By Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak*
The Abraham Accords are a game changer for the Middle East and for Europe; yet they have been met by European leaders with skepticism. This approach threatens to harm not only the region, but also Europe’s own interests.
Europe’s reaction to the historic accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has been muted to say the least. Europe was eerily silent after Israel and the UAE signed their historic agreement. It issued a subdued welcoming statement after the Bahraini-Israeli agreement was signed. This statement included a recognition of the United States’ “positive role” in the Middle East, but made no mention of a potential role for the European Union in the aftermath of the signings.
Europe has not been able to recognize what the Accords mean for the stability and prosperity of the Middle East or how they can strengthen Europe’s long-term security.
Recent years have demonstrated that the more unstable and economically-challenged the Middle East is, the more next-door Europe feels knock-on effects, whether through uncontrolled migration of refugees fleeing war-torn regions, or the spread of radical ideology and those whom it indoctrinates.
The Abraham Accords, in contrast, serve as a stabilizing counter-force in the region, decreasing the prospects of conflict and promoting economic prosperity.
As a result, those who dismiss the Accords as a mere political maneuver lacking substance, or who describe them as a formality, are downplaying not only a major transformation of the Middle East but also an event that holds important ramifications for Europe.
Europe’s southern neighborhood, which covers significant parts of the Middle East, has long been the focus of EU action. The EU has encouraged partnerships and cooperation among states, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, invested in limiting climate vulnerability and conflict, and worked toward creating opportunities for all.
The region is currently entering a new era marked by precisely the types of opportunities that EU policies have sought to promote and implement for decades, in an effort to bolster the region and EU security. If it wishes to maintain its credibility and leadership posture in the Middle East, the EU must take a proactive role in the realization of the Abraham Accords.
The reality is that the Abraham Accords are bringing to life new forms of cooperation in an array of fields, and are therefore far more than a political move. From tourism to food security, agriculture, and education, the agreements have created a genuine thirst for change in Israel and the Gulf. Israelis and Gulf state citizens want a new friendship, and this warmth adds a human dimension to the growing diplomatic ties.
Whether critics like it or not, the Accords are therefore a game changer for the region and for Europe. Attempting to deny this fact demonstrates that a certain blindness is leading the response, fueled by political pre-conceptions, such as the fear that embracing the Accords is tantamount to abandoning the Palestinian cause and aspiration for a state.
Yet the two issues are hardly mutually exclusive. Regional normalization does not threaten the Palestinian issue, and the attempt to create such a false dichotomy is baseless and counter-productive.
The habit of placing the Palestinian issue front and center in all issues relating to the Middle East can be found in developments such as the decision by the European Court of Justice to label Israeli settlement products – an indication of the climate that dominates legal institutions within Europe.
This same desire to be protective of the Palestinian issue underlies the ambivalence toward the Abraham Accords. It can also be found in the lack of efforts by some EU members to discourage the International Criminal Court from launching a war crimes probe against Israel.
In order for the EU to truly recognize the potential of the Abraham Accords, it must cease viewing this historic development through the prism of the Palestinian issue.
Letting go of the old narrative does not mean the international community should cease discussing the Palestinian issue, but rather, recognizing the Abraham Accords as an opportunity in that respect, too.
The EU can use the Abraham Accords to create new momentum to push the Palestinian issue toward resolution. This can be achieved by harnessing the new regional dynamics to generate fresh thinking on conflict resolution. The UAE has supported the Palestinians with generous funds for years, and to present that country as indifferent to the Palestinian people does not do justice to its record and continued efforts.
Ultimately, the Abraham Accords give a glimpse of what can happen when the Middle East stops viewing Israel as the enemy. This same positive narrative can now be pivoted toward the Palestinian issue, instead of allowing the Palestinian issue to hold back active support for the Accords.
The EU therefore has a positive role to play – and not just the United States. This can take the form of convening the UN Security Council to discuss the implications of the Abraham Accords for the Middle East and Europe, or reaching out to the Biden administration to offer the EU’s assistance to the U.S. in keeping up the momentum of regional normalization.
Rather than making the Accords contentious, Europe can play an important role in making them a unifying event
* Dr. Daphné Richemond-Barak is Assistant Professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy, and Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the IDC Herzliya. She is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point and a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute.
This commentary was originally published for MirYamInstitute.Org on 8 March 2021.