Could Arab-Israeli Abraham Accords win Nobel Peace Prize without Palestinians?

As the world awaits Friday's announcement of who will secure the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, speculation mounts toward a possible win for a historic set of agreements that have brought together Israel and four Arab countries. The achievement is not without controversy, however, as they were negotiated without the participation of the Palestinians, who have traditionally been at the center of the Middle East peace process.

Launched a year ago, the Abraham Accords first saw Israel normalize diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last September, and later with Sudan in October and Morocco in December. The process was overseen by the administration of President Donald Trump, which set out to erode the Arab boycott against Israel that began with the country's 1948 establishment on soil also claimed by Palestinians.

While no additional Arab states have signed up since Trump left office in January, President Joe Biden has publicly supported his predecessor's endeavor. Israeli ties with the current parties have also continued to develop, especially with the UAE and Bahrain.

Israel has been especially eager to promote the agreements as a success story worthy of international acclaim.

"These agreements really have changed the picture, and I think it's something that should be recognized globally," Eliav Benjamin, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Middle East Bureau and Peace Process Division, said in response to Newsweek's question regarding the viability of a Nobel Peace Prize win at a virtual event marking the anniversary of the Abraham Accords.

"It has been recognized, and it should continue to be recognized globally," he said. "We should all be working on, first of all, applauding it, but also, all of us on helping to deepen and expand these relations. I think it's a very important message for all the right reasons."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat said that such recognition may help to attract other potential peace partners.

"Without talking directly about the Nobel Prize, I think that world recognition of the importance of the Abraham Accords, the peace normalization agreements that we've signed, is very important, because other countries in the region are looking at the reaction of the international community to those agreements, and they are contemplating what their next step would be," Haiat said. "And if they'll see the international community embracing it, I think it will help other countries take that important decision, especially explaining it to their public opinion."

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Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani (left), then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left), and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (right) hold up documents as they stand with then-President Donald Trump after participating in the signing of the Abraham Accords, in which the countries of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel, at the White House in Washington, D.C., September 15, 2020. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The history of the Nobel Peace Prize has previously intertwined with that of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, which saw three all-out wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, along with a series of other violent engagements in more recent decades.

As Egypt embarked on the path to becoming the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel as part of the U.S.-supported process known as the Camp David Accords, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize.

The response of the Arab League was harsh and swift. Just days after the signing of the agreement at the White House with President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Egypt was expelled from the organization. Two years later, Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian militants hidden within the ranks of a military parade he was reviewing in Cairo.

A deadly backlash to a diplomatic achievement deemed worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize would also be unleashed in Israel. A year after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was bestowed the coveted award alongside Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat for efforts related to the Oslo Accords in 1994, Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing extremist at a rally in Tel Aviv.

In a development that accompanied the Oslo process, Jordan became the second Arab country to declare peace with Israel. The only other Arab country to come forth and build relations with Israel prior to the Abraham Accords was Mauritania in 1999, but the Northwest African state severed these ties a decade later in response to Israel's war with the Palestinian exclave of Gaza.

Egypt, Sadat, US, Carter, Israel, Begin, peace
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (R) addresses the peace treaty signing ceremony as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (L) and U.S. President Jimmy Carter watch on the White House lawn on March 26, 1979 in Washington, D.C. Ya'akov Sa'ar/Israeli Government Press Office/Getty Images

As such, the Abraham Accords have been met with applause by some of those intimately tied to the seemingly impossible task of overcoming decades of Arab-Israeli hostility to set a path forward.

Aaron David Miller served as Deputy Special Middle East Coordinator throughout the Oslo Accords under President Bill Clinton, and continued as senior adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations under President George W. Bush until the veteran diplomat's resignation in 2003. Today he's a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he describes the Abraham Accords as "extremely significant."

But when it comes specifically to weighing the likelihood of a Nobel Peace Prize win for the architects of the agreements, he said there were some key aspects to consider.

"There's the question of, 'Does the administration's accomplishment measure up to other agreements, Israeli-Jordan, Israeli-Egyptian and even the abortive Oslo process?' Because they, at least in the former two, actually ended conflict, bloody conflict," Miller told Newsweek. "It's like in the Olympics, the degree of difficulty of the dive is factored into the judges' marks on performance, so the question is what was the degree of difficulty of the dive on the Abraham Accords?"

It was an open secret that Israel had long paved inroads into the Arabian Peninsula, especially with the UAE. The two sides have found common ground in fostering trade, and have fashioned security ties in the face of mutual concerns with Iran, an issue that has come to overshadow the question of Palestinian statehood in the eyes of many other countries in the Persian Gulf region.

Bringing these relations into the open also came at a cost to frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Palestinian leadership decried any normalization with Israel as a betrayal of the Arab League ban on establishing such ties until a lasting Palestinian state was established with the currently Israel-occupied East Jerusalem as its capital.

"This is where politics, I think, will enter. The Nobel Committee is probably going to say to themselves, 'The Trump administration pursued the Abraham Accords, not as a supplement to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, but as a substitute for them,'" Miller said. "And while they were pursuing the Abraham Accords they, again I'm speaking here what I suspect the committee will say, did a lot of damage on the Israeli-Palestinian track."

Miller also brought up another important point when it comes to the Nobel Peace Prize considerations: the competition. He mentioned other possible contenders such as the Black Lives Matter movement, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents from Belarus and Hong Kong during an eventful year.

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Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat (L), Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (C) and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin display their Nobel Peace Prizes December 10, 1994 in Oslo, Norway. Yaakov Saar/GPO/Getty Images

One key vulnerability of the Abraham Accords in the judging is the uncertainty of what the future holds for the broader, deep-seated issues that plague the Arab-Israeli peace process. With Israeli-Palestinian communication nearly non-existent, a housing dispute between Israeli and Palestinian families in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbor spiraled into a full-on battle in May as the Hamas movement fired rockets on Israel and the Israeli forces bombed the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea.

Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee Executive Member Faisal Aranki said that the qualification of the Abraham Accords for a Nobel Peace Prize rested on at least two core questions.

The first relates specifically to the intentions of the U.S., which he told Newsweek is "the superpower, and is actually capable of imposing a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially if it eases its absolute bias towards the side of the Israeli."

So Washington's intentions matter, he argued.

"Does the United States of America really want a permanent peaceful solution and end this conflict with justice and logic, in line with most of the countries and peoples of the whole world, which is the implementation of the resolutions of the United Nations, its General Assembly and its Security Council?" Aranki asked. "If the answer was yes, then whoever worked on this project deserves all the world awards, not just the Nobel Prize."

The second had to do specifically with the Palestinian question.

"Do the Abraham agreements, what they contain, guarantee the establishment of the State of Palestine on its occupied lands since June 1967, including East Jerusalem?" Aranki asked. "If the answer is yes, and the application is guaranteed and in a specific time, then I bless them from my heart and soul, and I say they deserve the Nobel Prize and all the prizes in the world, and I increase them with the prize of God's satisfaction and servant."

Palestinian, night, protest, Khan, Yunis, Gaza, fence
Palestinians gather on September 2 during a night protest along the border fence with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, demanding an end to Israel's blockade and the right of Palestinians to return to lands they fled or were expelled from when Israel was founded. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

One man who feels the Abraham Accords do not live up to the qualifications necessary for a Nobel Peace Price is Khaled Elgindy. He served as an adviser to Palestinian leadership on permanent status negotiations with Israel, and today is director of the Middle East Institute's Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs Program.

"I do not feel that the architects of the normalization agreements deserve a Nobel Peace Prize, first and foremost because they do not qualify as peace agreements," he told Newsweek. None of the countries involved — the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — was ever involved in hostilities with Israel."

He questioned the name of the agreements themselves.

"Even the term 'Abraham Accords' is misleading," Elgindy said, "since they do not represent a coherent set of inter-related agreements but a series of bilateral agreements in which certain Arab regimes that were never at war with Israel agreed simply to recognize Israel and establish normal bilateral relations with it."

Like Miller, he also drew a contrast between the Abraham Accords and the two previous Arab-Israeli peace agreements reached in 1979 and 1994.

"This is very different than the Egypt-Israel and Jordan-Israel peace treaties, for example, which did involve peacemaking and conflict resolution," Elgindy said. "If anything, the so-called Abraham Accords make the achievement of a comprehensive peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of a negotiated two-state solution more difficult to achieve by eliminating what few incentives still existed for Israel to end its occupation and allow the establishment of any independent Palestinian state."

And as for the exclusion of Palestinians from the process, he said this was "neither accidental nor incidental."

"Part of the Trump administration's motivation for pushing the normalization deals as hard as they did was to marginalize the Palestinian issue and ultimately to force the Palestinian leaders to accept the Trump plan, which was basically a formula for permanent Israeli occupation," Elgindy said.

And yet many on both sides of the Abraham Accords equation hold out hope for further progress on Arab-Israeli diplomacy as a result of the agreements. Two of them are Dan Feferman of Israel and Omar al-Busaidy of the UAE, both members of the Sharaka organization that promotes the Abraham Accords and the spirit of cooperation between Israelis and Arabs.

"We do believe that the negotiators of the Abraham Accords do deserve the Nobel Prize," Busaidy told Newsweek, "as they created history by taking this bold step and most importantly should be recognized for creating a new narrative for the Middle East which will allow future generations to grow up in a more peaceful and positive environment."

Feferman agreed, and noted that "there were bold steps taken backed by many years of quiet diplomacy."

"This takes vision and also courage to stand up to naysayers throughout the region," he added.

Ultimately, it's up to the Norwegian Nobel Committee to decide. And it will do so according to a strict, deliberately non-transparent process.

Olav Njølstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, explained to Newsweek how it works.

"Proposals received for the award of a prize, and investigations and opinions concerning the award of a prize, may not be divulged until 50 years have elapsed," he said. "The Nobel Committee does not itself announce the names of nominees, neither to the media nor to the candidates themselves. In certain cases names of candidates appear in the media. These advanced surmises are either the product of sheer speculation or information released by the person or persons behind the nomination."

So the nominees that don't win this year's award will not be revealed until 2071. And there are a lot of them.

"There are 329 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021, out of which 234 are individuals and 95 are organizations," Njølstad said. "Three hundred twenty-nine candidates are slightly more than last year (317), and the third-highest number of candidates ever. The current record of 376 candidates was reached in 2016."

And while Njølstad could not comment or confirm any more specific details about this year's nominees, he did speak to the historical relevance of the Middle East peace process to the Nobel Peace Prize as an institution.

He offered two reasons, one pertaining to the global community and another that, as Miller earlier alluded to, comes down to politics.

"First of all, the Middle East conflict has been one of the most important and lasting international conflicts in the post-WWII era," Njølstad said. "Secondly, both the people of Israel and the Palestinian people have enjoyed strong support from influential groups within Norwegian society. This means that the quest for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East has always enjoyed a lot of political support in Norway."

Nobel, Peace, Prize, 2020, announcement, medal
The portrait of Alfred Nobel is seen at the desk prior to the announcement of the laureates of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize in the Nobel Institute in Oslo on October 9, 2020. Last year's award was given to the World Food Program. Stian Lysberg Solum/NTB/AFP