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As Congress moves to enshrine Abraham Accords, a look at the promised 'peace'

The Israel normalization agreements have stepped up weapons sales and emboldened despots' grip on their people. Was this the point all along?

Analysis | Middle East

The Abraham Accords – an initiative that has normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – was greeted with great fanfare when it was kicked off with its signing by Israel and the UAE in September 2020.

The brainchild of then President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, it was billed as a novel approach to bringing peace and economic cooperation to the region while improving the conditions for Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied territories. 

Others, including this author, expressed concerns that the Accords might degenerate into a rationale for pouring more arms into the region in exchange for minimal or nonexistent benefits in fostering peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa. And a New York TimesMagazine piece now reports that “sales of Pegasus [spyware] played an unseen but critical role …in negotiating the Abraham Accords.” The sale has enhanced the UAE’s ability to monitor dissidents and human rights defenders at home and abroad. The Accords’ origins in the sale of weapons and tools of repression should give pause about their true value and intent.

The future of the Accords has gained new relevance now that there is a move in Congress to enshrine them in U.S. law via the Israeli Relations Normalization Act, or (IRNA), which could come up for a vote in the next few weeks. There are also now newly-formed Abraham Accords caucuses in both houses of Congress. But members should think twice before providing uncritical support for the agreement or the U.S. could be entangled with a network of autocratic regimes for the foreseeable future, with serious negative consequences for U.S. interests in peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa.

One indicator of the true nature of the Abraham Accords comes in a new report by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a hardline neo-conservative Washington think tank. As my colleague Eli Clifton has documented, the report was authored by eight former military officers and diplomats, seven of whom have ties to the arms industry, including companies that have sold arms or otherwise done business with the UAE, the first signatory of the Accords.  The report is open and honest about the implications of the agreement, noting that “Crucial to the [Trump] administration’s success was its readiness to supply the Accords’ Arab participants with significant – and in some cases controversial – inducements in terms of their bilateral relations with the United States . . .This included arms sales to the UAE.”

Arms sales indeed — in parallel to the UAE’s accession to the accords, the Trump administration offered the monarchy $23 billion in U.S. weaponry, including F-35 combat aircraft, armed drones, and $10 billion worth of bombs. These are not instruments of peace. The deals prompted resolutions of disapproval in the Senate that generated 46 and 47 votes respectively, a sign of just how controversial they were. The deal is now tied up over the UAE’s concerns about the conditions under which the F-35s are being offered, including possible limits on how they can be deployed. But Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has provided assurances that Washington remains committed to making the deal happen.

The arms sales linked to the Accords are one sign of what’s wrong with them. Not only have they reinforced the status quo in terms of Israel’s occupation and repression of Palestinians, but they also threaten to further tie the United States to a network of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa in ways that will undermine the ability of the Biden administration or a future president to scale back the U.S. military presence in the region — a move that is long overdue. There is also a danger that the Accords could foster an anti-Iranian bloc that will deepen divisions in the region and increase the prospects for war.

The UAE’s inclusion in the arrangement is particularly troubling given its dismal human rights record and reckless conduct in the region. The UAE has been a full partner with Saudi Arabia in its devastating war in Yemen, which has resulted in the killing of thousands of civilians in indiscriminate air strikes and resulted in the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people more as a result of the destruction of critical infrastructure, including roads, health facilities, and even schools. While the Houthi opposition also bears responsibility for the carnage in Yemen, Saudi air strikes and the Saudi blockade of food, fuel, and medical supplies destined for the country are the primary causes of the devastation there. The UAE has tried to disguise its role in the conflict by reducing its troop presence on the ground, but it continues to arm, train and finance extremist militias that have engaged in severe human rights abuses while running a network of secret prisons where extreme acts of torture have been carried out.

The UAE has also been an irresponsible steward of U.S.-supplied weaponry, transferring small arms and armored vehicles to the militias they are backing, some of which include current or former members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen is far from the only place where the UAE has waged war in violation of international norms and U.S. interests. The UAE has intervened in the civil war in Libya on behalf of anti-government forces led by the warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, and has launched drone strikes that have killed large numbers of civilians. The UAE has also supplied drones to the government of Ethiopia that it has used in the civil war there.

Other questionable relationships fostered by the Abraham Accords include links with antidemocratic forces in Sudan, which was removed from the U.S. terrorist list in exchange for signing the agreement; and Morocco, where the Trump administration endorsed that regime’s illegal occupation of the Western Sahara in exchange for it joining the Accords.

Given the dangers to peace, security, and human rights associated with the Abraham Accords, this is no time to attempt to make them permanent, much less expand them.

Washington DC, USA - September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House. (noamgalai/shutterstock)
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