This week has been one to celebrate Israel’s regional relationships. On Monday, Prime Minister Bennett made the first official prime ministerial visit to Egypt since 2010, meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh. Today marks the first anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, and retrospectives with various ministers and ambassadors from the countries involved have been held in Washington and New York. While not publicly feted or commemorated in the same way, Monday was also the 28th anniversary of the Oslo Accords signing ceremony, and it falls this year amidst a resurgence in relations and cooperation between Israel and the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority.
It is appropriate that these three relationships – Israel-Egypt, Israel-region, Israel-PA – were front and center at the same time this week, and that there was a U.S. thread running through all of them. Looking back at the Abraham Accords and the regional normalization process one year later, a few things have become clear. Notwithstanding the numerous and tangible economic, security, cultural, and reputational benefits that are being enjoyed by Israel and the states with which it now has formal relationships as a result of normalization, the Abraham Accords have so far proved resistant to the predictions that they would quickly herald a new wave of normalizers. What the Abraham Accords have done in part, however, is improve Israel’s existing relationships with Egypt and Jordan and perhaps even with the PA, proof of which was on display this week. Normalization has also established a clear pattern that was in abundance this week of a perception that the road to Washington runs through Jerusalem, and this may be the Accords’ most significant legacy one year in.
It is worth reflecting on how Bennett’s visit to Egypt was both a legacy of the Israel-Egypt peace and an effort to move beyond it. When Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty in March 1979, it garnered a different reaction than the Abraham Accords did four decades later. It was controversial with the Egyptian public, led to Egypt’s condemnation and isolation by most of the Arab League states, and even Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s first post-treaty visit to Egypt was downplayed by both the Egyptian government and press. Echoes of the cold peace that has waxed and waned but still reigned for decades could be seen on Monday with the invitation to Sharm el-Sheikh rather than Cairo, or the announcement that Egypt Air will now operate scheduled direct flights between Tel Aviv and Cairo after decades of unmarked aircraft and flights scheduled by request. On the other hand, it was impossible not to notice that the Bennett-Sisi meeting included a public display of the Israeli flag, a greeting for Bennett on the tarmac by the Egyptian foreign minister, and video and pictures on Egyptian state television of the meeting itself. The publicity from the Egyptian side looked more like what we have become accustomed to over the past year between Israel and the UAE than past Israeli-Egyptian interactions.
There is an element here of Sisi wanting to establish a strong and productive relationship with Bennett from the outset of Bennett’s term, and ensure that the cooperation that existed under Netanyahu is not downgraded. But there is also an element here of not wanting to be left behind. Unlike the 1979 peace treaty, the Abraham Accords have been more publicly celebrated and embraced, with great pains taken to highlight the benefits that go beyond military-to-military cooperation. Normalization seems to have sparked a fear of missing out in Egypt and Jordan, who were the pioneers when it comes to relations with Israel but have not capitalized on those relations to the fullest extent. More robust and more public economic and societal ties with Israel, something that has not been on the Egyptian menu through the decades of Israeli-Egyptian peace, is one of the things that the Abraham Accords has dislodged in a positive way.
It is also clear though that Egypt’s desire to upgrade its relationship with Israel is not only about Israel, and the Abraham Accords has contributed to this dynamic as well. To a nearly complete extent with Sudan, a large extent with Morocco, and a smaller but significant extent with the UAE, normalization with Israel was about what the U.S. was willing to exchange in order to get it. The Trump administration was not bashful in communicating how far it was willing to go to get normalization agreements with Israel, and the fact that more states did not sign on is almost certainly a reflection of lingering reticence on the part of potential normalizers rather than a reflection of Trump reticence to increase the payout. Much like Saudi Arabia though not to the same extent, Egypt faces an uphill battle in the Biden administration’s Washington, and it is gambling that the best thing it can do to improve its standing – short of actually ending its human rights abuses – is demonstrating its value as a partner of Israel and as a helpful interlocutor on Gaza. Were Egypt in a better position with the White House and Congress, it may not feel the need to roll out the red carpet for Bennett in such a public way. Whether or not this Egyptian assessment is correct is up for debate, but there is little question that it is driving Cairo’s calculus.
Even the PA is not immune to this dynamic. As betrayed as the PA felt when the Abraham Accords were first announced, it also does not want to be left out in the cold, and seems to be doing a better job of swallowing its disappointment and trying to build better relations with Israel. As with Egypt, some of this is about a new Israeli prime minister and government, but that is not the entire story. It was the Palestinian side that first leaked the news about the Mahmoud Abbas – Benny Gantz meeting, including pictures of the men meeting, and there is a clear effort to play up meetings with Israeli officials. The calculations on the Palestinian side are obviously more complex, but the PA also knows that getting a hearing from President Biden requires taking a more moderate tack toward Israel and being more responsive to U.S. concerns over Palestinian behavior as it pertains to Israel.
It took fifteen years for peace with Egypt to progress to peace with Jordan, and another quarter century for it to spread to other Arab states in the form of the Abraham Accords. While it would be genuinely shocking if the next wave takes a quarter century, or even a decade, the immediate impact of the Abraham Accords has not been to break down all of the barriers between Israel and those states that still do not recognize it. The more immediate impact has been on those who preceded the Abraham Accords, and for whom the dynamic in the region and the dynamic with the U.S. has been altered as a result. Irrespective of how many more states normalize with Israel and when, the various perceptions that the Abraham Accords have shaped about capitalizing on existing relations with Israel and how the U.S. connects to this picture is benefiting Israel in myriad ways.