Over the past several years, the Trump Administration quietly mediated peace negotiations across North Africa and Southwest Asia in an effort to achieve greater stability and decreased US troop presence in the region. The crowning jewel of these efforts was the implementation of The Abraham Accords, a joint statement signed by the US, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that normalized relations between UAE and Israel in September 2020.
A Historical Lens
Peace is a protracted process. In 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a landmark peace treaty after twelve days of US-mediated negotiations at Camp David. This treaty won the two leaders a shared Nobel Peace Prize later that year. The Camp David Accords consisted of two letters: One described an Israeli-Palestinian solution, and the other provided a path to Egyptian-Israeli peace. As of yet, only the aspirations of the second letter have been achieved, culminating in a 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
However, the major successes of the Camp David Accords, including the creation of the international peacekeeping organization Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), continue to shape the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East. Michael Singh, a Middle East policy expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that “the Accords helped usher in greater prosperity for people on all sides and eliminated a major threat to regional peace and stability.” An end to war saved lives, allowed national economies to flourish, and led to the establishment of important trade relationships. In a region previously characterized by smoldering conflict, these Accords established a peaceful equilibrium that continues to this day, setting a precedent for future peace building.
Israel’s relationship with other states in the region, particularly its neighbors Jordan and Lebanon, has also been fraught with conflict. Just within the latter half of the twentieth century, Israel invaded Lebanon, Lebanon went through a cataclysmic civil war, and the United States helped orchestrate a security treaty in May 1983 to stem the tide of conflict. As it stands today, the two nations have not recognized each other’s sovereignty since Lebanese independence in 1943 and the 1948 creation of the Israeli state.
Unlike with Lebanon, Israel has normalized relations with other neighbors, namely Jordan. On October 26, 1994, the prime ministers of Israel and Jordan signed a treaty solidifying the shared border and normalizing relations with President Bill Clinton in attendance. However, the treaty generated dissent among some Jordanians because of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, as many current Jordianian citizens are of Palestinian origin. Around half of the Jordanian population is of Palestinanian heritage, as many Palestinians fled to Jordan after the creation of Israel and the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967.
Although Israel’s place in the region remains tenuous, years of peace building efforts have done much to improve relations. The Abraham Accords, the culmination of recent US-mediated peace talks, continues the trend of increasingly normalizing Israeli relations with the rest of the Arab world. Indeed, the implementation of The Abraham Accords indicates that Iran-Saudi tensions, rather than Israel-focused conflict, will become the primary point of contention in the Middle East as many signatories of the accord ally with Saudi Arabia.
The Abraham Accords
Peace negotiations between Israel and various Arab nations were a foreign policy priority under the Trump administration. On September 15, 2020, then-President Donald Trump oversaw the formal signing of The Abraham Accords by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and foreign ministers from both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which normalized relations between the nations. The former president said in a statement: “We’re here this afternoon to change the course of history. After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East.”
The official text of the Abraham Accords, while short, paints a picture of future cooperation between the three countries: “We are encouraged by the ongoing efforts to consolidate and expand such friendly relations based on shared interests and a shared commitment to a better future.”
Although all signatories had already participated in unofficial relations in the past, Aaron David Miller, a former senior diplomatic adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues, called the deal “significant and redemptive.” Normalizing relations brings previously unofficial contact between Israel and the signatories into the light. Official diplomatic contact is crucial in establishing legitimate economic relationships and promoting increased regional dialogue.
Other Israeli-Focused Peace Efforts
The Abraham Accords, which have garnered significant international attention, are merely the latest, most prominent example of US-backed effort to achieve stability in the Middle East. Notably, Sudan, in a deal brokered by the United States in February 2020, recognized Israel as a sovereign state and normalized relations. In exchange, the United States agreed to no longer consider the country a “state sponsor of terrorism,” allowing Sudan to apply for funding from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Additionally, Israel and Lebanon are in the process of negotiating a disputed maritime border that runs through “potentially gas-rich Mediterarran waters.” These talks, mediated by the United States, are the result of three years of American diplomacy. Although these meetings do not necessarily herald the normalization of relations, such contact does suggest that the historically fraught relationship between the two countries has the potential to become collegial in the future. Indeed, a deal “would set a precedent for future negotiations over land and strengthen those who envision the possibility of peace between Israel and Lebanon.”
The overall implication of these negotiations is that the existence of Israel may no longer be the primary point of conflict in the Middle East. Rather, as various Arab countries have moved to normalize relations with Israel, there has been a steady shift toward a new conflict orientation: Saudi Arabia versus Iran.
Throughout the 20th century, the United States approached the Middle East through a lens sympathetic to Israel. Past intra-regional conflicts have followed the same formula: Israel versus the rest of the Arab world. Such strife has helped make Israel a continued US security concern. However, new power dynamics, particularly exacerbated tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, signal a seismic shift in the future politics of the Middle East.
In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia and Iran were considered the “twin pillars'' of the regional order. However, the 1979 Iranian Revolution catalyzed the creation of a new Iranian state, which swiftly allied with Shia organizations such as Hezbollah. This shift prompted Saudia Arabia to more stridently support Sunni counterparts across the Middle East, sowing the seeds of modern day proxy conflicts, and, broadly, enmity between the two countries.
As Iran and Saudi Arabia compete, their conflicts bleed into other countries. Most notably, Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition forces comprise the duling sides of the Yemeni Civil War, although there are other factions involved. This conflict has generated the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis in the world, in large part due to Saudi and Iranian influence. The Yemeni Civil War is, effectively, a proxy conflict. Such proxy conflicts, of which Yemen is the most dire, expose the brewing tensions between the two countries while avoiding direct confrontation.
The recent signing of The Abraham Accords indicate that the historical orientation of conflict in the Middle East has radically changed. Although Palestine remains a concern, it seems that Arab states see significant gains in reducing tensions with Israel, if not pursuing outright normalization. Indeed, Politico writes in its coverage of The Abraham Accords that “some Arab states have in recent years quietly cooperated with Israel to counter a common geopolitical foe, Iran.” The signatories of The Abraham Accords, aligned with Saudi Arabia, appear to be coalescing into a unified front that could oppose Iran and its allies. The Abraham Accords, as well as other Israeli peace deals, indicate the cessation of old hostilities and the potential for new regional conflict.
Peace Efforts and the Biden Administration
This is a turning point for Middle Eastern security and conflict. The old Israel versus the Arab world orientation, although still important, is no longer the primary nexus of conflict. As tensions rise between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the ripple effects of heightened antagonism will be felt throughout the region, likely manifested in proxy wars, aggressive economic competition, and nuclear and nonnuclear arming. The Abraham Accords herald new peace for Israel but, simultaneously, point to a divided, volatile future.
The Biden administration must remain vigilant. These shifting alliances should encourage a more holistic regional lens through which the United States views the Middle East. A volatile Iran and a wildly powerful Saudi Arabia could spell disaster and discord for the region as more states become embroiled in conflict. It is essential for the United States to continue mediating peace talks while refusing to wholly support one power over the other. Rather than throwing weight behind Saudi Arabia, as the United States has been wont to do, it is critical to seek regional peace without compromising on core values or becoming militarily involved. Rather than adhering to a pattern of aggression under the Trump administration or Obama-era pandering, President Joe Biden should instead seek a middle ground, serving as a peacemaker while hawkishly eyeing the changing power dynamics of the region.
Middle Eastern affairs will continue to have far-reaching ramifications for the United States and the rest of the world. Possible regional peace with Israel and conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran herald a new order, underscoring the need for level-headedness and a commitment to both regional and international security.
Katherine Leahy is a second-year Political Science major who spent the summer working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Rocky Mountains. On campus, she sings in the University Chorus, serves as a Chicago Swing Dance Society board member, and works as a research assistant. In her free time, she enjoys fiction, hiking in places with real elevation, mediocre coffee, and exploring Chicago with her friends.