They can lead to peace in the Middle East, but only if the U.S. stops moralizing and takes Iranian threats seriously.
By Ed Husain
‘You can always trust the Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else,” Winston Churchill is said to have quipped. This week marks the third anniversary of one such “right thing”: the Abraham Accords. Announced on Aug. 13, 2020, and ratified the following month, the agreements heralded a new beginning of peace in the Middle East as several Arab nations agreed to normalize relations with Israel. The previous five American presidents tried “everything else” with Palestinian leaders and failed. The Abraham Accords broke that streak.
The agreements are premised on three big ideas. The first is that a collective security arrangement among Arab countries, Israel and the U.S. should be implemented to protect ordinary citizens from Islamist extremism. Egypt, Jordan and Turkey had long been warm to the idea, but other Muslim countries resisted, fearful of triggering radical uprisings. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was assassinated two years after signing peace with Israel at Camp David.
Yet with mounting regional threats and a new generation of Arab leaders, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—with the quiet support of other Arab nations— agreed to a different security architecture and vision for the Middle East: namely, promoting religious co-existence and integrating Jews into the region. These decisions quickly provoked the ire of the Iranian government, which continued to wage its campaign of aggression through such groups as Hamas and Hezbollah in seizing oil tankers, shooting at vessels in international waters, and threatening any leader who engages with Israel.
It is no accident that the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthis chant as their slogan “Death to America. Death to Israel.” Still, many U.S. regional allies often see America as harsh and moralistic toward friends yet respectful toward adversaries. The Abraham Accords present an opportunity to reset that dynamic.
The second idea underlying the accords is that a wave of prosperity would follow from regional economic cooperation. Israel is home to a blossoming Silicon Valley. The Tel Aviv neighborhood of Sarona is buzzing with billions of American dollars chasing the latest innovations in technology and artificial intelligence. And a new generation of Arabs want to savor the fruits of Israel’s commercial prosperity.
Take Saudi Arabia, around 60% of whose people are under 30. To uplift its country, Riyadh is attempting to build Neom and al-Ula—a smart mega city and cultural-heritage project, respectively—that are only a short flight from Tel Aviv. The Middle East is home to sovereign wealth funds worth some $4 trillion. Saudi Arabia and Israel are engaged in peace talks for a simple reason: They want to elevate their citizens’ quality of life.
That requires a strong government backed by reliable military capabilities. Those aspirations weren’t realized by the 2011 Arab Spring, when uprisings led to chaos, the rise of ISIS and attacks on the American homeland. The U.S. is positioned to offer the necessary strength for stability, yet it risks undermining this delicate regional balance by seeking to impose its political values on other nations. It should instead focus on being a model democracy at home.
The third idea is a recognition that the Middle East is home to new power centers. For much of the last century, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were loci of nationalist-socialist revolutions. As each city pursued Soviet-style economic policies, it collapsed and left a void for religious extremism to fill.
Royal sheikhs in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh now set the current regional order and market-based competitive tone. Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the royalty’s significance and included them, particularly King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia