Arab-Israeli normalization is one of those curious policy areas where the Biden administration has enthusiastically pursued its predecessor’s positions, even if that has meant backpedaling on explicit red lines around human rights and democracy. But now, approaching the three-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords—which codified normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020, and later between Israel and Morocco and Sudan—it is worth assessing what exactly the impact of these agreements has been. Have these accords achieved peace and stability between signatory countries? Have they isolated regional threats and minimized Iranian, Russian, or Chinese intervention? Have they facilitated any significant progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
Assessing the effects of the accords will facilitate an understanding of whether their stated objectives match up to actual impacts. In answering the above questions, it becomes clear that Arab-Israeli normalization has not achieved its stated goals, and that it should in fact be reframed entirely. To be sure, Arab-Israeli normalization cannot be considered “peace,” but should rather be understood as authoritarian conflict management. Through this lens, it is possible to understand more clearly how the accords have changed the landscape of the region, and why pursuing such a policy makes for an unsustainable future.
The Abraham Accords, and other forms of Arab-Israeli normalization that have since followed, were touted as a peace agreement between opposing sides of a conflict. However, none of the signatories of the accords were in direct conflict with Israel. It is true that by virtue of being members of the Arab League, the signatory countries have taken positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for example, all were signatories of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which emphasized Palestinian statehood as a key objective. Nevertheless, none of these countries have ever been at war with Israel. Moreover, unlike Israel’s neighboring countries, they were at low risk of involvement given their geographic distance. Thus, to frame the Abraham Accords as a “peace” that increased stability between signatories is deliberately misleading, specifically because there was little engagement between them in the first place.
To frame the Abraham Accords as a “peace” that increased stability between signatories is deliberately misleading.
So, what has been the regional impact of this agreement? First, the accords facilitated greater security coordination between the signatory countries. Often, this has acted as a euphemism for increased coordination around repression. For example, the UAE has expanded the scope of its engagement with Israeli companies specializing in repressive technologies, and has invested in the Israeli defense industry. The Moroccan government has similarly taken advantage of normalization to acquire similar capacities. The impact was felt very directly in some cases, with journalists, activists, and intellectuals targeted and often imprisoned. This is a win-win for Israel and the signatory countries. Arab regimes can crack down on any remaining vestiges of dissent in the region and Israel can facilitate investment in its defense and cybersecurity industries while helping to minimize spaces critical of its role in the region and its ongoing oppression of the Palestinians.
To be clear, normalization with Israel is not the sole driver of these trends. Especially in the wake of the Arab Spring, Arab regimes have fine-tuned their efforts to control and suppress free thought and opposition. For instance, as a recent report by MENA Rights Group shows, the Arab Interior Ministers’ Council (akin to INTERPOL, but specifically for Arab League states) has ramped up its efforts to extradite dissidents and facilitate transnational repression. This has occurred concurrently with Arab-Israeli normalization, and not as a direct result. Furthermore, Israel is not the only source of surveillance or other repressive technologies, and Arab governments have certainly sought out other sources. Nevertheless, Arab-Israeli normalization exacerbates these dynamics and increases the capacities of these regimes by diversifying their sources of support.
Of course, to a large segment of the American establishment, the stability of these regimes is a key objective, one that trumps considerations regarding democratic accountability or human rights. The argument for supporting Arab-Israeli normalization is often couched in terms of “stabilizing” the region and facilitating economic development in order to offset other sources of international intervention—in particular, by Russia, China, and Iran. This is, however, a fiction sold to those unaware of regional realities. Despite the normalization of ties between the UAE and Israel, for instance, the Emirati government has continued to expand its relations with Iran, welcoming the Iranian foreign minister recently to discuss the deepening of ties between the two countries. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has reopened its embassy in Tehran and hosted similar talks with top officials there. Furthermore, the Gulf states have expanded their relations with China, with the UAE announcing its first joint exercises with the Chinese military in August 2023. Saudi Arabia likewise hosted the first China–Arab States Summit in December 2022, and has relied heavily on expanded “technoscientific” coordination with China to pursue its development goals.
Finally, the entire region has begun reestablishing relations with the Assad regime in Syria, normalizing Russia’s intervention and role in the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Israel itself refused to provide military aid to Ukraine, and has remained largely silent in the face of Russian aggression there, and in spite of America’s urging to do otherwise. And importantly, the absence of ties between the Abraham Accords signatories and Israel was not the cause of instability in the region: authoritarianism, occupation, and international intervention drove those trends. Thus to paint Arab-Israeli normalization and the expansion of the Abraham Accords as a way to increase stability or expand American influence is fantastical at best.
The impact of the accords at the regional level has been the normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
In reality, the impact of Arab-Israeli normalization at the regional level has been the normalization of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the delay of a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly makes this clear when he says, for example, that progress on the Palestinian issue is “a sort of checkbox” that does not impact the advancement of Arab-Israeli normalization. With the development of these ties, which are backed by American pressure and support, Arab governments and Israel can ignore the need to find a solution to the Palestinian question. None of these parties care that by doing so they are further endangering the Palestinian population, as it is held hostage by increasingly violent Israeli settlers backed by an extremist government that operates with almost complete impunity. Indeed for some signatories, such as the Moroccan regime, normalizing the Israeli occupation is an added bonus, as it helps to offset international pressure over Morocco’s long-standing occupation of Western Sahara. Indeed, Israel recently recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the territory, in an attempt to lend the occupation some legitimacy.
Furthermore, the Abraham Accords have facilitated arms sales between the signatory countries, especially since Israel’s defense industry is a major driver of its economy. As such, Israel consistently ranks among the top countries for military exports (tenth worldwide in the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). And Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and the UAE are ranked numbers 2, 3, 6, and 11, respectively, in the standings of importers of military technology. Although reporting on the scope of arms sales is not always transparent or 100 percent accurate, Israel reports tom have exported about 25 percent of all domestically-produced defense products to Abraham Accords signatory countries. This figure, if accurate, represents a 50 percent increase from the previous three years.
Labeling Arab-Israeli normalization as a form of “peace” is therefore inaccurate. Rather, it is a process that rejects genuine negotiations and deeper reflections on the reasons for conflict, instead using state-level coercion and power to achieve various aims. In other words, the Abraham Accords and everything that has followed since can only be seen as authoritarian conflict management.
In addition to expanding transnational repression, the Abraham Accords have had significant domestic impacts on signatory countries, effects that have not garnered much attention but that will have profound effects on future stability. In particular, progress on Arab-Israeli normalization has entailed increased repression of local populations, the fraying of social ties and distrust, and greater authoritarian control through propaganda and repressive discourse.
In the authoritarian context of Arab states, any normalization of ties with Israel entails repression, as regimes begin to proactively crack down on those who would oppose this development.
In the authoritarian context of Arab states, any normalization of ties with Israel entails repression, as regimes begin to proactively crack down on those who would oppose this development. This has been the case even prior to the recent wave of Arab-Israeli normalization. For instance, when Jordan took steps to sign a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, the Jordanian authorities repressed protestors and wider activism. One analyst noted in 2001 that the Jordanian regime realized “peace and democracy would not go together,” and thus acted accordingly.
Furthermore, given the centrality of pro-Palestine activists and groups in Arab political opposition, this proactive crackdown has reverberations in broader civil society. To be sure, the Palestine question opens doors to broader dissent, as it politicizes and activates members of society who then mobilize around other issues such as gender equality, worker’s rights, and more. Thus when regimes begin to repress any possible opposition to the peace agreement, this has chilling effects on civil society as a whole. There have been many examples of this dynamic. In Bahrain in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords, organizations such as the Bahraini Democratic Youth Society found their activities cancelled and their members questioned by state authorities for expressing pro-Palestine and anti-normalization opinions.
Even in cases where official peace agreements have not been signed, there are similar impacts any time regimes ramp up the degree of normalization with Israel. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has had security coordination with Israel that analysts now describe as “routine.” Back in 2016, however, there was a trial balloon of sorts when retired Saudi General Anwar Eshki visited Jerusalem. The group Saudis Against Normalization was able to put together a petition with a wide array of signatories opposing this visit. Many prominent Saudi intellectuals worked with the group and expressed their support of its activities. Within a year, however, the group had ceased to exist. Their online account was hacked, and many of the signatories to the petition were exiled or imprisoned. According to interviews this author conducted, those later released had to sign pledges to refrain from engaging in activism, and have since taken positions in the private sector or within the state’s own institutions. To be clear, in many of these cases the activists’ run-in with the authorities had to do with their activism in general, of which their pro-Palestine position played a part. Nevertheless, what becomes clear in these examples is that Arab regimes take any opportunity to shift the red lines of acceptable activity and to tighten the noose around members of society expressing free thought.
Regimes have also needed to generate propaganda in order to disseminate their official narrative, one which claims that normalizing ties with Israel will achieve political, cultural, and economic development. Indeed, the signatories of the Abraham Accords talk of pursuing “peace” to increase tolerance in their societies and improve economic prosperity. These discursive shifts make it difficult for citizens to make criticisms without being accused of intolerance or actively opposing the economic interests of their co-citizens.
Ties with Israel have been explained to the public as crucial for achieving economic prosperity in the UAE.
In the UAE, as Emirati citizens are increasingly concerned about their economic opportunities and their ability to compete in global markets, ties with Israel have been explained to the public as crucial for achieving economic prosperity. This discourse has been paired with propaganda about Palestinians, with Emirati influencers and officials spreading disinformation about Palestinians instigating violence or willingly selling their land to Israelis. Some government affiliated actors and even the Emirati foreign minister—leapt to accusations of terrorism and incitement to describe those who disagreed with the Accords.
Similarly, Bahraini officials rationalized the accords by tying the agreements to the issue of antisemitism. Bahraini officials have claimed that the accords have helped fight antisemitism in the Gulf region. In the official narrative, the fact that the ruling family of Bahrain has pursued such a policy speaks to their tolerance and open-mindedness. They thus juxtapose themselves with the protestors and opposition members who criticized the accords as both intolerant and at odds with the regime.
Such dynamics have frayed social trust in many signatory countries. Emirati activists in exile with whom this author spoke said that they had lost touch with members of their family as a result of their outspoken criticism. In the days following the signing of the accords, Emirati influencers close to the state even encouraged people to report on one another. Similarly, Bahraini activists said that given the rhetoric online, much of the public was “confused,” and everyone was unsure to whom it was safe to speak. Activists who were involved in pro-Palestine activism—either through local organizations or through the Gulf Coalition Against Normalization—also reported worsening online harassment, forcing many to take a step back from their activities.
Given the domestic and regional effects, it is difficult to see how the Abraham Accords and their expansion can achieve peace or stability, even in the short term. A recent meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Libyan counterpart, Najla el-Mangoush, is a case in point; what were supposed to be under-the-table talks regarding normalization led to protests across Libya once they were exposed by the Israelis. Public outcry has even forced the Libyan government to accuse the foreign minister of grand treason.
The long term impacts of these dynamics are dangerous as well. Transnational repression does not remain confined to the region, and has already impacted activists and dissidents, even in the Global North. Internally, dynamics of domestic repression in Arab nations create unstable state-society relations, portending additional reactions in the future. The fact that these authoritarian dynamics are attached to ideas of “tolerance” and to Israel’s integration into the Arab world will be catastrophic for public opinion, making sustainable peace in the region even less likely.
A sustainable peace requires addressing the root causes of conflict which, in this case, are the original displacement and ongoing oppression of Palestinians, as well as Israel’s attacks on and annexation of Arab lands in its neighboring states. These are the conditions that must be resolved in order to make peace. Attempts to evade these issues and pursue a “peace” in name only will instead result in the expansion of authoritarian control, heightened repression, and Orwellian propaganda breeding resentment and backlash.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.