On Wednesday, the Sudanese government officially signed the Abraham Accords, confirming that it would embark on a normalization process with Israel. This was the latest in a string of reasons for Israelis to celebrate their newfound acceptance among Arab-majority states in the Middle East and North Africa. Israelis have understandably chafed against an unfair double standard that has contributed to a siege mentality since Israel’s founding in 1948, and to many this feels like the dawning of a new age. Given the deep American involvement in these agreements, whether because they were brokered directly by the U.S. or because they involved U.S. policy concessions, President Trump has been heralded as a regional peacemaker and a champion of Israel’s future.
It is accepted wisdom that the Abraham Accords, to which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were already party, and the separate agreement with Morocco represent the triumph of interests over ideology. Arab states have a confluence of shared interests and shared threats with Israel and no longer want their foreign policies held hostage to the lack of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they do not view as a core or existential interest. This is correct, but it is incomplete. To see why, it is critical to note the other interests that have been advanced by these agreements and what it portends for deep and lasting relationships between Israel and Arab states. While it is true that Arab states are advancing their own interests by normalizing ties with Israel, the evidence suggests that they require significant additional incentives to do so, muddying the narrative of Israel’s burgeoning popularity. This has implications for the strength and durability of these agreements, and opens them to challenge under a set of plausible circumstances.
Of the deals that have been announced so far, the Israel-UAE rapprochement is the one that is most insulated from outside events despite coming with a significant corollary. The Israeli-Emirati relationship is one that truly meets Israelis’ expectations of being welcomed in previously inhospitable places. Israelis are swarming to Abu Dhabi and Dubai to conduct business and go on vacation, and it seems as if every week brings a new announcement of cross-border investment or cooperation. The potential for economic gains on both sides is not a theoretical one but has already come to fruition, and Emirati public opinion also seems most accommodating to warm relations with Israel without causing any substantial headaches for the Emirati government.
Yet along with the Abraham Accords came another agreement, this one for the U.S. to sell the UAE fifty F-35s and eighteen Reaper drones, both of which the UAE had long sought and had been previously denied. While all parties have gone to great lengths to deny a connection between normalization and arms sales, the timing and the fact that Congress was not notified of the sale until the Israeli government publicly dropped any objections to it suggest otherwise, and in fact Israel is now reportedly lobbying Congress in the sale’s favor. It is possible that normalization would have taken place irrespective of the U.S. arms sale as a sweetener, but the sequence that unfolded suggests that it was a necessary prerequisite. While it becomes harder with each passing day to envision normalization breaking down should a wrench be thrown into the weapons sale, that it was needed in the first place does introduce a note of caution into the most prominent of the agreements so far concluded.
In Sudan’s case, the story is far clearer. The announcement that Sudan would begin the process of normalization with Israel included the simultaneous American pledge to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, leaving no ambiguity that the former depended on the latter. And in fact, Sudan threatened to pull out of the deal, not because of any actions taken by Israel but because of Congress’s failure to pass legislation shielding Sudan from lawsuits brought by victims of previous terror attacks. Congress’s inclusion of a measure in the end-of-year spending bill protecting Sudan from all non-9/11 related terrorism lawsuits removed the immediate threat of the normalization process with Israel falling apart, but the way events unfolded demonstrated the precariousness of the diplomatic rapprochement. Sudan does indeed view normalizing with Israel as being in its interests, but primarily as a way of extracting favorable policy concessions from the U.S. and not because it has overcome all of its previous reservations about establishing ties with its erstwhile foe. The fact that the deal signed yesterday was not between Sudan and Israel but between Sudan and the U.S. demonstrates both the oddity of the situation and how Sudan views the framework of the agreement.
The Morocco case paints a more muted but similar picture. Despite the absence of full diplomatic relations, Israel and Morocco have had strong societal ties due to the one million Jews of Moroccan descent who live in Israel, and the situation for Jews in Morocco has not been as dire as in other Arab states. Israel and Morocco maintained diplomatic offices before the Second Intifada, and thus the resumption of these ties is not a peace deal or a new normalization agreement but a return to the status quo ante. Morocco did not agree to a public signing ceremony or to open an embassy in Israel but did agree to reopen its shuttered diplomatic liaison office, and while this falls short of the precedent set between Israel and the UAE, it still constitutes a tangible improvement from the state of Israeli-Moroccan relations that reigned during the past two decades.
But the announcement of a resumption in relations also came with the publicly announced and explicit quid pro quo of American recognition of Moroccan control over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which is an enormous foreign policy victory for Morocco that simultaneously complicates the U.S.’s ability to oppose annexation of other territories conquered by force, with Russia’s annexation of Crimea being a pressing example. Not simultaneously announced but subsequently reported was that the U.S. would be selling drones to Morocco as part of a $1 billion arms package that it has also long sought but was unable to secure until now. Once again, an Arab state that has independent reasons to establish ties with Israel revealed a willingness to do so only if it was able to secure a win from the U.S. on other unrelated fronts. The previous relationship between Israel and Morocco makes this development more worrisome, as there should have theoretically been a lower barrier to overcome. It also serves as a reminder that this is not the first time that Israel has heralded new ties with Arab states, and that those ties proved to be more prone to rupture than many hoped.
None of this may matter to Israelis, who will benefit from this unprecedented flood of new relationships and new opportunities. But it should. Agreements to recognize Israel that are contingent upon unrelated policy moves from a third actor are inherently fleeting and subject to being rolled back, as already demonstrated by immediate complication with Sudan. Given the whiplash in foreign policy that took place when Trump replaced President Barack Obama and that is now expected to happen again with the shift to President Biden, American commitments in particular are in doubt in ways that were previously unthinkable. Any normalization agreements that depend on continuity in U.S. foreign policy in order to guarantee them may be fleeting. Open questions remain about how normalization with the UAE might be impacted if the arms package gets delayed or altered in the future, or how normalization with Morocco will proceed if a future administration withdraws recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Relations that are built on self-interest can be lasting, but only if that interest is squarely in the relationship itself rather than on tangential issues.
The Biden administration should pursue the continuation of this process. Normalization between Israel and its former foes not only benefits Israel but benefits American interests and regional stability as well, and puts to rest an ugly boycott that delegitimizes Israel’s fundamental right to self-determined sovereignty. The challenge for Biden and his team will be to help broker agreements between Israel and its regional neighbors that rest on their own strength, and do not require the U.S. to guarantee their stability and durability with completely unrelated incentives and conditions that may ultimately challenge Israel’s newfound regional inclusion.