Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
On Sept. 15, the Trump administration held a ceremony at the White House for the formal signing of an agreement normalizing relations between Israel and two Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.
Termed the Abraham Accords, the agreement was heralded at the White House as "the dawn of a new Middle East," while critics of the administration discounted the accord, calling it a distraction and a diversion. In the wake of the signing ceremony, U.S. President Donald Trump received a nomination for a Nobel Peace prize, a development that brought howls of outrage from some of his critics and a call that the prize should be abolished.
What is the significance of the Abraham Accords? Are they in fact a new dawn or a sideshow? The Accords are a significant achievement, and they underscore the important changes occurring in the Middle East. They will not bring peace to the Middle East, at least not yet, but they are an important step in that direction. To quote Winston Churchill's remarks after the Second Battle of El Alamein: "... this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
According to the Trump administration, there are five or six other countries that are also prepared to move forward and sign agreements normalizing their relations with Israel. The names of these countries were not disclosed. It most certainly does not include Qatar, which has already said it would not sign any such agreement, nor is it likely to include Saudi Arabia, at least not at any time soon. According to unconfirmed reports, signing any such accord has created a deep division within the ruling family, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in favor of the agreement and his father King Salman opposed. Privately, however, the Saudi government has been supportive of the Accords and has already, among other things, opened its airspace to Israeli flights.
What exactly does normalization mean? Israel has never been at war with any of the Arab countries in the Gulf, but neither has it ever held diplomatic relations with any of them. As part of the Abraham Accords, both parties will establish diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors, as well as establish commercial relations, including allowing trade, investment and tourism.
The agreement does represent a change in what has been a 75-year policy of unquestioned support for Palestinian statehood and opposition to the existence of the Israeli state. In reality, over the last decade, support for the Palestinian cause has been increasingly less reflexive and opposition to Israel more muted. In that sense, the Accords are less a dramatic change than they are a formal and public recognition of the changes that have been playing out in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, the agreements are important. They represent a significant diplomatic triumph for the Trump administration, one that underscores a vastly different approach to the Middle East than the preceding Obama administration. It has also produced significant winners and losers among the political actors in the contemporary Middle East.
The United States is an obvious winner. At a time when it seemed Russian influence in the region was ascending and American influence declining, the Accords underscored that the U.S. still plays a critical role in the region and that its influence is still paramount. The Accords reinforce Trump's carefully cultivated image as "a dealmaker" who can get things done.
More importantly, the agreements lend further credibility to the Trump administration's plan to build a broad coalition consisting of Israel and other Arab countries to work together to contain Iran and to stabilize the Middle East and its many conflicts.
This strategy is a significant departure from the Obama administration's willingness to accede to Iran a more prominent role in the region and its blunt advice to the Arab Gulf states that they would need to accept that.
On the other hand, while the Accords will formalize cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states, such cooperation, especially on security matters and the sharing of intelligence on Iranian activities, has already been going on for more than a decade. The Accords are not going to pave the way for a NATO-like, mutual defense arrangement in the Middle East. Israel is not going to defend the Gulf from Iranian incursions, even though it is already playing a role in helping the Gulf states defend themselves against Iranian cyberwarfare.
Moreover, with the exception of the violence between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, the rest of the conflicts in the Middle East -- the Yemen and Syrian civil wars; the collapse and potential civil war in Lebanon; the role of transnational jihadist organizations such as al-Qaida or the Islamic State; and the continuing social unrest spawned in the wake of the Arab Spring -- don't directly involve Israel, or at least do so only marginally. However, the collapse of civil authority in Beirut and the activities of Hezbollah may still draw Israel into the Lebanese morass.
The Accords are further proof that the principal axis of Middle East politics is largely transitioning from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an Iranian/Shiite-Arab/Sunni axis. That doesn't mean that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict goes away, at least not immediately. It leaves the Palestinian National Authority more isolated, but it does mean that it increasingly becomes a secondary consideration in the region's international relations.
Israel is the second obvious winner. The economic impact of the agreement could be significant. The Accords could create wide-ranging opportunities for Israeli business in the Gulf states.
"[Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC] and [Middle East North Africa, or MENA] region will become the epicenter of Israeli trade. The opportunities for Israeli companies to sell their products into the region are enormous. Cyber, fintech, ag tech, health care, digital health, food safety, among others, are wide open. I tell people that LinkedIn almost crashed the day of the announcement," said Isaac Applebaum, the founder and chairman of MizMaa Ventures, a group that is very active in economic development and investments in the region. "Thousands upon thousands of contacts were made in the first week. Also, the opportunities for Gulf States to partner with Israeli companies will be limitless and bi-directional. They will further strengthen these agreements.
"This is more than just about trade. You cannot imagine how many companies are already discussing cross border investments, acquisitions, joint ventures, and venture capital opportunities," Applebaum added.
More importantly, it whittles away at those opponents who were looking to further isolate Israel and were pressuring foreign governments and companies to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The Arab Gulf states are also winners. In addition to the economic opportunities afforded by the Accords, the least of which is access to Israel's sophistical venture capital and high-tech community, signing the agreement aligns them further with the U.S. and enhances their access to sophisticated American arms. It strengthens and gives credence to American attempts to further isolate Iran, and it helps boost the reelection chances of Trump, their preferred candidate, in the 2020 presidential race.
The agreement also produced some clear losers. First and foremost was the Palestinian Authority. The Abraham Accords are separate from the Trump administration's Peace to Prosperity initiative to craft a lasting peace between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, although they are clearly linked and are both elements of the Trump administration's broader foreign policy in the Middle East.
Once again, the Accords are less a dramatic change then they are a confirmation of the trend over the last decade of the Arab Gulf states being less reflexively supportive and generous to the Palestinian state.
According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, the Palestinian government's funding dropped by half with respect to foreign aid in the first seven months of the year, from $500 million in 2019 to $255 million in 2020, dropping in Arab aid during the same period by 85% -- from $267 million in 2019 to $38 million in 2020.
Over and above the ongoing violence, Israel and the Palestinian state have been engaged in an effort to isolate each other. In the case of the Palestinian Authority, that has principally been through the BDS movement, which originally had strong support within the Arab world, though it varied dramatically by country. The Abraham Accords represent a dramatic reversal of the initial support for this movement, especially if other Gulf Arab countries, as is expected, join in.
The Palestinian Authority still has the support of Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, but both of those countries have larger economic and foreign policy issues they are dealing with. Neither has the deep pockets of the Gulf Arab states. While publicly they continue to support the Palestinian Authority, from a practical standpoint there is not a lot they can do.
Both Iran and Turkey saw in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict an issue that they could leverage for a broader leadership role within the Middle East. Neither has been successful. The Arab world has grown tired of dealing with the Palestinian issues. It's ready to move on. It is the Palestinian Authority that is increasingly isolated.
Moreover, according to one intelligence source who asked to remain anonymous:
"Don't underestimate the power the KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and the UAE hold over the Palestinian Authority. Cutting off funding was just the first step. The next shoe is about to drop. They are ready to force regime change. They are done with the Palestinian issue. They are going to use their capital and their influence to change the situation on the ground."
That's why Trump keeps insisting that the Palestinians "will have to make a deal." From Washington's perspective, the Palestinian Authority has "lost." Many of its former allies are moving on, and those that it retains cannot do much for it. Much to the chagrin of his critics, should Trump be reelected, there is a good chance that an agreement ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, greased with some $50 billion of infrastructure investment, will finally be reached.
The second clear loser is Russia. Moscow has shown that it will stand by its clients in the Middle East and that its special forces and weaponry, and increasingly its mercenaries, can tip the balance or at least help stabilize the military situation in places such as Syria and Libya. But the Russian ascendency in the Middle East was never more than a mirage enabled by a clever smoke-and-mirrors diplomacy and the fecklessness and incoherence of the Obama administration's Middle East policy.
The political manifestation of Sunni-Shia rivalry, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, creates additional complications for Russia. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cut across the Sunni-Shia divide and allowed Russia to be firmly, at least publicly, on the Palestinian/Arab side. The Sunni-Shia divide forces the Kremlin to balance its relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is crucial to stabilizing oil markets from which it derives a significant portion of government revenue, and its relationship with Iran, an important ally and client whose actions often serve to amplify Russian actions in the region.
That doesn't mean that Moscow doesn't retain a seat at the table. It does. Moreover, it is still able to shape events and to thwart or undermine American policies, but the initiative now clearly lies with Washington. The Kremlin's attempt to leverage its position in the Middle East in order to secure "chips" that it could barter with the White House to achieve other foreign policy goals has, so far, failed. Besides, between the crash in oil prices and the continuing disintegration of the portion of the Soviet Empire that Russia retained, Moscow has its hands full.
Iran is also a loser. The implicit rationale in the Abraham Accords is that the threat posed by Iran supersedes the historic positions of the Gulf Arab states around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Accords, from Tehran's perspective, are at the very least a diplomatic structure to coordinate a broad anti-Iranian coalition and, at worst, could over time evolve into a more unified anti-Iranian military coalition.
Tehran was able to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as leverage with other Arab governments and to curry support within the Sunni Arab community. A sharper division across the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia axis limits those options and casts the conflict as little more than the latest chapter in the historic Shia rivalry.
While the European Union has made it clear it does not support the Trump administration's reimposition of economic sanctions on Iran, it has not found a practical way of working around those sanctions. In the end, the EU and European companies will not risk their relationship with the U.S. government or access to American markets to help Tehran overcome U.S. sanctions.
Moreover, the Iranian government is cognizant that to Russia it is just a chip that it can trade with the U.S. in pursuit of other, more important, foreign policy goals. Moscow will not hesitate to throw Tehran under the bus if it serves its purpose.
Turkey is also a loser, of sorts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never figured large in Turkish foreign policy. In recent years, Ankara has becoming increasingly supportive of the Palestinian cause, and what was once a close working relationship with Israel has becoming increasingly strained.
As noted above, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to leverage support of the Palestinian cause to a leadership position within the Sunni world and especially the Arab Sunni community. This effort has been unsuccessful. There is little appetite in the Arab world for Turkish leadership.
Outside of Sudan, where Ankara has leveraged financial and diplomatic support to obtain military facilities in the Red Sea, and Libya, where Turkish arms and Ankara-financed Syrian mercenaries have been used to buttress the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against the Saudi and Gulf states-supported, Benghazi-based government of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, Erdoğan has had little to show for his efforts.
Increasingly, Turkey's focus seems to be the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is motivated by the prospects of large gas deposits, its historical enmity with Greece and the prospect of gaining access to Libya's oil reserves.
Saudi Arabia is neither a winner nor a loser, so far. The Saudis will probably be among the last to sign the Abraham Accords, although they will do so eventually. But they have not lobbied their Gulf Arab allies against doing so. On the other hand, the willingness of their Gulf allies to embrace the Accords also underscores concerns within the Gulf about both the effectiveness of Saudi military power and concerns that Prince Salman's reforms could prove destabilizing to the region.
The U.S. focus on containing Iran is welcome to the Saudi government, especially since the record of the Saudi military in the Yemen civil war makes it clear that, notwithstanding the billions of dollars that Riyadh has spent on armaments and on training, the Saudi military does not have the ability to defend the country if it ever found itself in a conflict with Iran.
There is an additional wild card in the Israeli-Saudi relationship that will have a bearing on how quickly Saudi Arabia signs the accords and its willingness to force a regime change within the Palestinian Authority. According to that same unnamed intelligence source, "The Saudis want control over the Temple Mount. They already control the two most important Muslim sites and this is the third. For Prince Salman, that would be a significant bargaining chip in his dealings with the Saudi religious establishment. Controlling the three most important sites in Islam will make Riyadh the undisputed leader of the Muslim world and will be a crushing defeat of Turkish President Erdoğan's ambition to lead the Islamic world."
The Abraham Accords are not the equivalent of a Middle East-wide peace agreement as the Trump administration has on occasion implied, but neither is it the sideshow that his critics have claimed. It is a significant diplomatic achievement, even more so if other Gulf Arab countries sign the Accords.
It is an important element toward a much broader strategy to stabilize the region and to end its endemic conflicts. A lasting peace between the Palestinian Authority and Israel and an agreement with Iran to end its nuclear development program and its destabilizing policies in the Middle East are the two other elements that need to come together for a more comprehensive and lasting peace in the region.
Neither will be easy, but neither is impossible. Given the record of the Trump administration in the Middle East to date, I wouldn't count it out. For now, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it, it is the end of the beginning.
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