Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to a group of Bahraini businesspeople during an official visit to Manama, Bahrain

What's at stake for Israel and Gulf Arab countries in light of the Abraham Accords?

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has visited Bahrain as part of a push to boost regional ties with Gulf Arab countries following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020. The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, about what's a stake for the regional partnerships.

The World

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to a group of Bahraini businesspeople during an official visit to Manama, Bahrain, Feb. 15, 2022.

Ilan Ben Zion/AP

Israel's Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was in Bahrain on Tuesday, in the first trip of its kind made by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf island nation. The meeting follows the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 to normalize relations between the two countries. Now, their leaders are strengthening those ties with economic and security pacts.

Related: Palestinians worry about the impact of the Abraham Accords. They say it's time to elect new leaders.

Bennett said that Israel is forging a regional “ring of stability” with its Arab allies. The countries are hoping to send a united message of solidarity to their shared regional archrival Iran.

During his 24-hour visit, Bennett was welcomed by Bahrain’s king and crown prince. He also also visited the US Navy’s 5th Fleet stationed in Bahrain.

Related: Israel hoping to boost regional security with Abraham Accords

To check in on how the accords are going, The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Marco Werman: Remind us, first of all, Hussein, what the impetus was for the Abraham Accords when they were signed in 2020.
Hussein Ibish: The UAE, which initiated the whole thing and announced first, I think had a lot of different ideas in mind. It sees Israel as a natural partner on many fields, in high-tech, in R&D [research and development]. They need the same kind of military technology, signals, intel, anti-missile imaging, electronic warfare, because they're both small countries with small populations, but big footprints. For Bahrain, which joined immediately after, it's a pretty simple list. They want to make common cause with Iran's most robust military enemy in the region, the country that takes the battle to Iranian proxies in Syria and Iraq, and sometimes even Lebanon. So, for them, that makes sense, because they feel an existential threat from Iran. And also they're interested, like the UAE, and getting closer to the US and in promoting the idea of a kind of multicultural, multireligious regional order of tolerance — but not democracy.
So, would you say the Abraham Accords are effective in actually bringing Israel closer to its Gulf neighbors?
I think without a doubt. I mean, Bennett, who just went to Bahrain, went to UAE in December, and they are seriously working on a number of combined initiatives. The UAE is trying to access Israeli defense systems, but the attacks by Houthi rebels from Yemen, the missile attacks into Abu Dhabi and the UAE have prompted closer cooperation, more technology transfer, etc. In fact, with every new security threat, the countries are moving closer together.
I wonder how these Gulf Arab states see the Palestinian question — really, the elephant in the room? Are these states working to improve Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, or has there been a kind of complete separation of these issues?
There has been a separation of the issues. I think right now for the UAE especially, we're in a honeymoon phase, right? I think for all three countries, it's a honeymoon and it won't last. These countries have entered into mutual agreements that look good from all sides — except the Palestinian side — but they look good for all the principles, except for this: They have different visions of the future in the long run. Certainly, I think the UAE — and less Bahrain, because Bahrain doesn't get involved in too many regional issues itself — but I think the UAE is still well aware that it's not going to live in a very secure neighborhood until the Palestinian issue is resolved. You know, what they've done is they've put it aside, but they have made it clear to the Israelis that they're still committed to a two-state solution. Palestinians are very angry, and I think it's probably true that their ultimate independence is not going to be furthered by any of this Gulf-Israeli relationship.
So, on paper, the Abraham Accords is an agreement between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain and the US, but many see these relationships as a means for Saudi Arabia and Israel to have an unofficial relationship. Do you think that's true and how exactly does this unofficial relationship work? What would be the benefit for each side?
Not really. If there's any overlap with Saudi Arabia, it's that Bahrain, which is almost a protectorate of Saudi Arabia since 2011, is sort of a test balloon for the Saudis to see how it goes. I think the UAE-Israel relationship is really independent of the Saudis entirely. But I think that the situation the Saudis are in, is that they find many of the same potential benefits that their smaller neighbors do in developing a potential open relationship with Israel. But they also have concerns that those smaller countries don't have. They have a regional Arab leadership role. They have a global Islamic leadership role that they have to protect, and they have a much larger population, more than 30 million people. It's a very big country and they have really complex politics. So, they'd also have a domestic political situation to be concerned about in a way that the other two countries don't.
So, that's Saudi Arabia. Hussein, where do you think these relationships that we know about established by the Abraham Accords are headed into the future?
They're still in the honeymoon phase, but over time, they're going to realize that, while they share a lot of common interests, especially Israel and the UAE, I mean, down to things like what kind of technologies they want to develop and what kind of attitude they want to take towards high-tech and even maybe space exploration, things like that, there's still a lot of differences. They don't have the same national interests. They they are all status quo powers and they share some concerns. But I think the difference is they're going to become clearer over time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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