It's hard to believe it's been almost a year and a half since Israel signed the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and subsequently with Bahrain. Soon after, Sudan and Morocco announced they would normalize relations with Israel, which now has ambassadors in the UAE, in Bahrain, and in Morocco.
A special alignment of interests led the signatories to this first step toward normalizing relations with Israel after a 27-year pause in new peace accords. (The last peace agreement Israel signed was with Jordan-in 1994.) Can these new accords be leveraged to advance the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians?
For decades, the Arab nations stood by the Palestinians in their struggle. The Arab world by and large supported and continues to support the Palestinian claim to lands that Israel occupies by virtue of United Nations Resolution 181 from 1947 dividing the land into separate states, or by virtue of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. In that war, Israel captured the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt (as well as other territories not claimed by the Palestinians). Even Egypt and Jordan, signatories of peace accords with Israel, continue to support the Palestinian cause--despite Palestinian anger at the normalization of relations with Israel.
The Gulf states, too, have long supported the Palestinian case and even participated in the economic boycott of Israel. But eventually the Gulf states became weary with the Palestinian leadership, deemed by many to have been intransigent in the face of Israeli peace offers. The rise of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip further alienated moderate Arab regimes. In the face of the threat posed by Shi'ite Iran to both Israel and moderate Sunni regimes in the region, the binary conflict of Arab world vs. Israel has largely morphed into a binary of Iran (and its proxies, including Hezbollah) against most others in the region.
In this new Middle East, the Palestinian cause--while still a thorn in the Arab side--is no longer reason enough for moderate Arab regimes to abstain from normalizing relations with Israel and gaining important economic and geo-strategic advantages. These interests, including the need to coordinate a position vis-à-vis Iran, call for a more practical position regarding Israel. For a growing number of Arab nations, their own national interests are more important than a Pan-Arab united front in support of the Palestinians, especially with the advent of Hamas, which receives no sympathy among moderate Arabs.
Ironically, while the Palestinians feel abandoned by the Arab world as it forges cooperation with Israel, their cause could actually benefit from Israel's growing network of relations. For example, the Gulf states (and eventually Saudi Arabia) could play a helpful role as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, offering important economic incentives to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for moving forward on a negotiations process. Their historic support of the Palestinian cause would enable them to prod the Palestinian leadership, hitherto reluctant to advance the process for fear of conceding "Arab" territory on behalf of the Arab world.
Another possibility is for Israel's new allies in the Arab world to work together on a large-scale rehabilitation project for the Gaza Strip. It would be in their interest and especially that of Egypt to improve the standard of living in this hotspot as a counterbalance to the strongly entrenched control of Hamas over Gaza's two million Palestinians, in dire need of infrastructure overhaul. An endeavor of this magnitude would be made conditional upon Hamas stepping down after it had funneled billions of dollars in international aid toward building an impressive military capability. An international Arab presence in the Gaza Strip could ensure that violence is brought under control and eventually eliminated.
The current absence of a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not good for anyone: Israelis continue to live under constant threat of terrorism, the Palestinians are not getting closer to their aspirations for nationhood, and the entire region suffers a ripple effect of instability. There is a potential role for Gulf states, for Morocco, and even for Saudi Arabia in helping the two sides restart the stalled peace process-without, however pre-determining its course-which is better left for the sides themselves to negotiate around the table. Whether full statehood or a limited autonomy, practically any solution to our century-old conflict would be better than no solution. The Abraham Accords is an optimistic road marker along that path.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.