Beyond the Middle East: ‘Abraham Accords’ and Israel’s Pivot to Asia
Claudia De Martino 16 December 2020

It was long ago (1967) that the Arab League’s summit convened in Khartoum rejected Israel as a legitimate member state of the Middle East and the community of nations by pronouncing the famous three Nos: “No” to peace with Israel, “No” to its recognition and “No” to (future) negotiations with it. Two years later, in 1969, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) – an umbrella organization that brings together 57 Muslim states from Malaysia to Mauritania, as well as states with significant Muslim minorities, such as Russia and India — was established in Morocco. Its first declaration was issued to target Israel and cast “the Zionist movement as a racial, aggressive and expansionist movement conflicting with all the noble human ideals and constituting a permanent threat to world peace”. (First Islamic Summit in Rabat 1389 H.–September 1969).

As two Middle East Policy Council scholars have noted, the OIC was instituted “in response to an arson attack upon the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (that…, though) condemned by the Israeli government, was interpreted by many in the Muslim world as proof of the Israeli determination to destroy the Islamic holy site” (Akbarzadeh&Connor, “The Organization Of The Islamic Conference: Sharing An Illusion”, Middle East Policy Council, 12, 2005). Israel thus lay at the core of the OIC’s founding as a bulwark standing against the violation of Islamic interests and values throughout the world and was then publicly loathed and ostracized by all Muslim countries and most Non-aligned ones. It comes as no surprise that, for decades, Tel Aviv perceived itself as an isolated Western island in a hostile Sea of enemies. This insular state-of-mind identified the Jewish people as standing alone throughout history, and even more when the state of Israel was formed in 1948 and immediately encircled. This angst has come despite a special relationship with the U.S. and ongoing diplomatic support from most Western European countries, particularly Germany.

In the 60 years since the end of the Six Day War, the Middle East has changed radically. In hindsight, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential demise of most Communist parties throughout Europe entailed the progressive waning of international solidarity with the Palestinian cause in European countries and the gradual erosion of awareness in international public opinion. The Palestinian question remained at the centre of the U.N. agenda but lost genuine and primary grassroots support among non-Muslim Leftist parties throughout the world. The Muslim states closed ranks around the Palestinian cause, but no longer seemed ready to “spill blood” or take foreign policy risks on its behalf. And no matter how supportive Muslim public opinion might have been, their ruling classes adopted a low profile at times of confrontation. They also fully embraced and supported the Oslo Accords, which is what paved the way for a diplomatic understanding between the two warring parties. However, accepting Oslo as a new baseline for peace negotiations already marked a breakthrough compared to the position defended up until then. The 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative definitively marked this change of mind and made it visible in the international arena. The Arab countries were willing to open up to Israel once the Palestinian issue was settled once and for all. Israel could have readily seized that opportunity for a regional breakthrough had it not been so concentrated on domestic security issues (the ongoing Second Intifada) and its own demographic project to secure as much Palestinian land as possible within the new green-line (the Border Fence, built after the year 2002), with as many Palestinians as it could.

Since the failure of the Saudi Initiative and the setback of the last Convergence (Peace) Plan initiated by the Olmert Government (2006), the Arab world essentially threw in the towel and assumed the Palestinians a lost cause, only to retreat to boycott campaigns and official ritual declarations “against the Israeli occupation” in international diplomatic fora. The “Arab street” may not have seen the change coming, but the political switch towards the Jewish state was impending already in the early 2000s, coming to light 20 years later, with the Abraham Accords – the “peace agreements” signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on 19 August 2020. This move, sponsored by the U.S. Trump Administration, capitalized on the Gulf countries’ willingness to kick-start a new regional balance with the strong, though covert, backing of more conservative and public opinion-influenced Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt (and the more distant Morocco). In the space of a summer, the Trump Administration defined its legacy. The Middle East’s traditional balance—one that viewed the most powerful regional power, Israel, as a “rogue state”—was overturned, with the leading regional economic powers re-aligning in a new regional configuration pressing for opening up new avenues of trade and cooperation within the Middle East.

Most Arab states, though with notable exceptions (the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, primarily, with Qatar and Kuwait to follow), decided to turn the page and resort to cooperation with Israel and accept the Abraham Accords. Yet most non-Muslim and some Muslim Asian countries in Israel’s outer foreign policy circle had already embarked on this project in the early 1990s, not budging an inch since. This opening was quickly capitalized on by Israel, which swiftly realized its strategic interest in reaching out to Asian countries beyond the inner Arab circle. In so doing it doubled down on the strategy it had employed from the 1960s to the 1980s in wooing states in the south and west of sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, it currently enjoys full diplomatic relations with 41 out of 46 sub-Saharan African countries and has embassies in 11 out of 54 African countries (Jewish Virtual Library, “Israel’s International Relations: Cooperation with Africa”, 2020).


The Asian marathon

First and foremost in Asia came India, whose ties with the Jewish state include covert security and technology cooperation, and who enthusiastically hailed the Abraham Accords as a positive game-changer paving the way for a renewed regional stability in the Middle East. Ambassador Virendra Gupta even declared to a state T.V. channel that: “Today countries do not stick to ideological frameworks. We have 9 million people living in the Gulf countries and we are getting oil from them. The Abraham Accords could shake the Gulf countries’ dependency from Pakistan and pushed them to launch new security agreements with India. It is a win-win situation for India”. (Rajya Sabha T.V., 21/9/2020).

India was part of the Non-aligned, pro-Palestinian grouping after Israel’s foundation. However, since the BJP Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party) came to power with a strong Hindu nationalist orientation, bilateral relations have rapidly improved, reaching their current apex. India has sought advanced weapons from Israel (Israel is India’s second-most important source of military imports in 2020) in order to balance the two competing powerhouses in the region—Pakistan, with its huge military, and the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, as H.D. Kumaraswamy, a former Chief Minister of India’s Karnataka state, highlighted, India had an additional interest in boosting relations with Israel, that of reaching out to the U.S.: “India did not wish to find itself in the situation China found itself in, when military ties with Israel would be subjected to U.S. whims”. Moreover, as an exception in the Asian continent, India could even aspire to an ideological legitimacy underpinning this realignment and dress up the narrative: “All three countries have some fundamental similarities: We are all democracies, sharing a common vision of pluralism, tolerance, and equal opportunities” (Kumaraswamy, 2010). So far, no Indian party has ever argued against full Indian-Israeli diplomatic relations since their establishment in January 1992.

On the opposite side, Pakistan, the second-most populous Muslim country with over 216 million people, is resisting normalization with Israel. Pakistan is already in a bad spot, ridden politically by its two main sponsors, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but mostly relying on the latter for economic aid in terms of deferred oil payments, employment of Pakistani migrant workers, as well as incoming remittances (worth $2 billion). It may even be surprising in the first place to think of Pakistan as an elective candidate queueing up for normalization with Israel, but the two countries share some common features. Both share a British colonial past and are currently major recipients of U.S. military aid. Moreover, as Jacob Abadi rightly points out, “both countries found necessary to invest enormous resources in national security to fend off for their existence among hostile neighbours and both are founded on religious ideologies”. (Abadi, Israel’s Quest for Recognition and Acceptance in Asia, 2004).

Despite this common ground, Israeli-Pakistani relations have experienced numerous ebbs and flows: In the 90s Pakistan even concluded Israel was behind plans to attack its nuclear reactor in Kahuta. In addition, Pakistan’s rulers, no matter what their political orientation, fear the mass of their illiterate fellow citizens easily swayed by Islamic fundamentalists, who will likely exploit any opening to Israel. Indeed, no later than last October, masses belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami rallied in the tens of thousands to blast Israel’s deal with the UAE. However, Pakistan is torn between its reactionary and hot-blooded public opinion and the ruling army’s long-term strategic interest in courting the U.S. and opposing India. This was the main reason behind Pakistan’s backdoor agreement on the non-transfer of nuclear technology to Iran dating back to the 1980s.

Benazir Bhutto came close to recognizing Israel but stopped one step short, for fear of domestic acts of vengeance. However, many diplomats covertly admit that if Israel were to show support for a resolution of the Kashmir conflict and the Mossad were to refrain from training Indian officers, this could be a fresh start for the two countries eventually leading to normalization. No later than a month ago, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed in a T.V. interview that in line with “Gulf states’ normalization of relations with Israel, the United States and another country (were) pressuring Islamabad to recognize Israel”. In his last T.V. appearance, Khan even softened his tone on Israel declaring that “accommodation with the Zionist would be possible if the Palestinians would get a just settlement” (Ha’aretz, 22/11/2020). This statement was a sign of his willingness to weigh his own words in an attempt to prepare bit by bit an indomitable domestic public opinion, ready to set fire to whole towns for much less (see the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan Islamist protests of mid-November in Islamabad against Charlie Hebdo’s re-publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons).

The Israeli-UAE-Bahrain “peace deal” could also broker new contact with further distant and traditionally unfriendly populous Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The relevance of Indonesia in international relations should not go unnoticed. It is the world’s largest Muslim country but also the largest ASEAN member and a democracy, thus exerting a considerable “soft power” in Southeast Asia, and it displays a non-confessional government belonging to the Non-aligned front. Having shied away from Israel to support the Palestinian cause for many years, when the Oslo Accords were signed, Indonesia agreed to a diplomatic visit by Rabin, the first of its kind. A year later, Abdurrahman Wahid, chief of one the main Islamist parties (Nahadatul Ulama) made a trip to Israel upon invitation by an Israeli University (the Truman Institute) publicly conceding its country “could learn much from the Israelis in many areas”, and particularly in technology. Unofficial contacts between the two countries never ceased since but did not warm up either.

However, UAE’s pressure on the country to open up to Israel could prove a game-changer. In fact, the UAE is one of Indonesia’s closest partners in the Middle East, and bilateral ties have strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic as Indonesia has benefitted greatly from UAE aid and assistance. The two signed $22.89 billion worth of investment and business deals in 2020, spanning sectors such as energy, petrochemicals and port development. In addition, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority has been leading talks to establish Indonesia’s sovereign wealth fund with a target of $5 billion in seed capital (Nikkei Asia, 27/10/2020). Further pressure from the U.S. Biden Administration, were it willing to double down on the normalization line established by President Trump, could eventually push Indonesia to review and reassess its relations with Israel, particularly in exchange for advantageous financial aid and pharmaceutical contracts. Enhanced bilateral contacts and the UAE’s covert trade diplomacy have prompted analysts to a cautious optimism in this regard: “The Abraham Accords ultimately came about because the Middle East has changed. Indonesia, like fellow OIC member states the UAE and Bahrain, will hopefully also find creative ways to engage with the opportunities in the emerging – and very promising – “new Middle East” (The Jakarta Post, 5/10/2020).

What about Malaysia? As a Muslim-majority constitutional monarchy, it is among the most vocal opponents of Israel. The latter’s involvement in the Singapore independence conflict in 1965 seems to have dug a ditch between the two countries. Moreover, back then, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia pressured the South Asian country to sever ties with Israel in retaliation. Malaysia strongly supported the 1975 U.N. Assembly Declaration condemning Zionism as a form of racism, and in 1979 it even introduced an annual commemoration devoted to the “al-Aqsa mosque” to remind all Muslim of its state of captivity, while boosting ties with Iran. In 1994, Prime Minister Mahathir went as far as dismissing the Shoah as Jewish propaganda, but the same year the brother of the King, Tengku Abdullah Abdul Rahman, met with Rabin and Peres in Israel for their first-ever high-level official encounter. Now, Malaysia has boldly rejected the Abraham Accords and encouraged the OIC to unanimously back Palestine in its quest for independence. However, the country is not satisfied grouping with the Muslim Brotherhood bloc (Qatar, Iran, Turkey), since it cherishes its ties with the Sunni/Wahhabi bloc (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain), and particularly with Egypt, whose foreign policy approach to Israel it used to share.

Moreover, Malaysia has ambitions to portray itself as an advanced Muslim-majority country, successfully combining tradition and modernity, like the UAE. That is why the two countries have developed a strong bond as leading models for Islamic economies embracing progress. In addition, Malaysia has much to gain from concrete spill-overs from the Abraham Accords, such as the boost to tourism, which will eventually follow the COVID 19 pandemic. The Israel Transportation Ministry announced 28 new direct weekly flights connecting Tel Aviv with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which will make it easier for Indians and Chinese to travel to the Middle East and South Asia, benefitting Malaysian tourism and business travel. Malaysia will now have the chance to use the UAE and other Sunni Middle Eastern countries as middlemen in trade with Israel in jewellery, electrical and electronic products, and processed food, which rank among its leading exports. Normalization with Israel may not be around the corner, as no vital military interest is at play in bilateral relations, but Malaysia is likely to show less interest in raising its voice on Palestine in the near future.

The Abraham Accords have indeed ushered a new reality in the Middle East, one that could potentially unleash new trade and tourism connections among a wide range of countries and open new routes to Asia. In 1994, Uri Savir—then foreign minister under Shimon Peres —announced Israel’s interest in reaching out to distant Muslim countries in Asia and Africa to establish full diplomatic relations. The main reason was the need to enhance Israel’s diplomatic standing among Muslim countries before the beginning of final-status negotiations over Jerusalem. Peres reiterated Israel’s project to make a pivot to Asia, a continent free of the pernicious anti-Semitism that had plagued Israel-EU relations. Israel’s standing among those countries was high. The little Jewish state emerged as a technological and military powerhouse able to fend for itself and to stand up to Islamist threats. Israel already enjoys good relations with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan (although the latter two belong to Central Asia). The Abraham Accords could facilitate Israel’s further penetration into the Asian continent in terms of trade, as well as military and cultural ties. Certainly, no matter what portends the future of Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan under the Biden’s Administration, the Abraham Accord’s effects are here to stay.


Cover Photo: Palestinian Foreign Minster Riyad al-Maliki (R) speaking at an emergency ministerial meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – Jeddah, February 3, 2020 (Amer HILABI / AFP)

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