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. Some Democratic congressmen immediately objected on the grounds that Arab buyers of US weapons have used them in the protracted Saudi-led war in Yemen, mostly targeting civilians suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The UAE have withdrawn their forces from Yemen, but they are involved in the Libyan civil war where the US and its Western European partners have sunk into chaos and destruction since 2011.
Although the Abraham Accord reflects American unilateralism, US Western allies are limited in how much they can criticize Washington’s efforts at realignment in the Middle East, even if such efforts signal very little peace as a goal and greater possibilities of militarism. Domestically, not just Trump’s supporters, but even establishment Democrats backing Biden, have no objection to the US selling more weapons to Middle East allies, while forging new coalitions. This regardless of the objections that some Democrats make about lack of consultation that is typical of the Trump administration across the board.
Some have compared the Abraham Accord with the Camp David Accord during the Carter administration when Egypt normalized relations with Israel in March 1979. Both the Camp David Accord and the Abraham Accord are partly symbolic owing to realignment and the projection of “making progress” toward resolving the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict owing to the Palestinian question. While this is one dimension, the reality is that the Middle East will not change for the better because of the Abraham Accord. The US is using the Accord as a way to maintain its historic role to determine the regional balance of power, contain/isolate Iran while keeping China’s role limited, sell more weapons, and project a foreign policy victory to the American people right before the presidential election.
When considering whether more Arab states will follow the UAE example, it is important to ask whether the Middle East became more peaceful and the plight of the Palestinians ended following the Camp David Accords in 1979. It is inevitable that the so-called diplomatic breakthrough projected in the Abraham Accord will serve as an incentive to other nations closely allied with the US and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, no matter what Tel Aviv does with the Palestinians.
Surprised by the accord, Palestinians denounced it as treason, as did Iran and Turkey. It is expected that besides UAE joining Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania in recognizing Israel, other Arab states, including Oman, which has ties with Iran but welcomed UAE’s move, Sudan and Morocco will follow as they see benefits to such realignment and nothing to gain by ideologically backing the Palestinians whose global leverage is currently at its lowest level in history. Like the UAE, other Arab states will argue that having normalized ties with Israel and by extension stronger ties with the US, they can be a voice of influence from within such an alliance to mitigate Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians.
No matter who is president, the historically unwavering US commitment to Israel will drive foreign policy. This means offering weapons sales as incentives to other Arab states to join the Abraham Accord. Militarizing the region will escalate a regional arms race and further destabilize all of them; much to the delight of weapons manufacturers, but to the detriment of the people in those countries where civilian economies will suffer in the process.
Besides a far right wing Norwegian politician nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize, many within the US and in the pro-US camp around the world have applauded the UAE-Israel-US deal as a historic foreign policy achievement. We need to keep in mind that in 2009 President Barak Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and then became militarily involved in both Libya and Syria, while CIA covert operations raged during the Arab Spring uprisings. In his memoirs, in 2015, Geir Lundestad, the non-voting Director of the Nobel Institute and secretary for the Nobel Committee, noted that he had reservations about awarding Obama the prize. After 2009, Geir Lundestad witnessed Obama’s reckless military adventures and failed commitment to peace, forcing him to argue that the US president had not lived up to the Nobel Peace Prize values.
Highly unlikely that Trump will receive the Novel Peace Prize, he has been praised by people already committed to his administration ideologically and politically. Unlike Obama, Trump as a unilateralist has been more reluctant to engage in US overt and covert military operations, partly because he sees the competition with China taking precedence over all other commitments. He has been more interested in strengthening the defense industry by providing more US contracts and lobbying other countries to buy more weapons. This will be his legacy, despite criticizing the military industrial complex for domestic political reasons and uncontrollable ego.
Coinciding with the pre-election season, the Abraham Accord will not have any impact in American voters, for they do not cast a ballot on the basis of foreign policy deals that have no impact on their lives. At the same time, with the exception of benefiting defense contractors, Israel and the Gulf States allied with Saudi Arabia, the Abraham Accord will do nothing to end Israel’s apartheid policy, any more than it will limit Iran’s regional role in determining the balance of power with China and Russia on its side. Large in its symbolism, the Abraham Accord will prove far less than the failed Camp David Accords of 1979.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.