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Real progress toward peace in the Middle East

Robert Nicholson | Lessons from the Abraham Accords


President Donald Trump and officials from Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates wave from the Blue Balcony of the White House during the signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

Real progress toward peace in the Middle East
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What can a growing peace movement between Arabs and Israel teach us about productive engagement with the Islamic world? For the United States, a country reeling from its failure in Afghanistan but still called to deal with dozens of countries that represent the world’s second-largest religious community, it’s an important question.

The so-called “Abraham Accords,” a set of loosely connected peace deals signed by Israel and five Muslim-majority countries at the end of 2020, took the world by storm, normalizing the Jewish state’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and Kosovo in quick succession. For a region that hadn’t seen peace in a century, the announcement was an unexpected ray of light. But it hit the foreign policy establishment hard, disproving the old theory that Arab-Israeli peace was impossible without a final deal with the Palestinians. Indeed, the new approach had been successful precisely because it had broken the old rules. It offers a bold new model of diplomacy that is less conventional but more realistic than what the United States has been trying these last 20 years.

Its first lesson is obvious: Take interests seriously. Last year’s breakthrough came not because of interreligious dialogue or cross-cultural understanding. It came because of secret military and intelligence cooperation between Arabs and Israelis against the looming threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The goodwill came later, and that shouldn’t be surprising. Peace never starts with goodwill—it produces goodwill. It starts with mutual concerns about national security, because nations can’t think about peace when they feel threatened. The instinct to survive has historically been the best argument for peaceful coexistence and cooperation, and it’s the duty of wise statesmen and women to harness that instinct to reduce net hostilities over time.

The second lesson is also clear: Show some respect. The United States spent two decades trying to recreate Afghanistan and Iraq in its own liberal democratic image, just as imperial Britain planted monarchies and France secular republics. The Abraham Accords take a more modest approach, honoring the parties as they are and affirming their distinctive traditions without trying to change them. Instead of a shared creed, they preach mutual respect, recognizing a shared heritage in Abraham without demanding uniformity among his children. We often think about peace as love, but respect is the better metaphor.

The third lesson: Don’t avoid religion. Even secular people in the Islamic world tend to be more religious than their Western counterparts, unapologetic in their particularism, and ready to defend faith and fatherland on pain of death. Yet the Ivy League-trained peacemaker presents himself to the region as a disinterested observer, a neutral friend of Muslims and Jews who brings no beliefs or agenda of his own. In a region where everyone belongs to some tradition, this posture looks suspicious. The expectation isn’t to hide one’s faith, but to profess it openly while affirming the role that religion plays in political life.

The fourth, and related, lesson: Own your biases. Donald Trump was an unlikely catalyst for peace between Jews and Arabs, but it was his extreme candor that made the whole thing possible. Unlike previous presidents, Trump didn’t try to present himself as an “honest broker.” He admitted what Muslims already knew: that Americans are strong supporters of Israel who feel an ardent love for Zion. Trump’s awkward confession was expected to start a world war, but it only made his call for U.S.-Arab friendship more credible. Peacemaking doesn’t preclude bias; it just asks the parties to keep it in check.

The final lesson: Take what you can get. Critics complain that the Abraham Accords fail to secure full peace with the Palestinians or address the human rights violations of the parties. But in a region devastated by war, every handshake brings the temperature down one more degree, rolling back the climate of hatred and making room for a deal with the Palestinians. Of course, we should be vigilant when dealing with flawed regimes to ensure that we’re never used to sanction evil, but every government is flawed, including our own. Total moral satisfaction is impossible in relations between states, and yet it is states that make war and thus to states that we must look for peace. No treaty is lasting or complete, but no treaty at all is often far worse.

The problem in Afghanistan was that we hoped for too much, believing that our power could change hearts and minds given the right intentions. The Abraham Accords offer a humbler approach better suited to the texture of the region, less complete than we would like but nevertheless responsible for increased stability and hope for millions of people. We would be wise to study its lessons—and learn from them.


Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.

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