The American Peace Initiative: Lessons Learned from the Abraham Accords

Based on interviews of Ambassador Robert O’Brien, Ambassador John Rakolta Jr., Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba (UAE), Robert Greenway, Alan Clemmons, and Aryeh Lightstone.

The authors’ views are theirs alone and do not represent the United States Government or any other institution

The United States has its own Middle East peace initiative. While the Israeli-Palestinian 1993 Oslo Accords and the regional 2002 Arab Peace Initiative were cultivated outside the United States, the 2020 Peace to Prosperity plan and the Abraham Accords were born in the USA.1

The Abraham Accords, centered on regional peace and prosperity, were the 2020 agreements that brought the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and Kosovo into normalized relations with Israel. They were an aggressive pursuit of American strategic and security interests that capitalized on emerging dynamics in the Middle East. The intent of the Accords was to strengthen stability and deter Iranian, Chinese, and Russian attempts to extend influence or hegemony in the region. Expanding the Accords further secures a part of the world long synonymous with conflict.

The following lessons learned are based on interviews of those who paved the way for the Abraham Accords. We call upon leaders and lawmakers to support us in creating a digital archive to document guiding principles and lessons learned in the process. We believe this model can be replicated for other Muslim-majority countries through courageous, practical diplomacy.

There were certain dynamics that highlighted the benefits of the Abraham Accords process. For example, Israel, as a trade partner, has so many quality of life benefits to offer, including sectors such as water, technology, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, health sciences, and defense. In short, it would be regressive not to normalize with Israel.

1) It Starts with the People: Historically, an important foundation for the Abraham Accords agreements was laid with the Israel plank of the 2016 GOP Platform, a collection of policy positions embraced by tens of millions of grassroots Americans. Donald Trump captured 81% of self-identified Evangelical Christian voters in the 2016 election, and their faith-based voting regarding Israel was paramount. The plank, known as “Our Unequivocal Support for Israel,” authored by former South Carolina Representative Alan Clemmons, was a departure from all previous GOP platforms. Rather than endorsing a U.S. policy that would impose the formation of a Palestinian state as an inevitability, this plank gave Israel and its neighbors leeway to negotiate a peace agreement that would be mutually beneficial.

The policy foundation for the 2019 Pompeo Doctrine, which holds that Israel has a superior legal title to its current territories as a matter of law and historical fact, was built upon the foundation laid by Clemmons within American legislatures and other public policy spaces. Clemmons’ position held that it is incumbent upon the U.S. to legally recognize Israeli sovereignty in its current territories. This principle affirmed that any suspension of sovereignty over portions of the land of Israel would be for political, not legal, reasons. This was captured by his phrase on the platform, “We reject the false notion that Israel is an occupier.“ Clemmons believes that this term “occupier” is used to delegitimize Israel altogether and embolden violence by Israel’s enemies.

The work of Alan Clemmons gave Israel diplomatic leverage and negotiating space to make peace with the Abraham Accords countries with U.S. support in hand. The irony of his work is that Israel’s legitimacy in any portion of the land of Israel was actually a driver for peace, not an obstacle.

The 2016 plank also envisioned what would become the Abraham Accords:

The United States seeks to assist in the establishment of comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East, to be negotiated among those living in the region. We oppose any measures intended to impose an agreement or to dictate borders or other terms, and we call for the immediate termination of all U.S. funding of any entity that attempts to do so. Our party is proud to stand with Israel now and always.

This policy relieved the United States of imposing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and freed it to engage in pursuing a practical peace between Israel and other Arab countries.

2) Quiet Diplomacy: All initial discussions about the potential for normalization were bilateral and very secret. Only a handful of officials at the very top of each government even knew they were under way. Once two governments expressed openness to the idea, multilateral discussions could begin. But throughout the process, the existence of the discussions was kept within a very small circle. Any premature publicity would have allowed enemies of normalization to prevent a conclusion.

To put it starkly, according to Robert O’Brien, being too open and public about each incremental step in Saudi-Israeli normalization may have been one of the factors that precipitated the attack of October 7. Iran and its terror proxies knew from public discussions that Saudi-Israeli normalization was close and sought to spoil it.

The first lesson learned from the Abraham Accords is: Don’t announce the talks until the deal is done.

3) Build the Trust of the Israelis: The United States can expand the Abraham Accords when it stands firm on its policy that Muslim allies and partners should normalize with Israel as a matter of pursuing their citizens’ best interests. Imposing preconditions on Israel to merit simple normalization prevents discussions from beginning. The U.S. and Israel will have policy disagreements, but Israel has no need to apologize for its existence.

The American administration built trust with Israel in the earliest stages by carrying out the will of its voters in connection with granting a key concession to the Israelis. For example, the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its Embassy there in 2018. Likewise, in early 2019, the U.S. recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. These were major, historic concessions that earned the U.S. tremendous political capital from the Israeli Prime Minister that paid off during the 2020 Peace to Prosperity plan (which conditionally offered the Palestinians a state).

In another concession, the Peace to Prosperity Plan would eventually allow Israel to depart from the 1949 Armistice Lines and redraw its borders by extending sovereignty over roughly 30% of Israeli-held territories. According to Clemmons, this vision failed to capture the support of the millions of American faith-based voters mentioned before. But the vision helped the American administration become the first to get a Prime Minister of Israel to agree to a framework to recognize a Palestinian state.

The political capital paid off again during the final negotiations of the UAE Abraham Accords, when the Prime Minister of Israel agreed to suspend declaring Israel’s sovereignty over portions of the West Bank. This was a concession Israel made, considering it had already received U.S. recognition of similar sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The UAE’s offer of normalization was of greater interest to both Israel and America.

In an interview, Aryeh Lightstone said that even though the U.S. was willing to recognize extended Israeli sovereignty in parts of the West Bank, a U.S.-led coalition to deter Iran had more value. The Abraham Accords could deliver on this vital U.S. interest. But concerning this delicate point of diplomacy, Amb. John Rakolta Jr. said, “If there is one thing that could derail the UAE from continuing in the Abraham Accords, it would be for Israel to go back on its word.”

4) Build the Trust of the Emiratis and Other Gulf Monarchies: For the countries involved, especially the UAE, peace means security, the reduction of regional terrorism, and stable sovereignty, according to Amb. Rakolta. Prosperity means a better quality of life for the people of the region and its children. In that framework, food, housing, healthcare, water, agriculture, education, an opportunity for a good job, and security from threats of Iranian hegemony were crucial for the integration of the Middle East and normalization with Israel. The UAE advanced these core interests in the Abraham Accords process with its trust in the United States.

Early in his time in the Trump administration, Robert O’Brien discovered that Emirati willingness to normalize with Israel could come in exchange for practical cooperation and security guarantees from the U.S. Those security guarantees included the UAE’s need for advanced U.S. armaments to deter Iran and to enhance regional cooperation to that same end. At the same time, the U.S. recognized the need to strengthen its Qualitative Military Edge doctrine, which guarantees Israel’s technological and tactical advantage to deter or defeat numerically superior adversaries.

The strengthening of the QME doctrine clearly declared that the UAE would no longer be considered an adversary of Israel. The zone of peace and security for America, Israel, and Israel’s Sunni partners would be expanded. As a U.S. partner, the UAE also needs its own qualitative military edge to deter Iran.

Indeed, with the Abraham Accords, the U.S. began thinking multilaterally about security with its allies and partners in the Middle East, rather than the traditional bilateral U.S.-Israel or U.S.-Emirati constructs. This multilateral security vision has Israel as the lynchpin, with Arab U.S. allies and partners connecting in a tightening, deterring coalition. The U.S. and its Arab and Israeli partners could collaborate to check Iran’s power in the region.

5) Offer the Palestinian People Peace Aligned with American Interests, But Don’t Give Them a Veto: Contrary to the mainstream media’s focus, the American administration offered a peace deal and a limited time to accept the conditional offer of a state to the Palestinians. America coordinated with Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and others to make an incentivized offer to the Palestinians, including a 50 billion dollar aid package (see the Peace to Prosperity Workshop hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain). Demonstrating their support of the plan as a starting point for bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman attended the plan’s unveiling in January 2020.

The American administration first tried to build peace from the inside out in January 2020, meaning Israeli-Palestinian peace, then expanded to regional peace. But when that effort failed, the team denied the Palestinians a veto over other peace agreements, and it didn’t put the Palestinians’ interests above those of America or its Arab partners.

When the Palestinians flatly rejected the Peace to Prosperity plan, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan decided that they and other Arab countries would not have their interests suppressed by refraining from normalization with Israel. Rather than setting things back, the Abraham Accords team took advantage of opportunities for peace wherever they could find them. They treated Israel as their primary ally in the region.

6) American Diplomats Must Advance American Interests: One of the obstacles to the Abraham Accords was that some foreign policy professionals were so narrowly focused on the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian peace process that they failed to see alternative possibilities for the pursuit of regional peace. They didn’t comprehend America’s core interests in the Abraham Accords’ multilateral, regional dynamic. They believed Israeli-Palestinian peace was the end all and be all, and they appeased Palestinian intransigence and anti-normalization demands rather than moving on to other Arab countries willing to normalize under current conditions.

7) Politically Appointed Envoys and Ambassadors Proved Effective: The U.S. envoys and ambassadors assigned to Abraham Accords countries under the Trump administration were political appointees, willing to break with a foreign policy establishment and take calculated risks for regional peace and integration. Presently, Congress has mandated an Abraham Accords special envoy to work out of the State Department. Robert O’Brien suggested that this envoy should have the attention and support of the president to further the process the Abraham Accords began.

The Trump administration had Jared Kushner lead this initiative from the White House. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, Ambassadors John Rakolta Jr. (UAE), David Friedman (Israel), David Fischer (Morocco), and John Abizaid (Saudi Arabia), all politically appointed, drove the negotiations forward. Most career diplomats were unaware of the Abraham Accords discussions until they were concluded. That first Israel-UAE agreement may not have been possible without the unity and risk-taking of the politically appointed envoys and ambassadors, reporting directly to the President and his inner circle.

8) Genuine Reverence for Religious Freedom and Judaism Mattered: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien had an unusual commitment to global religious freedom that set appropriate conditions for the Abraham Accords to succeed. They had no tolerance for jihadism, Islamism, or anti-Semitism. This clarity increased their trust in the UAE, for example, which banned the Muslim Brotherhood from its territory in 2014.

But the UAE has assertively demonstrated its commitment to religious tolerance since September 11, 2001. In line with its values, the UAE openly condemned the extremism of Al Qaeda and ISIS. It then made a strategic decision to advance its tolerant, humane, reformed approach to Islam, conducive to regional peace, setting the stage for the Abraham Accords—all years in the making.

The clear rejection of Islamism led to increased trust between Emirati Muslims and Israeli Jews. In 2019, the United Arab Emirates government announced a Year of Tolerance, officially recognizing the existence of the Jewish community and two synagogues in the UAE. Israel allowed its first passenger flight from the UAE to Israel in October 2020. The new Emirati tolerance for Judaism allowed visiting Israeli tourists to openly conduct bar/bat mitzvahs and Passover Seders there for the first time. The UAE-Israel flights gave Emirati Muslims the chance to pray at sacred Islamic shrines in Jerusalem for the first time.

In addition, many members of the Abraham Accords team were observant Jews who cared deeply about the Jewish people’s future in the land of Israel. This insistence on the legitimacy of Zionism and its core role within Jewish religious belief drove the Abraham Accords’ success.

9) Peace Through Strength: While many domestic and foreign leaders warned that no path to comprehensive peace existed, Abraham Accords diplomats pursued the component agreements with vigor, born of a conviction that they were in American interests. These diplomats demonstrated clarity and tenacity in pursuing America’s national interests without appeasing international opinion or international institutions. A strong, clear American foreign policy draws allies and partners to bind their interests to the U.S.—peace through strength.

10) Recognizing the Shift in Power Balance in the Middle East: Amb. Rakolta noted the opportunities in the Arab League’s shift in power from Egypt’s military-centric system to the wealthy, diplomatically moderate monarchies in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia had emerged as the leading state in the Arab League, but the United Arab Emirates, with its 21st-century vision and strategic advantages, took the initiative in the Abraham Accords.

According to Amb. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE wanted normalization for its own interests but could not do so if Israel declared sovereignty over additional territories envisioned in the US Peace to Prosperity Plan. This made the UAE the first Arab country to normalize with Israel while also obtaining a concession for the Palestinians. The concession was that the U.S. and Israel would suspend a declaration of sovereignty over those Vision for Peace territories.

Before normalization, the UAE could only support regional peace by using “sticks” against Israel. With normalization, the UAE has both carrots and sticks in its relationship with Israel, which gives it greater leverage to shape peace. Indeed, the UAE wisely recognized how much the status quo had changed since the 1967 war. Israel was not going anywhere, and the UAE should not be prevented from pursuing its mutual interests by submitting to the Palestinian “veto.”

After the UAE signed the first of the Abraham Accords, incurring great political risk, other Arab countries followed. According to Amb. Rakolta, the UAE’s leadership and strategic use of its enormous wealth built goodwill and attracted reliable allies to complete the peace process. This positioned the UAE for a massive economic boom based on a growing hybrid of oil and technology. Collaborating with Israel in this intra-regional, knowledge-based economy continues to provide the UAE with opportunities for their rising generation. It resulted in the UAE’s massive economic expansion from 2019 to 2024—more than 18% growth per year. Like Israel, the UAE has proved to be a “startup” nation and is now becoming a “scale up” nation.

The shift in the Arab League’s balance of power to the moderate Sunni Gulf monarchies means deterrence against Iran has become the primary strategic issue. This has aligned Arab and Israeli interests to make peace and integration possible.

11) The Pivotal Role of the Saudis: According to Amb. Rakolta, the indirect involvement of Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords underscores the complexity of Middle Eastern geopolitics, and the significant role Riyadh plays in regional dynamics. The Saudi decision to grant airspace privileges for commercial flights between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi was a pivotal moment in the normalization process, reflecting a receptive stance towards the broader framework of Middle Eastern peace and the normalization of relations with Israel. The kingdom’s decision to allow flights was a clear indication of its tacit support for the Accords. This move was significant for several reasons:

  • Practical Implications for Normalization: By allowing direct flights over its territory, Saudi Arabia facilitated a key aspect of normalization. Direct air travel is a tangible benefit enhancing economic ties, tourism, and people-to-people connections. This decision helped to underscore the reality and benefits of the Accords. Over 450,000 Israelis visited the UAE in the first 2 years.
  • Signaling a Shift in Regional Dynamics: Granting air rights can be seen as part of a broader realignment in the Middle East, where shared concerns about Iran’s regional ambitions have driven Gulf States closer to Israel. By supporting the Abraham Accords in this way, Saudi Arabia signaled its openness to a new approach to Israel, even if it wasn’t ready to fully normalize itself.
  • Saudi Arabia’s Role in Regional Peace: The move was also interpreted as a nod to the potential for broader peace and normalization efforts in the region. As one of the most influential countries in the Arab world and the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, it has a significant impact on regional politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its actions regarding the Abraham Accords were closely watched as an indicator of possible directions for peace in the region. There is no doubt Saudi Arabia’s move towards normalization with Israel played a significant role in the Hamas attack of Oct 7.

According to Aryeh Lightstone, the Abraham Accords are squarely in the Saudi interest — they cannot achieve their Vision 2030 without Israeli normalization. Like the Emiratis, the Saudis must also transition from an oil-based to a knowledge-based economy to thrive in the 21st century. This is a powerful convergence with U.S. interests that can be used to re-stabilize the region.

12) Great Power Competition in the Middle East: As an American peace initiative, the Abraham Accords could exclude China from the Israeli innovation market, according to Robert O’Brien. It can also keep the Belt and Road Initiative out of the Middle East, China’s western flank. Indeed, America’s Arab allies and partners, particularly the UAE, are beginning to invest their vast capital in Israel’s innovative economy.

The economic-security theory of the Abraham Accords is that new allies will protect their new trade channels, according to Robert Greenway. The UAE and Israel are making each other more prosperous through open trade agreements and people-to-people exchanges. Based on the rules of national interests, the security ties will integrate into this economic relationship. This creates a network of U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East who are also allies among themselves. In the security domain, welcoming Israel into CENTCOM has changed the arithmetic of deterrence for the United States.

13) Reform of Palestinian Society: The unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan after World War II eventually led to the positive reconstruction of those nations and a change of heart among their people. America and her allies need a similar policy course that incentivizes the reform of Palestinian society and its inclination toward jihadist ideology, including the enforcement of the Taylor Force Act and the dismantling of UNRWA.

Abraham Accords partners have already rejected jihadism and Islamism. The reform of Palestinian society will weaken the set of ideas that chronically bring instability to the Middle East and will lead to a better future for the Palestinian people. This will strengthen the commitment of Abraham Accords partners to support their mutual sovereignty and security.

The strategic argument for Arab-Israeli integration has still not changed, said Amb. Otaiba.

14) We Need an Open Abraham Accords Digital Archive: Congress should ensure that these lessons are taught in U.S. national institutions studying war and diplomacy, like the National Defense University, the Foreign Service Institute, and the Library of Congress. We propose an Abraham Accords digital archive that focuses on Arab-Israeli-U.S. primary sources that illustrate normalization and regional integration developments to train America’s leaders.

Establishing such an archive will provide a foundation of fact to understand the path that led to normalization. This will assist American diplomats and representatives who engage in the region to advance America’s interests, which include a peaceful, stable, prosperous, and integrated Middle East.

Conclusion: Focusing American attention on the integration of American allies is the only policy that can prevent Iranian, Chinese, and Russian interference in the region and expand American interests there. Bringing American allies who were former enemies into an integrated framework serves American interests, the interests of those allies, and the interests of world peace and stability. Forming a digital archive describing the historical path to the Abraham Accords will show scholars, diplomats, and governing officials the best ways to replicate that success in other areas.


Bart Marcois is a former US diplomat and the former principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs. He served 10 years in the Arab Middle East, and now heads a private consulting practice in Washington, DC.

Jason Olson is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer and received his PhD from Brandeis University in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies in 2016. He thanks the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa and the Academic Engagement Network for supporting his Abraham Accords research.

The authors wish to thank Mr. Joseph Sabag for his editorial support and various insights into the subject matter.

1 We view the United States as the initiating party in Arab-Israeli normalization; however, we acknowledge the courageous role of the United Arab Emirates in constructing a creative solution to make that normalization materialize. The U.S. Peace to Prosperity Plan (2020) stated: “The United States will strongly encourage Arab countries to begin to normalize their relations with the State of Israel and negotiate lasting peace agreements” (p. 36).

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