Left to right: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan wave from the Truman Balcony at the White House in Washington, DC, after the signing of the Abraham Accords, on September 15, 2020. Photo: AFP

The signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15 between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a real game changer for peace in the Middle East. It signals a strategic shift in Mideast politics.

It also sends a strong signal to Arab nations that the status quo is no longer an option and that they must find the courage and wisdom to pursue bolder initiatives in restoring peace and security to the region.

Instead of being a shining light that emits hope, the center of the Abrahamic religions has ruptured from within and is bleeding like a wounded heart. Until it is healed, it can never save the world or be a light to them. The Abraham Accords are named after Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic religions, for a special reason.

Jews, Muslims and Christians across the world are now being challenged by this accord to be agents for peace. As new wine needs new wineskins, the old misgivings and mistrusts between the Abrahamic religions must become things of the past.

Change: inevitable yet dangerous

The good years of petroleum-based wealth are definitely over. With the dramatic fall in the oil price and the ravaging effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on Middle Eastern economies, change was inevitable.

But initiating change in the Middle East is not for the faint-hearted, as history has shown. It takes lot of courage, faith and wisdom to overcome the endless deceits of the Machiavellians at play, and their deadly advocacy that the end justifies the means.

From the failed Camp David Accords initiated by Egypt in 1978 to the Oslo Accords initiated by Norway that were signed in 1993, the global effort to help achieve a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only managed to legitimize the Palestinian Authority as the government for the Palestinians.

The Palestinians’ struggle has largely been undermined by the infighting and corruption within the Palestinian Authority, and the political divide between Fatah and Hamas. With each promising more than they could deliver, the talk of legitimizing Palestine as a state has been more about their own political prosperity, and was doomed from the start.

On the other hand, hardliners in Israel find it hard to embrace peaceful co-existence with the Palestinians without their armed forces being in full control of both states.

Can the twain ever meet?

The new Palestinian advantage

This latest accord succeeds where both Fatah and Hamas have failed. It has not only put a stop to the Israelis’ planned annexation of disputed territories but it is contingent upon Israel to forge a fair and equitable resolution to end its conflict with the Palestinians.

It does not help when Fatah and Hamas start staging protests to evoke the emotions of the Palestinians against the accord.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, issued instructions to the Palestinians “not to make any statement or take any action that may jeopardize the accord,” knowing well that any “Intifada” or uprising against this agreement will destroy all hope of Palestine ever becoming a nation.

Making their pasts work for them

There is much that both the Palestinians and Israelis can learn from China’s mistakes in Southeast Asia. When China tried unilaterally to impose its nine-dash line to justify its claim over a large part of the South China Sea, the pushback from countries in the region was strong.

Countries, big or small, can no longer act unilaterally in today’s world. For the Chinese simply to pull out an old map to impose or rationalize their past sovereignty is like the Italians trying to reclaim territories that were once under the Roman Empire, or Turkey trying to do the same with territories that were under the Ottomans.

The mutual respect for the co-existent needs of each other is instrumental to the success of the two-state solution. They have to make their pasts work for them, and not hinder them from moving forward.

The Iranian hurdle

Iran is one of the major powers in the Middle East and has stated that is is firmly against the accord.

With high unemployment, average Iranians, like the Palestinians, are struggling to survive. When they cannot live in peace or find work to provide for their families, life becomes meaningless and contentious for many Iranians.

Peace and the creation of work that empowers humanity to live and work with dignity are the basic precepts of all of the three Abrahamic religions. Without these precepts, any advocacy by any of the Abrahamic religion becomes nothing more than a falsehood.

Iran’s rhetoric on the Sunni-Shiite divide as such is purely politically driven. It knows well that if it can gain control over the guardianship of the Islamic holy city of Mecca, it can not only legitimize its supremacy over Muslims in the region, but also across the world. It is power, and not the spirituality of Islam, to which the current Iranian government aspires.

With increased sanctions by the US, Iran has to consider reforming its foreign-engagement policy, to forge new strategic collaboration and create sustainable employment for its people before the country implodes under domestic unrest.

Political support of Russia and China

Even the Russians cannot save Iran when push comes to shove. As long as the Russians can be assured that the new Middle East will not jeopardize their security, there is no real incentive for them to be against the accord.

As the Middle East is part of western Asia, it remains an integral part of a rising Asia. With China’s Belt and Road Initiative modeled after the ancient Silk Road that connected the East to the West, there is also no real incentive for China to be working against the restoration of peace and prosperity in the region.

Even if Iran does find the political support to work against the accord, it is likely to end up like the hermit state of North Korea, and risk causing a serious fault line that may divide the northeastern region from the rest of the Middle East.

With the odds stacked against Iran, the probability of such an eventuality remains low. Even its allies will likely switch their allegiance once the accord gains greater traction.

Diplomatic offensive for hearts and minds

The meteoric rise of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror offers many valuable and relevant lessons for fostering peace in the Middle East. It was not brutal force but his clever use of diplomatic offensives that won the day for Mehmed in most of his battles.

Before every conquest, he sent emissaries ahead to assure future subjects that he was not out to destroy their lives but to alleviate their hardship and suffering under ruthless rulers. By being consistent in keeping to his promises, he persuaded even Christians to help this Islamic conqueror bring down supposedly Christian rulers who had gone rogue, and their rewards were peaceful co-existence and prosperity.

Even Sun Tzu, in The Art of War, could not articulate such powerful strategies as well as what Mehmed did in reality.

As such, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, must be applauded for taking the bold initiative to normalize ties with Israel. Like Mehmed, he is on a diplomatic offensive, mindful of the Machiavellians who are exploiting the Abrahamic religions to work against the restoration of peace, security and economic prosperity in the region for their own political gains. The battle for hearts and minds has begun.

Both Egypt and Jordan have already established diplomatic ties with Israel. With the US, the UAE and Israel now firmly behind the accord, while Saudi Arabia has agreed to open up its airspace to Israeli flights and Bahrain joining it, the Abraham Accords have the potential to become a decisive game changer for the Middle East.

With more Arab nations expected to join the accord while international support for it is likely to increase over time, the road to peace for a new Middle East is finally a work in progress.

Joseph Nathan has been the principal consultant with several consultancy agencies in Singapore for about three decades. For Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, he undertakes consultancy via JN Advisory (M) Sdn Bhd and is also the brand owner of Victorian Herbal. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia.