The Abraham Accords, when they were signed three years ago today, were a major step forward for peace in the Middle East.
For the first time, four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates & Bahrain initially, followed shortly after by Morocco and Sudan – agreed to recognise Israel and work together for mutual diplomatic, security and economic benefit.
The success of the Accords has been chequered – new direct air routes have opened up and brought some investment and tourism benefits, academic partnerships have been established, and the earthquake in Morocco last weekend saw the Israeli government immediately offer military search and rescue support to one of their new allies.
There have been bumps along the road though – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had a number of invitations to the UAE cancelled this year because of Emirati anger over Israeli force inside Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, and many people hoped the pace of mutual benefits would have been faster than the reality.
An Israeli settlement in the West Bank
But now there is a bigger prize looming into focus: a deal with Saudi Arabia.
Alongside the judicial reforms and violence in The West Bank, the diplomatic goings-on between Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh is now one of the most discussed issues in Israeli media.
A normalisation agreement with one of the major powers in the Middle East would eclipse the Abraham Accords and Mr Netanyahu has made no secret of his desperation for a deal.
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“Our hand is extended to all Arab States and certainly to Saudi Arabia which is vitally important,” he told me in an interview earlier this year.
“We have great opportunities to advance the peace in our region, peace between our two countries, the wellbeing of our peoples. I think it would change history.”
Diplomatic wheels are spinning
Whether a deal is close, or even possible, depends on who you speak to, but what isn’t in doubt is that the diplomatic wheels are spinning and there appears to be a desire on all sides to achieve something.
Just last week a senior US delegation travelled to Riyadh for talks on the deal, and they were joined by Hussein al Sheikh, a major figure in the PLO and close ally of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Separately, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held calls this month with Abbas and Mr Netanyahu, and on Air Force One, en route to Delhi for the G20, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters there is “still work to do” but revealed that “many of the elements of a pathway to normalisation are now on the table”.
A demonstration against Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government’s judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem
More important than the deal itself will be the content of any agreement. Riyadh’s demands reportedly include US help to develop a civilian nuclear programme, delivery of advanced US weaponry and a NATO-style military pact with the US, whereby Washington would commit to defending Saudi Arabia if it was attacked.
In return, Washington is hoping that Saudi Arabia will dampen its growing diplomatic ties with China and Russia and help counter the threat from Iran.
Israel might want a similar pact with its American allies but will view a peace deal with Saudi Arabia as a significant step in strengthening its own security, even though there are already concerns in Jerusalem that a civil nuclear deal for Saudi Arabia will spark a nuclear arms race in the region.
Like the Abraham Accords, it would open up investment and trade opportunities between two of the leading economies in the region, and increase recognition in the Arab world of Israel as a legitimate state.
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What a deal could mean for Palestine
The big outstanding question is what a deal might mean for Palestinians. Unlike the Abraham Accords, the Palestinian government has chosen to engage in the process this time in the hope of securing their own future.
Ramallah wants “irreversible” steps to advance its ambitions for statehood, according to reports, which would likely include US-backing to recognise a Palestinian state at the United Nations.
The US is encouraging Ramallah to focus its demands on Israel, rather than Washington, and has suggested the idea of transferring parts of Area C in the West Bank (currently under Israeli control) to Area A (under Palestinian control) or Area B (under joint control). It’s unclear how realistic or possible this would be, such is the large presence of Israeli settlements and military zones covering that land.
Either way, speaking to the Pod Save The World podcast a few days ago, Mr Blinken confirmed that “if this process is to move forward, the Palestinian piece is going to be very important,” to the US and Saudis, even if Israel will be hesitant.
The desire for a deal, from all sides, is one thing but there are some obvious and not inconsiderable obstacles standing in the way of an agreement.
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Any deal would require the support of two-thirds of the US Senate and a significant number of senators, particularly Democrats, would likely oppose concessions to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over the country’s human rights record, notably the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Other politicians are likely to resist any commitment that might risk dragging the US military back into the Middle East.
Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing nationalist partners in the coalition have already said they will oppose anything that gives concessions to the Palestinians, and so the embattled prime minister will have to look to opposition leaders to get the deal through the Knesset. It might be that the price of the deal is a collapse of the Israeli government and even the end of Mr Netanyahu’s time as prime minister.
After seeing his domestic opinion polls plummet this year however, and having been on the receiving end of criticism from world leaders, including President Joe Biden, for his attempts to ram through wide-ranging and controversial judicial reforms, it might be a last act of sacrifice he is will to gamble in order to save his legacy.
“It would be a quantum leap forward,” he told me in June. It certainly would be, but how far is Bibi willing to jump to get it over the line?