30 August, 2021.
Whether one is enthused or abhorred by Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco a year ago, mediators and negotiators should carefully study their distinctive incorporation of references to tradition and its potential utility for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – indeed, for international negotiations in general. A year since the announcement of the accords, their contested politics should not prevent one from dispassionately examining it as a case study for the drawing on religion and culture in order to advance peacebuilding.
The Nature and Meaning of References to Tradition in the Abraham Accords
At first glance the Abraham Accords seem similar to previous peace accords Israel signed with Arab states. They are contractual agreements which determine the character of relations between states according to international law and the rights it grants. However, the Abraham Accords are distinct because they incorporate into the legal, rights-based framework of a diplomatic agreement explicit, operative references to the cultural and religious traditions of the Middle East – Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The operative dimension stems from referring to the traditions as part of the act of endowing legal recognition. The recognizing party commits to act in the future in light of the content of the recognition.
“The Abraham Accords are distinct because they incorporate into the legal, rights-based framework of a diplomatic agreement explicit, operative references to the cultural and religious traditions of the Middle East – Jewish, Christian and Muslim”
The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan have all signed, along with Israel, the Abraham Accords Declaration. This umbrella declaration approves of general ethical principles such as peace, mutual understanding and coexistence, and refers to the three monotheistic faiths as “Abrahamic religions”. The Israel-UAE agreement goes a few steps further. Its preamble includes the following sentence: “Recognizing that the Arab and Jewish peoples are descendant of a common ancestor, Abraham, and inspired, in that spirit, to foster in the Middle East a reality in which Muslims, Jews, Christians and peoples of all faiths, denominations, beliefs and nationalities live in, and are committed to, a spirit of coexistence, mutual understanding and mutual respect”.
The potential value of this atypical statement for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is palpable when it is contrasted with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) position. PLO leaders habitually describe the State of Israel as the product of a foreign colonial movement, of European origins, whose very establishment is unjust. The PLO’s position toward the State of Israel did significantly evolve in 1988 when the Palestinian Declaration of Independence determined that though Israel’s establishment inflicted historic injustice upon Palestinians, it was based on the U.N. partition resolution (181). There is therefore international legal legitimacy to the establishing of both states, side by side. This enabled the 1993 PLO recognition of the State of Israel. But in the absence of a two state agreement there has not been a change in its attitude to Israel’s national character. Namely, the PLO continues deeming Jews solely as a religion, not as a people. And it sees the State of Israel as a colonial wrong. Based on these assumptions, the PLO hitherto claimed that Israel’s national character is a domestic affair of its citizens. In recent years, several of its leaders publicly objected to ever recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people or as a Jewish state – the two formulas former Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded for concluding successful negotiations so that the agreement would express deep ideological transformation among Palestinians and thus enable durable peace.
The references to Abraham as a common ancestor in the first agreement in the series, between Israel and the UAE, have set the overall tone and indicate a different position regarding at least three meaningful components: First, deeming Arabs and Jews as peoples; namely, there is an explicit reference to Jews as a people, and not only as adherents of a religion. Second, portraying Jews as Abraham’s descendants, an ancestor who is emblematic for his Middle Eastern origins. That is, characterizing Jews as an indigenous people in the Middle East. And third, the very choice to conceptualize the series of Arab-Israeli agreements as the Abraham Accords, which draw their inspiration from the peoples’ common ancestor. To wit, the State of Israel implicitly represents at least a significant portion of the Jews, and so much so that it is appropriate to sign with it a series of treaties named after the forefather of Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Arabs.
One should not go as far as claiming that this formulation amounts to explicit recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. But those asking why Israel ignored the question of its national character in its agreement with the UAE yet insists on it with the Palestinians are both wrong and misleading in claiming that the matter was entirely obviated. Furthermore, this formulation, which relies on Islam’s theological recognition of Judaism, grants a form of recognition which Netanyahu’s formulas do not: recognition of the Jewish people’s and Jewish faith’s historic indigenousness in the Middle East.
“Once an agreement seems to advance a prophecy or a commandment, it can connect to potent religious motivations, securing political backing even from unexpected quarters”
The enthusiastic welcome for the Abraham Accords in the Israeli Right and among U.S. Evangelicals should not however be taken for granted. Many among these constituencies have backed expansive Israeli annexation of West Bank areas – biblically known as Judea and Samaria – yet supported the Abraham Accords even though the two proved to be mutually exclusive. In addition to the above-mentioned ways in which the Abrahamic framing deeply touched nationalists in the Israeli Right, it also touched deep religious motivations. For instance, some prominent U.S. Evangelicals described the normalization agreements as a fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham (“and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”, Genesis 12:3). They saw the agreements as a vehicle for bestowing God’s blessing through the Jews to other peoples, residing in the Arab normalizing countries, for instance in the form of innovative Israeli technologies like anti-desertification. Similarly, some prominent religious Zionists saw in the agreements a form of recognition of Jewish indigenousness, in line with prophecies that the nations of the world would rejoice when Jews would return to their homeland. Once an agreement seems to advance a prophecy or a commandment, it can connect to potent religious motivations, securing political backing even from unexpected quarters.
Bahrain and Sudan signed the Abraham Accords Declaration but avoided including in their treaties explicit reference to Jews as a people or to Abraham as their ancestor, apparently due to commonplace domestic calculations. They nevertheless did decide to implicitly deem Israel as representing both Judaism and Jews by virtue of the agreements’ appellation. This both links Israel to Jews and alludes to the indigenousness of Jews in the Middle East. Morocco’s decision to avoid any mention of the Abrahamic terminology stands in sharp contrast even to these limited references, but this did not prevent the U.S. administration and the Israeli government from characterizing it in official statements as part of the Abraham Accords. This variety demonstrates that references to tradition can be thicker or thinner and that there might be ways for one party to an agreement to reject them while another signatory emphasizes them.
Referring to Tradition in Future Israeli-Palestinian Agreements?
The contrast between the anti-colonial and Abrahamic positions points up to the following question: would a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement address the parties’ traditions?
One way to do so would be placing a future Israeli-Palestinian agreement under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords. The Abraham Accords are based on the Abraham Accords Declaration whose broad ethical statements likely pose no substantive problems to Palestinian leaders. However, the agreements so far recognized Israel’s status and rights but avoided recognizing the status and rights of Palestinians. They also frustrated a widespread Palestinian expectation that Arab-Israeli normalization would follow Israeli-Palestinian peace, rather than precede it. These in part are why prominent Palestinian clerics have issued a religious ruling (fatwa) banning condemning the use of Abrahamic terminology to describe the normalization agreements. To the extent that Palestinian elites in the West Bank in Gaza related to this framing it was mostly in claiming that it misuses or abuses the exalted values which Islam associates with the figure of Abraham, notably justice. Though the PLO partially repaired its relationship with the UAE and Bahrain after the announcement of Biden’s victory in U.S. elections, Palestinian hostility toward the Abraham Accords may well endure. Whether the Abrahamic framing could nevertheless be embraced by Palestinians likely depends among other things on whether Arab normalizing countries would take bold public positions and actions which affirm the status and rights of Palestinians and on possible positive mention of the status of Palestinians in any further self-styled Abraham Accords.
“References to tradition could win greater backing for an agreement also from Palestinians of Islamist leanings. In light of internal divisions among Palestinians, such broad popular support could be a major asset”.
An altogether different way would be to seek an independent Israeli-Palestinian agreement which intentionally and carefully refers to the traditions of the parties. An agreement could refer to Abrahamic terminology without framing itself as part of the Abraham Accords. It could also rely on other potent traditions and prophecies. Obviating the Abrahamic terminology could also be beneficial because the Abrahamic analogy of a common family has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, it also perilously evokes in the minds of some the feud between Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, the purported ancestors of Jews and Muslims. And it risks entrenching masculine dominance in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In contrast, Palestinian leaders would likely find it easier to recognize Jewish indigenousness by referring to Muslim (and Christian) traditions which affirm Judaism’s Middle Eastern roots. Jewish and Islamic jurisprudence might offer other constructive avenues. These traditions can also provide a variety of legal concepts in order to shape or brace a future agreement. Carefully done, such references to tradition could win greater backing for an agreement also from Palestinians of Islamist leanings. In light of internal divisions among Palestinians, such broad popular support could be a major asset.
Previous peace agreements did not refer to the traditions of the parties, perhaps due to a fear that dealing with deep identity-related matters would lead negotiations to a cul-de-sac. The conventional liberal-secular approach avoided dealing with traditional beliefs and values, sticking instead to purportedly universal norms. However, it appears that precise, thoughtful use of traditional vocabulary, in a manner acknowledging all sides, can in fact deliver meaningful understandings, which would secure support from critical constituencies.
Israelis and Palestinians currently differ as to whether the Abraham Accords themselves should become an umbrella for future agreements. But the Accords should underline to both that it is high time to explore whether through Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions it is possible to meaningfully refer to the status and rights of both Jews and Palestinians. All the more so when it appears that the decision to obviate these traditions contributed to the impasse in which negotiators have been caught for decades.
The Abraham Accords underline the potential value of referencing tradition in diplomatic efforts not only in the Arab-Israeli context, but for conflict transformation worldwide. Indeed, both the achievements and the limitations of the accords suggest that scholars and practitioners alike would do well to draw more on the growing body of literature which examines the nexus between religion and conflict studies.
Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East Program Director, Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation
The views expressed are those of the author.