(March 31, 2023/Newsweek) The Saudi news outlet Elaph recently reported that the United Arab Emirates was considering downgrading its relationship with Israel. Its ambassador in Tel Aviv has temporarily stopped meeting with Israeli officials, while UAE President Mohammed Bin Zayed—or MBZ—declared that the two countries can’t work together until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gains control of the most radical elements in his government. Just Monday, MBZ met with former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in what was seen as a clear preference for the previous government.
Despite some entanglements in regional conflicts, the UAE has tried to pursue a policy of becoming the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” Abu Dhabi wants to be seen as a peaceful, modern country, full of economic opportunities that keeps channels open with everyone. By Middle East standards, this policy has been effective. The UAE enjoys good relations with many countries and has become a global business hub.
This policy is partially what led to MBZ’s decision to join the Abraham Accords. But Abu Dhabi sees the Netanyahu government as giving too much power to what it considers ideology-driven and extremist lawmakers. The alleged reason for the downgrading of relations was Netanyahu’s lack of response to incendiary comments made by Member of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich.
It is important to note that the reaction to Smotrich’s comments was harsher than any response to Israeli policy since the Abraham Accords were signed, including during the 2021 war with Gaza and hostilities during the past two Ramadans. The issue is less about the Palestinian people and a more about concerns over Netanyahu’s reliability as a partner. Smotrich’s comments and Netanyahu’s lack of response showed Abu Dhabi that Netanyahu, who Gulf countries previously viewed as a responsible, no-drama actor, in fact, now has a tenuous grasp on his government.
The erosion of social cohesion in Israel is another factor that has worried the Gulf. This sharp division has been on display in the recent protests over proposed judiciary reform. Both the protesters and the ruling coalition have been unwilling to compromise over the reforms and have taken to dangerous, divisive rhetoric akin to American pro- and anti-Trump hysteria. Hopefully, Netanyahu’s decision to halt the reforms will ease the tension, but even if it does, it is a temporary fix. The protests are a sign of a deep societal divide that has been simmering under the surface for a long time.
Both issues are symptoms of a greater problem: the fickleness of democracy, especially in today’s vitriolic political environment. The monarchical governments of the Gulf have become increasingly wary about democracies that they view as being unable to guarantee their commitments and as having an uncertain longevity. These countries value stability and strength. And Israel is not currently projecting either.
Neither is the United States. This rift would not have occurred if it wasn’t for weak U.S. policy in the region. A large driver of the Abraham Accords, as well as the recent rapprochement with Turkey, was the overexaggerated belief that the road to Washington is through Jerusalem. Yet the Biden administration has shown that it is more interested in pursuing an increasingly hands-off policy in the Middle East, causing the regions countries to look for guarantees of stability from other world powers, such as China and Russia. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia leaked conditions for peace with Israel just hours before announcing détente with Iran. The message was clear: the Kingdom is open to a U.S.-backed regional alliance that would include the Gulf countries and Israel, but it needs assurances and is actively hedging its bets.
Positive Gulf relations with Israel correlate with a strong U.S. presence in the region and U.S. support for Israel. The Abraham Accords were announced following Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Support for Israel shows that the U.S. is still invested in the region and is not willing to let other major powers like Russia, China, and Iran gain traction. Unfortunately, this appears to be what is happening under the Biden administration. Washington’s unclear policy in the region in the face of an increasingly belligerent Iran and increased Russian and Chinese involvement send a message that the future of the Middle East will not be dictated by the United States.
The Abraham Accords were unlikely to progress under the current U.S. government from the start. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had numerous issues with the Biden administration. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman or MBS remembers Biden’s vow to make him a pariah and his administration’s refusal to deal with him as the de facto ruler until gas prices surged in the United States before the last election. MBZ was reportedly irked by Biden’s inaction and taking three weeks to call following a Houthi missile attack on Abu Dhabi. Both MBS and MBZ have been wary of wavering U.S. commitments in the region and fickle policy in confronting Iran.
Judging by Gulf condemnations of Israel, it would appear that the rift has been caused by the Palestinian conflict. Many Emirati and Bahraini commentators note this issue and how the Abraham Accords were in part signed to bring about a solution to the conflict following peace. However, relations were tense when the Abraham Accords were signed and there has not been a time since then that they have gotten much better. Although Saudi condemnations of Israel are solely over the Palestinian conflict, the leaked conditions for normalization did not include any mention of the Palestinians. Lip service should not be confused with actual policy. The Gulf will not sacrifice Gulf interests over the Palestinian cause. Yet, as the U.S. departs the region and shows less support for Israel, the benefit of overt relations with Israel has cheapened for Washington’s traditional Arab allies.
This trend is concerning. The Abraham Accords are a symbol of unity and enlightenment in a region that has been bogged down by sectarianism and intractable conflicts. They signal a new future for the Middle East where longstanding differences can be overcome through cooperation and peace. They are, to date, the greatest U.S. political achievement in the region. Yet, they are in danger due to Israeli and U.S. instability.
For the Netanyahu and Biden administrations: it’s no longer about expanding the Abraham Accords. It’s about making sure that they don’t fall apart.
Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).
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