“Our most reliable allies on the international stage? The Arabs – they never disappointed us”. This joke was made by Israeli satirist, Ephraim Kishon, in his book “Sorry we won” which summed up the Six Days’ War between Israel and the Arab countries. The quote means that the Arabs have never attempted to do anything other than destroy the Jewish state, and therefore are utterly predictable.
But over the years, the view voiced by Kishon, has begun to be challenged, and nearly crumbled in august of 2020, when one-by-one, four Arab states signed peace agreements with Israel. How did this dramatic move come about? The Arab world began to realise that Israel is here to stay, and a slow process of normalisation began, with the 1978 Camp-David accords with Egypt, then the Oslo accords in the 1990s with Jordan, which were followed by unspoken, and partial normalisation with some of the Gulf states throughout that decade. But for the most part, these acts were more accepted by the Arab governments that initiated them, than by their own citizens.
To understand the reality that bred the Abraham accords we need to understand the Middle East in the 2010s. Since 2011 the region has been up in flames – the Arab Spring, or more fittingly, the Arab winter, has toppled the strongest Arab leaders and regimes, and allowed radical forces to emerge: The Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and Iran. These forces sought for years to bring down the secular Arab regimes and replace them with radical Islamic republics. Egypt fell first, with Mubarak losing power to the Islamist Morsi. In Syria, Assad refused to back down and started a brutal civil war that is still raging today, and into that war slipped Iran’s proxies. At the same time, the US pulled more and more out of the region, practically forsaking its allies.
The Brotherhood internally, and especially Iran externally, made the Arab regimes realise that they have greater threats than Israel, and in many ways, Israel is their natural ally. The old rule of Arab foreign policy is “me and my brother against our cousin, and me, my brother and our cousin against foreigners.” In other words, the rule of “your enemy’s enemy is your friend” does not usually apply in the deserts of the Middle East. Rivalry is not determined by interests, but by familial relativity. But with Tehran racing towards a nuclear bomb, Arab countries understood that the rogue state of Iran is the far greater threat, and that Israel, “the little devil”, also worried about Iran’s nuclear race, is the best ally they can ask for, following America’s increasing withdrawal from the Middle East.
Israel went on a diplomatic offensive against the JCPOA, which came to a climax when in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his famous speech to Congress. This unprecedented standing up to the US was a clear sign for the Arab world, that Israel is not the enemy, but rather an ally. Added to that was the growing irrelevance of the Palestinian issue, increased by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and their own refusal to make any progress in the talks with Israel, and the rise of ISIS. The path was, therefore, set for normalisation with Israel.
In the Middle East, Trump’s presidency was marked by anti-Palestinian and anti-Iranian efforts, such as the recognising of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018, but also, “the deal of the century” Trump pushed for. The deal did not come about in the end for various reasons and was replaced by the “Abraham accords”. For the first time since 1994, Arab countries were signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state. Most notably in the UAE where rather than the “cold peace” of Egypt and Jordan, a real and warm peace was placed between Israel and the wealthy Gulf state, with genuine enthusiasm on both sides to boost business ties and tour each other’s countries.
Since the election of Joe Biden, the US has worryingly returned to talks with Iran on a new nuclear deal, and with the energy crisis of the Russia-Ukraine war, the Iranian threat is once again a reality. As of writing this article, the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Egypt have met in Cairo, with an agreed view, that a regional defence pact is required against Iran. With the Iranians hurtling towards nuclear weapons, the region is at a tipping point.