The Arab-Israeli Peace Process has returned to international attention with the signing of the Abraham Peace Accords in 2020. These are a series of US brokered agreements, which have normalised relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Further treaties negotiated at the same time similarly normalised Israeli relations with Morocco and Sudan. In one fell swoop, these agreements have more than doubled the number of Arab countries to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, and may help lead to a new era of “peace, security and prosperity in the Middle East.”
These four treaties contain similar declarations, affirming the rights of all believers of Abrahamic religions to live in peace in the Middle East, committing to greater economic integration between Israel and its new Arab partners, and securing a “realistic and enduring” settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While this is by no means the first declaration to envisage a resolution to that conflict, it is hoped that through growing regional cooperation, a truly equitable compromise can be reached. These agreements have revitalised a peace process which had appeared largely stagnant. In doing so, it appears that a conclusion to this conflict, which has raged since 1948, may finally be at hand.
Certainly, attitudes have shifted since the Khartoum Summit of 1967, in which the Arab League declared that there would be “no peace”, “no recognition” and “no negotiations” with Israel in the aftermath of the Six Day War. There is a growing acceptance that conflict and mistrust are not beneficial to either side, particularly in a region where sectarian conflict rages unabated to this day. Nonetheless, the question remains whether these wider Arab-Israeli agreements will help to settle the Palestinian predicament, or if the current situation will continue.
The Camp David Agreements of 1978 provided the first real commitment towards peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the creation of Israel in 1948 out of the former British Mandate of Palestine, it took four devastating wars, in 1948 itself, 1956, 1967 and 1973, for any sort of framework towards peace to emerge. The Camp David Accords included only Egypt and Israel, but the settlement has proven successful to this day. Under the agreement, both sides agreed to recognise the right of the other to exist and to live in peace, whilst provisions were made for the Sinai to be returned to Egypt (it had previously been occupied by Israel after the 1967 war) and the Suez Canal as well as the Straits of Tiran to be opened to Israeli vessels. Given that the closure of these waterways had been previously regarded as a casus belli by Israel, such commitments did much to assuage tensions between the two countries. The agreement was widely lauded, with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods now flowing between the two nations each year, as well as increasing military and strategic cooperation. Indeed, both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this normalisation of ties between their two nations. However, the agreement was conspicuous in its failure to properly address certain issues. The Framework for Peace in the Middle East, which was part of the Camp David Accords, was rejected by the United Nations and made only limited references to Palestinian autonomy and self-governance, ultimately leading to Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League and Sadat’s assassination just a few years later. The charge levelled by some at the peace process is that the truly difficult issues have been merely kicked down the road and delayed until a later date. It is far easier to recognise the existence of another country and to commit to ending violence than to agree upon the sovereignty of Jerusalem or the right to return for Palestinians, for example. As such, whilst the agreement certainly fostered amity between Israel and Egypt, tensions remained high in the Middle East as a whole.
Indeed, Operation Peace for Galilee (in which Israel invaded Lebanon to try to secure its northern border against terrorism) began just four years after Camp David, in 1982, whilst the First Intifada, which marked a significant upturn in violence between Palestinians and Israelis, commenced in 1987. The 1980s remained a febrile period in the Middle East, with peace seeming a distant and idealistic concept. However, towards the end of the decade, the conversation slowly started to shift from conflict to negotiations, as Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) finally endorsed a two-state solution and recognised the right of Israel to exist. After five years of negotiations, often conducted via proxy and unbeknownst to the rest of world, the first settlement between Israel and the Palestinian people was reached: the Oslo Accords of 1993.
In many ways, reaching such an agreement was unparalleled. The PLO, whom Israel had previously considered a terrorist organisation, were now signing accords with a state that they had once sworn to wipe off the map. The agreement provided for full recognition of both sides and a commitment to end terrorism and live in “peaceful coexistence.” Indeed, the image of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands in front of the White House has become the iconic image of the peace process. Following the Oslo Accords, the Wadi Araba Treaty (which normalised relations between Israel and Jordan) and a second agreement in 1995 gave hope that an enduring peace could be reached, but relations quickly deteriorated.
Despite the Oslo Accords, violence continued, including the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre, in which 29 Muslims were killed by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist. At the same Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist organisation that denies the right of Israel to exist and currently governs the Gaza Strip, began orchestrating greater numbers of suicide bombings. Indeed, the future negotiations which the Oslo Accords envisaged would cover “Jerusalem, refugees, settlements…and other issues of common interest” never succeeded, as these contentious issues, which the Oslo Accords had merely committed to dealing with at another time, were never resolved. The Camp David II summit in 2000 aimed to address these problems, but was shortly followed by the Second Intifada, in which over four thousand deaths occurred in under five years. The budding goodwill of Oslo had quickly evaporated.
Since then, there have been several efforts to pursue a settlement between Israel and Palestine, mostly focusing on the proposed two-state solution, which envisages an independent Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza next to the Israeli state. However, peace talks have proven ineffective, with the most recent conflict, Operation Protective Edge, taking place in 2014. This saw an Israeli military incursion into Gaza, in response to the abduction and murders of three Israeli teenagers.
Similarly, peace between Israel and its wider Arab neighbours seemed elusive until the normalisation agreements signed late last year. Despite Palestinian objections, there have already been tangible signs of progress, such as the opening of the Israeli diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi and flights between Israel and the UAE. However, many Arab nations have suggested that they will not countenance a settlement with Israel whilst the Palestinian question remains unresolved, and it is thus probable that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have to be fully resolved before complete Arab-Israeli peace can be achieved. As such, whilst the Abraham Accords may not directly lead to the conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Arab-Israeli conflict, they do provide further impetus to the peace process and bring greater stability to a region so often wracked by conflict.