The Abraham Accords - The secrets behind the 30-year-long peace process.
16.01.2023 | Yishai Gelb
Israel signed 4 peace treaties with Arab countries in 2018 and 2020, yet the story behind these achievements took nearly 30 years to accomplish. What seemed inconceivable is now the new normal thanks to two leading factors; Iran and economic strength. Here is the story behind 30 years of peace in the making.
The narrative that lead foreign policy in Israel and the entire world regarding peace in the Middle East was first to solve the Palestinian issue, and then Israel can make peace with the “Arab world”. But this narrative slowly changed.
It started with the Madrid conference in 1991 when Israel participated in a conference with many of the Arab states. During those conferences, Bruce Kashdan, an Israeli diplomat, was able to initiate small talk with some of the Arab delegations, primarily Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which lead to meetings completely under the radar. These new connections that he made become personal and warm, and so he slowly created a “special unit” inside the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs to pursue simular relasionships. This is unusual since it is the Israeli Mossad who usually conducts missions under disguise, yet here is the Israeli Ministry of foreign affairs doing something it has no playbook for doing.
The special units tactic was to get to know the people who had personal and direct contact with the country's top leaders. In the 90’s most of the first contacts were made outside the Middle East in conferences. An Israeli agent would make first contact with the prospect which would lead to a relationship. The difficult part was to groom the relationship to sprout into an actual meeting with the country's leader. Such a meeting usually accrued when a common interest was found between Israel and the partnered country.
The common interests which tied the first knots between Israel and two countries, Bahrain and the UAE were security threats from Iran and radical Islamism. However, what kept the two countries from developing cooperation with Israel was the Palestinian issue. But in 1993 when Israel signed the Oslo accords, the gulf states gave Israel a sort of “Kosher” stamp to warm unofficial relations, however still not enough for official recognition.
The second breakthrough came when Sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed, the general secretary of the UAE’s army, realized that he needed to build up his army due to the growing Iranian threat. This meant that he needed advanced American equipment, including F16 fighter jets. To get such equipment, he needed Israel's approval. The US congress signed into law that any military equipment sold in the Middle East had to get Israeli consent to Maintain Israel's military quality advantage. Prime minister Rabin gave his approval, taking the first major step forward.
The third step came shortly after. The special unit opened offices in the UAE and Bahrain under a shell company. A shell corporation is an enterprise without active business operations or significant assets. These types of corporations are not necessarily illegal, but they are sometimes used illegitimately, such as to disguise business ownership from law enforcement or the public. In this case, the shell company was used to disguise the Israeli special unit's unofficial embassy in the gulf states.
A major setback came in the year 2000 when the second intifada broke out. The images of the IDF in a struggle with the Palestininans, especially photos of dead Palestinian children broke off nearly all ties between the gulf states and the Israeli agents. However, in 2002, Iranian nuclear facilities were revealed, forever changing the balance of relations in the Middle East. For the first time, the Gulf states were willing to start taking steps forward regardless of the Palestinian issue. From then on, instead of achieving peace with the Palestinians first and then normalizing relations, now, Israel needed to show intent to take practical steps forward toward peace.
In the following years between 2002-2007, relations between the gulf states and Israel took another step forward when Israels advancing economy began to become a point of interest for the Gulf states as well. Israel's entrepreneurial society fit well with the gulf leaders' vision for their own countries. And so the special unit shifted its approach and used business as a way of further strengthening ties with the Gulf states. Israeli companies started supplying camera technologies, cyber capabilities, IT services, and more. At that point, the special unit formulated relationships with over 2500 officials and business partners in the UAE, however another turndown was right around the corner.
In 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister of Israel. The UAE wanted to purchas from Israel drones, a deal which was approved by Netanyahu since the prerogative was that the drones would be used to attack Iraninan targets. The Emiraties payed up front tens of million of dollars, and the deal was moving forward, until the head of national security in Israel Amos Gilad stoped the transaction in its tracks refusing to give an Arab state without any precautions Israels state of the art drone technology. The deal was stalled signaling to the Emiraties that Israel stole from them millions of dollars. This came a few months before Israel took out a Hamas leader in Dubai, infuriating the Emriaties, and breaking the trust between the two countires. For a couple of years the relationship cold until the nexxt opportunity.
The next milestone came with the rupture of the Arab spring in 2011. The American response to the revolutions signald to the gulf states that they need to start forming new relationships and coalitions to secure their stability. The next major meeting between Netanyahu and Shek Bin Zaid accrued After Natanyahus famus speech at the UN when he drew the red line on Irans nuclear program. But the major milestone came in 2015 when Netanyahu visited the US congress and fought against the Iran deal in the lions den.
Netanyahus public defiance of the Iraninan nuclear deal encuraged the gulf states since Netanyahu was willing to fight and not just talk. Since that point, the Gulf states put the Palestinian issue as second priority and no longer required peace with the Palestinins for peace with Israel.
With Trumps elections in 2016, the relations started to take full speed towards official relations. Jarad Kushner and Donal Trump were aggresivly interested in a peace deal, however the political turmoil in Israel starting in 2018 put things on hold. In addition to that, Netanyahus government started promising annexation over all of the disputed territories making it very difficult for the gulf states to progress with normilizations, and so a deal was made. The Gulf states would normilize relations with Israel if Netanyahu gives up on his promiss to anex. And so the road to normilizations with the gulf states was sealed.
In september 2020, the first Abraham accords were signed in Washington bringing the relations between Israel and the Gulf states across the finish line. 29 years of hard work, both from Israels foreign ministry, the US govenment, the Gulf states and the Iranian aggression lead to historic peace treaties which were once thought to be generations away. What started under prime minister Yitzhak Shamir ended with Benjamin netanyahu. A long process which created a new Middle East. So what about Saudi Arabia? Are they next to sign a peace deal with Israel? And what do the peace treaties mean for a possible attakc on Iran in the near future? Good questions for a good report. Stay tuned.