The new Biden administration, in under two weeks, is already threatening to undermine these and other victories.
By Guy Millière, The Gatestone Institute
The Abraham Accords, solemnly signed on September 15, 2020 at the White House by Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the United States, set in motion a new peace process that many observers would have considered unimaginable just a few years ago. This new peace process has continued well beyond the 2020 U.S. elections and are at the heart of a broader revolution that has changed the Middle East and the Arab world. It is a revolution that is one of the major achievements of the Trump presidency.
With the new administration in Washington showing an eagerness to drag everything that bears Trump’s name through the mud, it may be important to analyze this revolution and the strategy that made it possible – starting from the situation in the region when President Donald J. Trump arrived at the White House.
Syria was ravaged by a catastrophic civil war that left more than 400,000 people dead and millions of refugees. A jihadist terrorist organization had occupied a vast territory in eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq, called it the “Islamic State,” and was using it as a base for preparing bloodthirsty worldwide jihadist attacks.
In Iran, the mullahs’ regime was destabilizing the entire region and advancing toward regional hegemony. Iran ruled Lebanon through Hezbollah; areas of Syria that are still in the hands of Bashar Al-Assad through thousands of Revolutionary Guards and militiamen dispatched by Tehran, and half of Yemen’s territory through the Houthi militias it was financing and arming. It was also financing and arming Hamas in the Gaza Strip and continuing to move towards possessing nuclear weapons, despite the July 2015 nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), which had served no purpose other than allowing the regime to dispose of billions of dollars, become the main financier of global Islamic terrorism, and continue its uranium enrichment toward a legitimized nuclear breakout.
The countries of the Sunni Arab world were weak and shaken. Egypt was just beginning to find calm after years marked by the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the rise to power in 2012 of the Muslim Brotherhood, its overthrow a year later by large demonstrations, the rise to power of Abdel Fattah al Sisi, and ongoing Islamist uprisings that the army has severely repressed.
Libya, since the destruction of the Gaddafi regime, has been in ruins and abandoned to Islamic terrorist groups. Yemen has been largely destroyed. Saudi Arabia was threatened both by Iran and Islamic State, which had launched attacks in the east of the country. Sudan was in the hands of Omar al-Bashir, a bloodthirsty ruler who accepted the use of his country for Iran to transfer arms to the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority, after abandoning all negotiations, proceeded to organize bloody anti-Israeli attacks without receiving the slightest reprimand from the Western world, and carry out with impunity a campaign committed to delegitimizing Israel in international organizations.
Israel had been under constant pressure from the Obama administration, as well as from President Barack Obama himself, who constantly stressed the “imperative” of creating a Palestinian state within the “1967 borders.” Obama, apparently hoping to create a Palestinian state on his way out the door, had decided not to veto a UN Security Council resolution on December 23, 2016, which described Israeli settlements as “territories occupied by force,” including the Old City of Jerusalem, and Israel as “acting in violation of international humanitarian law.”
In addition, the Obama administration and Obama had explicitly supported the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the ascent of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Obama administration had also distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies; contributed to the destruction of Libya’s Gaddafi regime; signed the JCPOA enabling Iran to enrich uranium and possess nuclear weapons — a deal Iran never signed — and had poured more than $150 billion into Iran’s coffers.
President Trump, from the moment he took office, acted quickly and decisively. He destroyed the Islamic State. By December 2017, the group controlled only 5% of the territory it had controlled ten months earlier. By March 2019, it had lost its last stronghold.
On May 21, 2018, Trump moved to incapacitate the regime of Iran’s mullahs by announcing that the United States was abandoning the nuclear deal. He then implemented sanctions aimed at curtailing Iran’s adventurism.
Trump also distanced himself from the “two-state solution,” stillborn in diplomatic circles by a Palestinian veto of any suggestion, as well as other untenable Palestinian demands.
Trump improved U.S. ties with much of the Muslim Arab world, and in May 2017, made a crucial trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There, he told the 54 leaders from Sunni Muslim countries gathered for the occasion that the United States would be on their side in facing Iranian threats, and that the U.S. was ready to help them overcome instability on the strict conditions that they lead a fight against terrorism and radical Islam, and that they modernize.
Trump, clearly aware that discreet meetings had been held between Israeli leaders and leaders of several Sunni Muslim countries, suggested that regional economic and strategic rapprochement would help move towards peace. He referred to “citizens of the Middle East” in general and added that if “the three Abrahamic Faiths can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible.”
Trump saw that the intransigence of the Palestinian leadership, which the leaders of the Arab world had long supported, was now seen by them as an obstacle. While in Riyadh, Trump did not say a single word about the Palestinian Authority.
He traveled on the first flight from Riyadh to Israel; visited the Western Wall — the first President of the United States in office to do so — and affirmed his unwavering support for the US ally. He then went to Ramallah, where he accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of being a supporter of terrorism and a liar.
In November 2017, Trump asked a team led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to draw up a peace plan that respected Israel’s security imperatives and that took into account not the demands of the Palestinian Authority, but benefits for the Palestinian people.
During the following months, he asked the Palestinian Authority to stop its terrorist activities. When the Palestinian Authority refused, Trump reduced the financing granted to it by the United States and ceased to treat its leaders as constructive and legitimate interlocutors.
On December 6, 2017, Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and decided to locate the U.S. Embassy in Israel there. It was a way of saying that Israel’s presence in Jerusalem was fully legitimate and that no one would be permitted to push Israel around. The U.S. embassy was inaugurated less than a year later, on May 14, 2018.
On September 7, 2018, Trump asked the US Department of State to issue a statement saying that from now on, the U.S. would recognize as refugees only the Arabs who had personally left Israel in 1948-49 and that the U.S. would no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), an organization that claims there are more than five million Palestinian refugees, almost all of whom have never set foot in Israel and who therefore cannot claim to “return” to lands where they have never been.
(UNRWA includes all the descendants of actual refugees through the generations, in a method of accounting not done by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.)
Trump said that the idea of a “return” to Israel of millions of people who are not actually refugees was no longer on the negotiating table.
Trump’s peace plan, at least its economic component, was presented in Manama, Bahrain, on June 25 and 26, 2019. Representatives from 39 countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Gulf countries were present, as well as businessmen from all over the Arab world.
The plan, presented at the White House on January 28, 2020, talks about a Palestinian state, but stipulates that Israel’s security would be guaranteed. If a Palestinian state were to come into being, it would be demilitarized, have borders controlled by Israel and no border with an Arab state. The plan offered the prospect of sovereignty, within this security framework, to the Palestinian Arabs. The proposal allows Israel to retain a necessary control of the Jordan Valley, and pledges that Israel would be sovereign over 30% of Judea and Samaria — a percentage that many Israelis considered woefully insufficient, considering that historically, Judea and Samaria have been part of Israel.
Above all, the plan says that a Palestinian state can only come into being if the leaders and the Palestinians fully renounce and end terrorism.
Palestinian leaders immediately rejected the offer. A few days later, at the insistence of the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League condemned the plan, however Arab representatives present in Manama continued to prepare the next step.
The Abraham Accords soon followed. They were in line with the prospects for peace mentioned by President Trump in May 2017. They had not been condemned by the Arab League.
As anticipated by Trump in May 2017, the Abraham Accords have both an economic and a strategic dimension. They not only offer economic opportunities to all the signatories but also reinforce their military strength. As the plan includes the Palestinian Arabs, the Arab signatories can say that by signing the agreement, they did not forget the Palestinian population.
The Abraham Accords — between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain — will lead to billions of dollars of investment and trade between Israel and its partners in peace. The Accords will also allow the Emirates and Bahrain to benefit from Israeli technology, and see their defense strengthened against Iran.
The Abraham Accords have also led, more broadly, to a cultural and religious opening of the Emirates and Bahrain to Judaism: the Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai is now the first museum accessible in the Hebrew language in the Arab world. The museum displays old maps of Jerusalem, a sword from the Yemenite Jewish community, a pre-Holocaust Jewish marriage contract and original letters by Theodor Herzl. Restaurants in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Manama are increasingly serving kosher food.
A giant Chanukah candelabra, a menorah, was lit up in front of Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa, the word tallest skyscraper, to celebrate the Jewish holiday. Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has been working for years to spread a non-political vision of Islam and has entrusted the management of the country’s religious issues to a Sufi scholar, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, now in charge of disseminating this vision.
The Trump administration’s agreement with Sudan has an even more striking dimension. Sudan was on the list of terrorist states and, until its dictator, Omar al Bashir, fell in April 2019, it had contributed to the war against Israel. The current Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, shares a similar vision of Islam to that of Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah, and has appointed a Christian Coptic woman to the Sovereign Council, a body that will rule the country until late 2022 when free elections are planned. Israel now has peaceful relations with a country that had long been an enemy. Sudan, freshly removed from the list of terrorist states, now has help from Israel, one of the world-leaders in agricultural technologies, and will be able to improve its food production.
As for the Trump administration’s agreement with Morocco, the kingdom already had low-key ties with Israel. Around a million Jews of Moroccan origin are part of Israel’s population, and Jews in Morocco are considered by the kingdom — and its visionary monarch, HRH King Mohammed VI — as citizens equal to Muslim Moroccans. Diplomatic links are in the process of being fully reestablished. Israel has normal relations with one more Sunni Arab country, and Morocco has ties with Israel that will lead to investment and economic development.
President Trump added to the agreement the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, a territory claimed by a guerrilla group supported by Algeria and more recently by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. President Trump’s decision strengthened Morocco, an ally of the United States, rather than rewarding enemies of the United States.
Saudi Arabia moving in promising direction
Saudi Arabia has not yet reached a normalization agreement with Israel. King Salman seems committed to the idea that a Palestinian state must be created before Saudi Arabia normalizes ties with Israel. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known familiarly as MBS, apparently sees that cooperation with Israel in the field of security can only strengthen the defense of the kingdom and that Israeli technologies would be most useful for the economic transformation he envisions for his development project, Vision 2030.
MBS is evidently aware that need to be profound changes in a country subject to the strict application of the Wahhabi version of Islamic Sharia law, and changes are underway. Saudi Arabia’s educational curricula are being modified in a direction of tolerance, apparently with a goal of removing anti-Semitic content. The religious discourse in the country is also changing. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, now says that religion should be spread through words, not through the sword.
On September 6, the Imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, delivered a sermon preaching dialogue and kindness to non-Muslims, and made specific reference to Jews. He was criticized, but could not have delivered the sermon without the agreement of the royal family. Um Haroun (Mother of Aaron), a Saudi television drama series was broadcast last year on a Saudi Arabia’s state-sponsored channel, MBC, and in other Arab countries. It shows Jews, Christians and Muslims living together in peace.
True, the Saudi kingdom may still have a way to go to become an open and tolerant country, and the path is fraught with opposition. People eager to keep their perch and hostile to the evolution of the country may step forward; the response could well be brutal. The murder in Istanbul of the Muslim Brotherhood associate Jamal Khashoggi is still fresh in everyone’s memory. Saudi Arabia is nevertheless moving in an extremely promising direction. Let us hope that outside forces do not thwart it.
The outline of a more stable Middle East, less marked by war, appears to be taking shape — if other countries will just let it. Islamic terrorism has reached its lowest level in decades, although countries remain in ruins and hotbeds of war persist. Iran’s regime seems on the road to asphyxiation. Let us hope that process is not thwarted, either.
Other countries apparently would like to follow the path that was beginning to take shape. In October 2020, Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen spoke of Oman, Indonesia, and five or six other countries that he did not name; Mauritania has also been mentioned. The more countries that are encouraged to sign the Abraham Accords, the warmer all the peace agreements in the region could become. The idea of a regional peace is not out of reach. In a mere four years, the Trump Revolution in the Middle East provided an invaluable foundation for a profound and fruitful transformation of the region.
The new Biden administration is already threatening to undermine these and other victories. It had indicated, despite worried messages from Israel and the Sunni Arab world, that it would like to return to the catastrophic nuclear “Iran deal,” The new administration claims to want to impose strict conditions on Iran’s regime, but these conditions seem to boil down to a demand that Iran respect the terms of the JCPOA, which Iran has, in fact, never respected.
Evidently perceiving an America wishing to appease Iran, the mullahs announced on January 4 that they had decided to resume enriching uranium to the 20% level, close to the purity used for nuclear weapons. The same day, the mullahs seized a South Korean-flagged chemical tanker in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Biden administration also seems eager to restore U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and reconnect with its leaders — without doing anything about their support for terrorism, treating them again, as “partners for peace,” no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, and attempting to move toward renewed support yet again for a potentially lethal “two-state solution.”
US and world pressure on Israel may intensify
American pressure on Israel may intensify and go hand-in-hand with other pressures. On January 11, the French and German foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo with their Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, issued a statement affirming their “commitment to a two-state solution that ensures the emergence of an independent and viable Palestinian state on the basis of June 4, 1967 lines” – a mere armistice line that has been called “Auschwitz borders” for its clear unsustainability.
If the sanctions against Iran are lifted, it is positioned to acquire nuclear weapons within weeks, according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Other countries in the region would probably do everything possible to acquire nuclear weapons too, and regional nuclear proliferation, probably impossible to stop, would likely be set in motion.
After three years of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, negotiated by Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, may seem like good news and a step in the right direction. Qatar’s close ties with Iran, however, make it likely that Qatar accepted the agreement with the consent of Iran — undoubtedly seeking to strengthen its credibility with Biden’s new team, as well as its own geostrategic position.
Presumably Iran can only want to weaken the agreements between Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco and Sudan. On January 18, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said that the time had come for the leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council to “broker negotiations with Iran to patch up their differences.”
China reached agreements with Iran in July 2020 and, on its self-declared quest for world domination, presumably intends to expand its role as a major regional player in the service of the enemies of the United States and peace.
A Biden administration might not directly touch the Abraham Accords but could be tempted, by a passion to re-engage Iran, seriously to weaken them. Some members of Congress are questioning the planned sales of F-35 aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, even though the Israeli government does not oppose it. Some members of Congress have also expressed their interest in suing the struggling new democratic government of Sudan — in a cynical attempt to undermine it — for its past links to terrorism, which occurred under the previous regime.
The incoming Biden administration said they are also considering challenging Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which, again, would empower Iran, cited by the U.S. as the “world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism,” and Hezbollah, but raise tensions with stable, peace-seeking American allies such as Israel and Morocco.
The transformations that have taken place in the Middle East since 2017 are remarkable but, as was seen in the Second Word War, even the strongest countries can conceivably be destroyed.
“The Middle East,” wrote Middle East expert Mordechai Kedar, “is built on sand dunes that change their shape according to the prevailing winds.” It is to be hoped that the prevailing winds will not change to the point of sweeping away what is the greatest transformation that has taken place in more than seven decades in a region so often ravaged by war, and that a return to past mistakes will not lead once again to sand dunes covered in blood.
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.