Will the Abraham Accords survive Netanyahu’s departure? - analysis
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu istens prior to participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS//TOM BRENNER)
“It doesn’t matter who is prime minister or the foreign minister,” said Ambassador to the UAE Eitan Na’eh.
DUBAI – In many conversations with diplomats, activists and businesspeople from around the region during The Jerusalem Post and Khaleej Times Global Investment Forum, questions arose about Israel’s confusing political situation.
One concern was about what will happen to ties between Israel and the UAE and other Abraham Accords countries if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was personally and intensely involved in making them happen, is no longer in office.
“It doesn’t matter who is prime minister or the foreign minister,” said Ambassador to the UAE Eitan Na’eh. “I think it really comes from both countries’ interests. [The Abraham Accords] enjoy support based on the local vision and strategic means.”
Israelis are “voting with their feet” in favor of relations with the UAE, the ambassador said, noting that 85,000 visited Dubai in December alone.
Overall, Na’eh’s assessment is correct: Israel-UAE relations are seen as a win-win. Repeated public opinion polls in the nearly nine months since normalization was announced showed that Israelis are enthusiastic about the historic shift. Certainly the business ties at the core of the nascent relationships between Israel and the UAE and other Abraham Accords countries are likely to continue.
In addition, the key players in the government that is likely to be formed were supportive of the Abraham Accords. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, set to be foreign minister for the coming two years, called them an “important step” and “proof that negotiations and agreements...are the way forward.”
Presumptive Incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised the agreement and UAE leader Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed’s leadership, saying “it’s good that relations between countries are no longer held hostage by the Palestinians’ recalcitrance.” He also expressed regret that Netanyahu passed up a chance to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of Judea and Samaria, but that is no longer relevant, with US President Joe Biden in office.
But Netanyahu personally played a key role in cultivating the relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, specifically, as well as the unofficial ties with Saudi Arabia. The leaders of those countries know Netanyahu; they trust him at least enough to talk to him about key security issues. They also knew Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and Netanyahu’s secretive adviser on Arab affairs known as Maoz, both of whom have already left office. Now, if the “change government” comes to fruition, they will have to deal with unknown quantities.
That is not necessarily unique to Abraham Accords countries; Netanyahu has been around for so long that he has built relationships with many leaders around the world, like Biden or Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, among others. But these ties are new, delicate and need extra care.
That extra care is what we may not see from the next government. The Trump administration invested a huge effort in bringing these countries together, offering perks to those who needed extra encouragement. The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is in favor of normalization – they don’t use the phrase “Abraham Accords” – but they have other priorities and don’t seem to be doing much on that front. The new government may behave in the same way, certainly if there isn’t a push from Washington, and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan may be treated like just four more countries out of many that have relations with Israel.
Some Israeli commentators have argued that the new government will improve Israel’s relations in the Arab world and beyond, in part because Netanyahu is demonized as an anti-Palestinian warmonger. That view seems naïve, when in reality Netanyahu is quite risk-averse and tries to avoid wars. Plus, Bennett is at least as hawkish as Netanyahu if not more so.
If policy is not the point, then it’s easy to just switch one villainous caricature for another when being anti-Israel.
The other factor, and perhaps the most important one, may be Iran. Israeli politics are chaotic, and governments are not always great at sending a unified message. But on the nuclear threat, Netanyahu and the governments over which he presided have made themselves very clear. In fact, even the opposition leader at the time the Iran deal was signed, President-elect Isaac Herzog, fell in line.
Now, as indirect talks between the US and Iran over returning to the 2015 deal are making headway in Vienna, Netanyahu continues to speak out against them. But the incoming government’s position is unclear.
There is across the board opposition to a nuclear Iran, but Lapid has made statements supporting the American position that a deal postponing and not fully eliminating the possibility of a nuclear Iran is fine for now. Bennett has only made negative statements about the Iran Deal, but, like the Abraham Accords, it is unclear if he will make this matter a priority.
Netanyahu’s strong and unwavering opposition to a deal that gives Iran international legitimacy to acquire a nuclear weapon in 2030 was one of the things that attracted Gulf States to build relations with Israel.
So, as Na’eh said, it doesn’t matter who is prime minister or foreign minister, UAE-Israel ties will likely prevail, because both countries have an interest in them, and the Israeli population is enthusiastic about ties. But the level of cultivation, and whether there will be opportunities to bring more countries into the Abraham Accords with the new government, remain to be seen.