The Abraham Accords: What They Mean and Shaping a Way Ahead


By Robbin Laird

Recently, I discussed the Abraham accords and their impact with Professor Amatzia Baram.

We last met in person at a conference in Bahrain which discussed a number of Middle East issues, and now with Bahrain as one of the signatories to the agreements, we had a chance to get caught up and discussion the importance of this key agreement.

Professor Baram entered Bahrain for the conference on his Israeli passport, a sign of the impending breakthrough.

We started by simply focusing on the question of how important was the agreement.

According to Baram: “I would say that even though we have never fought a war against the either the United Arab Emirates or against Bahrein of course, this is as important as our agreement with Jordan.

“From a strategic point of view, the convergence among the signatories is a common concern: Iran.

“Earlier, we have had agreements with Turkey which provided us with significant information on a variety of threats to Israel, including Iran. From Turkey we could watch Iraq, Syria and Iran.

“Under Erdogan this is over.

But in the new strategic situation, working with UAE, in particular, provides a significant opportunity for collaboration on sharing information about Iran and its activities.

“The agreement also expands partnerships in the region, as the dynamics in the region change.

“The United States is supportive but with the global demands on America, a shift is underway, and both the Gulf Arab states and Israel are looking to expand their partnerships to deal with the threat from Iran.

“Accompanying the agreement is a commitment of the United States to sell F-35s to the UAE. This is a significant one but also affects the U.S. commitment to Israel to maintain a qualitative edge over the Arab nations in the region.

“How will this play out?

“The Iranian attack via drones on Saudi Arabia was a wakeup call to the Gulf Arab states about the need to do more for their own security.  This agreement allows the signatories to work together to provide for much such capability as well for regional defense against Iran.

The strategic side is accompanied by an economic side as well, whereby expanded economic relations are clearly feasible.

But in some cases the two will dovetail.

Baram highlighted such a case, namely in terms of maritime trade routes.

Recently, the UAE-based maritime company Dubai Ports World signed a deal with Israel Shipyards, Ltd. Reportedly, the two companies will submit a joint bid to purchase the Port of Haifa from the Israeli government.

This is how Baram described the impact of such a deal.

“They now are discussing shipping from Dubai, from the Gulf, through the Red sea to Eilat, instead of going through Suez Canal which is quite expensive.

“They will go to Eilat where there will be a train line that goes all the way to Ashdod or to Haifa, or to both.

“And this way the Gulf will have another route to the Mediterranean, not through the Suez Canal. It doesn’t mean that they will not use Suez Canal, they will still use it, but it depends on how large the ship is.

“And so we have another option.

“There is another discussion now between the Emirates and Israel about another line that would go from the Emirates through Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Ashdod and Haifa. This would provide a clear alternative to needing to use the Straits of Hormuz on the way to the Indian ocean.

” Such a strategic rout will reduce the impact of the Iranian threats to close the straits.”

 Question: Where is the Palestine piece in all of this?

Professor Baram: “It is there but not as the precondition for the signatories to work together.

“In the UAE agreement, they urge the Palestinians and Israelis to reach an agreement, which would be reasonable, practical. I think the word is ‘reasonable’ because of Palestinians so far have turned down every reasonable, and I mean really reasonable, agreement the Israelis offered them, mainly because of one reason.

“They could not give up the demand for a ‘right of return.’

“And the right of return for five to six million children, grand-children and great grand-children of 1948 refugees is without precedence in the modern world.

“No Turks will ever return to Greece, and no Greeks will ever return to Turkey.

“Likewise, no Indians will return to Pakistan and no Pakistanis will ever return to India.

“The 1948 Palestinian Arab refugees and their descendants have since been living in Arab countries and must be absorbed there.

“Absorbing them in Israel is impossible given its size, so from an Israeli point of view such a demand is outside the boundary of reasonable.

“In addition to Egypt and Jordan, two more Arab states signed peace agreements now with Israel. This may convince the Palestinian Arab public that they no longer have a veto over Arab-Israeli relations, and that their success depends more than before on their pragmatism.”

Question: It would be difficult to believe that Bahrain would sign a normalization agreement without the Saudi government being willing to see this happen and provide de facto approval.

 What is your sense of the Saudi factor?

Professor Baram: “Bahrain has a problem which the Emirates do not have.

“The ruling elite is essentially Sunni, but the Shi’a represent the majority of the citizenship. Until Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Tehran this sectarian difference represented no political problem.

“However, the Islamic Republic of Iran targeted Bahrain in its fervent commitment to spread its Islamic revolution. This launched sectarian tensions in the Emirate.

“Anticipating a Tehran-inspired hostile Shi’i reaction is explaining why their signing of the agreement is more technical, and the language is different.

“Bahrain depends to a large extent on Saudi strategic support. Saudi readiness to participate in this agreement eventually will be a key factor going forward.

“But Bahrain would not have signed this agreement without tacit Saudi support.”

Question: How does the new peace agreement change the defense approach in the region?

How might new exercises and joint capabilities become part of a powerful deterrence equation for the Gulf Arabs and Israel?

 Professor Baram: “A key threat to Israel are missile strikes from Iran or from Iranian surrogates in Iraq. A common threat for the Gulf Arab states and Israel is the threat of Iran going nuclear.

“The Obama agreement with Iran from this point of view is viewed as a disaster for both Israel and the Gulf Arab states.

“What this new agreement presages is more regional cooperation which can address Iranian threats.

“You have raised a key point – how will our militaries train together to shape capabilities which can deter Iranian actions?

“Clearly one aspect here is significant collaboration among our air forces, which could lay a solid foundation for going forward.

“However, any joint Emirates-Israeli air-force exercises will require some Saudi cooperation, and we are not yet there.”

I concluded with this takeaway from the conversation:

We need to build deterrence in depth that can operate across the spectrum of operations to deal in practical ways with Iranian actions. The agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain provides an opening to shaping new ways to do this. When combined with evolving approaches of the United States military to build out their air-maritime forces in innovative ways, the United States can provide an over the top capability to further augment what the regional working relationships have delivered in terms of real deterrent capability.

This is a very important opening to next phase of history in the Middle east. The question is, are we up to actually managing this in a sensible way?

Professor Baram was born in Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in southern Israel and raised and educated there. He served as an officer and commanded tank units in the Armoured Corps during his regular military service from 1956 to 1960 and while in the reserves.

He was ‘on loan’ to the Iraqi desk at Military Intelligence as an analyst when the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980.

After release from regular military service, he worked on the kibbutz farm, before graduating in biology and teaching sciences at the kibbutz high school. He decided on a career change following the Six Day War in 1967 and started his education as an historian of the modern Middle East and Islam in 1971

Featured Photo:  L-R)Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan hold up documents as they participated in the signing of the Abraham Accords where the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognize Israel, at the White House in Washington, DC, September 15, 2020. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Also, see the following:

Israeli Defense After the Abraham Accords: Dealing with the Iranian Threat