Proponents of the Abraham Accords find ourselves taking a page from the pact’s eponymous patriarch. Twice in Genesis, Abraham, entering a foreign land, tells the locals that his wife Sarah is merely his sister. He says this because he “thought…surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill” him to take his wife. Twice his stratagem is found out, but in both cases Abraham and Sarah survive; in the latter, he makes a treaty with the king. (The pact is one source of the name of the modern city of Beersheba, a short drive from the Gaza Strip.)
The resulting peace is uneasy. Indeed, Abraham’s son Isaac uses the sister/wife ploy again, and commentators have long suggested that the locals’ willingness to cut deals comes from fear of Abraham’s powerful Ally. Yet the peace endured long enough for Abraham to live out his days.
The pact today may follow in Abraham’s footsteps, going about in secret and enduring repeated setbacks and tensions but ultimately lasting. The Israeli war in Gaza after Hamas’ October 7 attack has infuriated the Arab world. This anger has led to speculation that the Arab potentates would back away from the Abraham Accords’ move toward normalization with Israel. In fact, these leaders have kept their options open, and Arab and Muslim rejection of Israel is far weaker than it has been in past conflicts.
In the wake of the Six Day War, a stung Arab League promulgated the Khartoum resolution’s “Three Nos” for Israel—no peace, no negotiations, no recognition. A few years later, Arab oil exporters, fronted by the Saudi king Faisal bin Abdulaziz, answered the Yom Kippur War with an oil embargo on the United States and several other pro-Israel countries. Now? Khartoum itself has relations with Israel, and Faisal’s heirs have been flirting with the same.
The turn of the tide meant the sternly rejectionist Iranians didn’t bother asking for a 1973 oil embargo redux. Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian called on Muslim nations to embargo only Israel itself. No dice—Israel continues to get plenty of oil from Muslim-majority Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, whose speeches are often interrupted by chants of “Death to America! Death to America! Death to Israel!”, was reduced to asking Muslim countries to “at least cut off political ties to Israel for a limited time.” Even Qatar, long close to Hamas, has hosted repeated visits from the head of Israeli spy service Mossad. Far from Khartoum’s “no negotiations,” Doha hopes that serving as middleman will spare it America’s wrath as scrutiny of its Hamas ties grows.
Moreover, November’s extraordinary joint summit of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation highlighted that the Abraham Accords states and their near-partner Saudi Arabia have not retreated from their stance on Israel, but are digging in to defend it. The two organizations reportedly merged their summits because of the disagreements their stances created.
The summit’s final resolution, to be sure, is hardly an ode to Israel. It calls Israel’s response to a massacre of its own citizens “aggression.” (It also calls the war “retaliatory aggression,” whatever that is.) Yet the summit declined to endorse calls by Algeria, Iran, and others to cut relations with Israel, prohibit the use of foreign military bases for rearming Israel, and support a Palestinian right of resistance.
Iran was so unhappy with the final text that its foreign ministry spokesman publicly criticized the resolution for endorsing a two-state solution and supporting Palestinian Liberation Organization (and thus not Iran-linked Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” beneath which other factions should unite.
Beyond summitry, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also deftly channeled pro-Palestinian sentiment into relief efforts and prayers. And, “in private,” reported The Economist Middle East correspondent Gregg Carlstrom, the UAE leadership is “enthusiastic about the idea of toppling Hamas.” Hamas is, after all, partnered with their main geopolitical foe (Iran) and an offshoot of their main ideological foe (the Muslim Brotherhood).
All that reflects the alignment of interests that stands at the heart of the Abraham Accords. The Israelis and the conservative monarchies share three fears. First, they fear Iran and its network of proxies and partners around the region. Second, they fear Islamist agitation in the region—not only violent jihadism, but also brands of Islamism that give jihadism running room or that threaten to change the regional order. Third, they fear that the United States will abandon them or drift toward neutrality in their rivalry with Iran. The Abraham Accords, for them, respond to all three challenges by deepening ties in a US-backed, anti-Islamist, anti-Iranian partnership.
On the American side, there are several reasons why the Accords are worth pursuing. The deals are a clear moral win—they move to heal a division among nations that need not be divided. Some have argued that the deals are a chance to contain Chinese influence in the region, although it is far from clear that this will be impactful. (The Cold War is rich with stories of states playing the superpowers off one another.) But, the most important strategic implication of the Accords is the cementing of a local anti-Iranian bloc, further enabling drawdowns of American forces in the Gulf. The Biden administration’s overtures to Saudi Arabia had not been compatible with reducing American troop commitments, however, since they were offering the Kingdom a permanent defense guarantee. Biden would be wise to use this pause in Abraham Accords diplomacy to shift toward something more flexible. Come peace, diplomacy is back on.
By no means should any of this be read to imply that Palestine is not a serious obstacle for the Abraham Accords. The Saudis may be moving toward participation in a post-Hamas Gazan order in return for a genuine pathway to a two-state solution, but this can only happen under a different Israeli governing coalition. And a post-Abraham Accords Saudi Arabia would still care deeply about the Palestinian cause. Even with a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine would have serious frictions and popular Arab and Muslim sympathies would still be with the Palestinians.
That sympathy appears to be behind, for instance, the rapid Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini condemnations of the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital explosion as an Israeli attack. Their quick reaction put them on the wrong side of evidence that soon suggested the explosion was not an Israeli strike but a squib Palestinian rocket. Had they been treating Israel and Palestine with equal charity or even merely waiting prudently for more information in the fog of war, they would not have spoken so swiftly or so certainly. Some combination of a skewed perspective and a fear of their own people impelled them. Peace on paper does not mean peace in men’s hearts.
Indeed, Abraham and his descendants had plenty of frictions with their neighbors; the oath at Beersheba didn’t end the need for caution, diplomacy, and strength. Yet Abraham and his neighbors benefited from the accords they made. That same hope remains for today’s Abraham Accords. Once the tide of war recedes and the anger at Palestinian suffering fades, it will be time to renew efforts to ink an Arab-Israeli pact.