The Abraham Accords: A Three-Year Success Now at a Crossroads
The Abraham Accords are successful three years on but including Saudi Arabia will face major hurdles. Despite this goal, Biden can continue capitalizing on changing trade and cooperation frameworks that the accords made possible, making a win for his administration.
The Biden administration is investing much of its Middle East engagement in strengthening and expanding the Abraham Accords: the term used for the process which began with diplomatic ties between Israel and three Arab states in 2020 (with a fourth, Sudan, in limbo). The administration is pressing for further Arab Israeli integration in diplomatic, military, economic and energy areas, adding them to multilateral fora from the security-oriented Negev Forum to the “I2U2” UAE-US-Israel-India initiative.
But its most important objective is the establishment of Saudi Israeli diplomatic relations. The stakes are high and the chances of a breakthrough this are year still uncertain. But this is all smart policy for the administration. It reflects realities in the region and the world as a whole which have encouraged President Biden’s dramatic embrace of this flagship Trump administration initiative.
The forces behind the accords
Those regional and global realities first became apparent during Barack Obama’s second term and have decisively shaped US policy ever since. The first was the growing strategic competition with China and Russia, as the two global-system outliers formed closer ties and began eyeing (and in Russia’s case seeking militarily) the overthrow of the American-led post-1945 global collective security system. Washington thus has had to shift its geopolitical and particularly military focus away from the Middle East towards East Asia and Europe.
Simultaneously, a decade-long era of ambitious American geostrategic involvement in the internal affairs regional states, from regime change to societal transformation, began with the Iraq invasion in 2003 and ended in 2013 when President Obama chose not to enforce his redline on Syrian chemical weapons. Surveys at the time showed that Americans no longer wanted to spend trillions of dollars and lose thousands of troops for ephemeral societal goals with little success.
The region’s massive energy exports and transportation corridors remain central to the world economy.
Nevertheless, the last three administrations recognized that the Middle East was still important to American and global stability. The region’s massive energy exports and transportation corridors remain central to the world economy. And the risks of terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction beginning but not remaining in the region worry responsible leaders everywhere.
To square that circle, those administrations de-prioritized American resources committed to the region, with the “delta” taken up by America’s many security partners in the region. This “by-with-through” approach with local allies was first implemented successfully in campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the perceived disengagement of the United States, as regional states faced the threats of Iranian expansion and secondarily Islamic extremism, led moderate Arab states to reorder priorities.
Israel, with its firm position opposing Iranian expansion, and success combating Islamic terrorism, suddenly appeared to be a partial replacement to the US. Furthermore, Israel’s longstanding desire for diplomatic acceptance in the Arab world and its cutting-edge industrial, technological, energy and trade success, suggested it could help Arab states advance in those realms as well. To be sure Arab states were still committed on paper, and in some populations emotionally, to the still-unresolved Palestinian question, however much the chances of a two-state solution have faded. It is not that this issue went away. Rather, Arab governments, and to some degree elites, are increasingly de-prioritizing it in the face of security threats and the need for economic and technological growth.
The Saudi and Israeli leaderships are eager for a breakthrough, but know it will take hard decisions.
Bringing in Saudi Arabia
Greater diplomatic contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel, culminating in diplomatic recognition, of course would be the real game changer, bringing two of the three really important American partners in the region into an alliance. (The third, Turkey, has been strengthening ties with both others.) The Saudi and Israeli leaderships are eager for a breakthrough, but know it will take hard decisions. Media reporting and contacts have stressed that the obstacles to recognition are mainly in Riyadh—its asks of the United States in return for recognition include a formal American military security guarantee, US support for (and indirectly Israeli acquiescence in) a Saudi civil nuclear program including enrichment, and qualitative equality with Israel in US military technology.
The third may be the easiest to achieve: “qualitative” differences in military systems are to some degree subjective and can be fudged. A formal security guarantee is unlikely in part because the Senate, with many critics of Saudi Arabia and some of Israel, must sign off with a two-thirds majority on any legally binding treaty. (America has not given any new ones in 50 years beyond new NATO members) Moreover, other key regional US allies, from the UAE and Egypt to Israel itself, do not enjoy such formal guarantees. Agreement on the nuclear program may also be possible but would require a change in US policy, including with that other key Abraham Accords state, the UAE.
There is also reportedly a soft Saudi “ask” for progress on the Palestinian issue. This component has been linked to the Accords since 2020 when the UAE conditioned recognition on Israeli assurances against annexing Palestinian territory. Furthermore, Abraham Accords process initiatives including one hosted by Morocco have been postponed due to unrest in the West Bank. Recent developments by both sides, from major Israeli military responses to Palestinian and settler violence to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ anti-Semitic statements, suggest little progress is likely. Despite how much Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants a breakthrough with Riyadh, overcoming resistance in his own governing coalition to any concessions to the Palestinians may prove impossible.
What will continue is the remarkable trade, investment, technological, and to some degree, people-to-people Israeli-Arab links. Here the US has played a significant supporting role, particularly facilitating joint energy and environmental projects. Most recently, at the G-20 the US sponsored a regional transportation network linking the Middle East to major markets India and Europe, with Israel possibly participating. The UAE–Israeli economic relationship is particularly impressive and serves as a prod to Abu Dhabi’s rival, Riyadh, to advance ties with Israel, at least in trade and related areas.
US diplomatic success with the Accords helps contain more aggressive Iranian behavior, while Iranian restraint as a product of such US success in turn encourages regional states to strengthen ties with Washington.
Progress on the accords also complements the administration’s “soft agreement” with Iran to relax nuclear sanctions in return for Teheran eschewing fissile material. US diplomatic success with the Accords helps contain more aggressive Iranian behavior, while Iranian restraint as a product of such US success in turn encourages regional states to strengthen ties with Washington. Today, such strengthening is focused in good part on advancing the Abraham Accords.
With a bit of luck, the administration’s Abraham Accords progress thus could be a major success for President Biden, ironically, as it is built on his predecessor’s flagship regional initiative.
The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Wilson Center.
About the Author
Middle East Program
The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Read more