In this article, Jeremy Pressman analyses the recent normalisation of relations agreements between Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He places the deals within the wider history of Arab-Israeli relations in the Middle East and compares them to previous diplomatic breakthroughs in the region. Ultimately, he concludes that while the agreements are a modest diplomatic achievement, they do not meet the standards for history-making events.
US President Donald Trump was fulsome in his praise of Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for signing “peace deals” at a White House ceremony on September 15, 2020. The agreements, he said, would “change the course of history” and “mark the dawn of a new Middle East.”
Aware of Trump’s penchant for hyperbole, were there historic aspects of the Bahrain-Israel and Israel-UAE agreements? How do they compare to previous Arab-Israeli diplomatic breakthroughs? Thus far, the changes are not dramatic. It was not a move from direct military confrontation toward peaceful ties, it did not re-calibrate the regional balance of power, and it did not advance the resolution of any of the three remaining contested tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict (Israel-Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, or Israel-Syria).
Rejecting Military Force. The dominant idea in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been that military force is the best way for states and other actors to get their way on fundamental issues like security, survival, and national independence. But as I argue in my recent book, a secondary idea competes for attention and sometimes breaks through: that negotiations and concessions can better advance these same state objectives.
In the past, whenever that secondary idea has gained prominence, it has been considered a momentous occasion. Three previous Arab-Israeli diplomatic agreements – the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the 1993 Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles (also see Yasser Arafat’s letter to Yitzhak Rabin), and the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty – all contained language explicitly rejecting the use of war or violent means. The two successful ones, Egypt-Israel and Israel-Jordan, permanently ended belligerent relations. For example, Egypt and Israel had fought five wars from 1948-1973 but none since the treaty in 1979.
What is different this time is that Bahrain and Israel, and the Emirates and Israel, were never at war. Ostensibly, Bahrain and the UAE had been part of the Arab World’s front versus Israel. But they were not military participants. Moreover, Israel and the UAE in particular have had years of quiet security and intelligence cooperation. Thus, while the 2020 agreements are an embrace of the negotiated approach, they are not a rejection of using military force because direct military antagonism was never part of Bahraini-Emirati-Israeli relations.
Changing the Regional Security Environment. When Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, it dramatically altered strategic aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Egyptian military had been a central participant in every Arab war with Israel to that point. Removing Egyptian forces from the strategic equation made the difficult task of defeating the Israel Defense Forces near impossible. Since that time, multiple Arab states and Israel have never gone to war.
Egypt made peace to regain sovereign territory it had lost to Israel in 1967: the Sinai Peninsula. But it also did so to re-align from the Soviet camp into the US one, to reap the economic and military benefits of a close alliance with the United States, and to solidify its foundation for Arab leadership in the face of newly enriched and empowered Arab oil exporters like Saudi Arabia.
The Bahrain-Israel-UAE agreements are different. The three states were already aligned on the regional threat environment. They all view Iran as the Middle East’s dangerous, destabilizing force. By joining together, then, they are not affecting the line drawn between the Iranian camp and the Saudi/US camp, but rather tightening some of the internal bonds in the latter. And, for the UAE, perhaps getting more advanced US aircraft (F-35s) to do so.
To the extent that something is changing, it is concern that the United States will soon make good on its pledge to pivot out of the Middle East. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both sent that message, even as implementation lagged in both presidencies. The Bahrain-Israel-UAE alignment did not cause a strategic shift like Egypt’s treaty with Israel, but may instead be a response to the changing role of the region’s external player: Washington.
Resolving bilateral Arab-Israeli conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been composed of five core conflicts, Israel’s fight with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. Historic diplomatic breakthroughs resolve, or attempt to, one of the five bilateral relationships. The latter three remain unresolved.
The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty resolved a territorial dispute and ended one bilateral conflict. The 1994 Israeli-Jordanian treaty did the same, though the territorial disputes were limited since Jordan had already renounced its claim to the West Bank. The Oslo process ultimately failed but was an intensive effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and address core issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. At the 2000 Camp David summit, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators tried and failed to define a two-state solution.
An agreement between Bahrain and Israel or between Israel and the UAE obviously is not a resolution of one of the remaining three core conflicts. In fact, the past few months have seen violent exchanges between Israel and Hamas (in Gaza), Hezbollah (in Lebanon), and Syria.
The UAE did demand Israel refrain from annexing the West Bank and appears to have extracted a promise from the United States that Israel would not do so until at least 2024, though it is not mentioned in the agreement. But that temporary commitment is nibbling at the edges. It does nothing to diminish the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, advance the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or move toward a genuine fulfillment of Palestinian national self-determination. Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank continues to grow, as it has for over 50 years.
There are ways one could imagine the September 15 agreements could eventually change some Israeli-Palestinian dynamics. Perhaps as ‘insiders,’ the UAE and Bahrain will encourage Israel to make meaningful policy changes or even concessions to the Palestinians. But it seems equally if not more plausible that the Israeli government will feel emboldened from these recent agreements. Without making any significant concessions, Israel is well on its way toward establishing diplomatic relations and open economic ties with Bahrain and the UAE. Palestinians are deeply skeptical.
The establishment of formal relations is a modest diplomatic achievement. But looking at the Arab-Israeli past suggests that at least based on what we know so far, the agreements between Bahrain, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates have not met the standards for history-shattering events.
Jeremy Pressman is the author of the just-published book, The Sword is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force (Manchester University Press). He is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. He also co-directs the Crowd Counting Consortium.
Featured Image: President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Bahraini and Emirati foreign ministers sign the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement on 15 September 2020 on the South Lawn of the White House. Photo taken by the Executive Office of the President of the United States.