News Analysis: Is Israel at risk of becoming a pariah in the Middle East again? Maybe not

Smoke from bombardment billows in the background as displaced Palestinians flee
Smoke from bombardment billows in the background as displaced Palestinians flee from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 30, 2024.
(Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images)

Since its 1948 founding, Israel was seen by Arab neighbors as an interloper in the Middle East, a hostile nation imposed by Western powers in the aftermath of World War II.

After decades of wars, diplomatic and economic isolation and ostracization rooted in a combination of politics and antisemitism, Israel in recent years began to make significant progress in normalizing relations with several Arab neighbors.

The Trump-era Abraham Accords raised hopes that diplomatic, financial and cultural ties with fellow Mideast nations would bring greater peace and stability to the region.


But the Israel-Hamas war upended that process almost overnight.

Here’s a look at why Israel could again find itself isolated and what it could mean for the U.S. and international community.


Why was Israel so isolated from the start?

To Jewish people fleeing the European persecution that culminated in the Holocaust, settling in the Holy Land felt like coming home, to a region with deep religious and historical significance.

They’d been migrating for decades to what was then British Mandate Palestine.

But with the creation of Israel under a 1948 U.N. declaration, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced. They were supposed to also receive a nation, but it never materialized.

What followed were decades of wars and conflicts over land, borders and refugees, with Arab nations and much of the international community refusing to recognize Israel in any form — including exchanging ambassadors, conducting trade or even permitting travel — unless Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories ended.


When did that isolation first begin to thaw?

In 1979, following meetings at Camp David led by President Carter, Egypt became the first Arab country to agree to peace with and recognition of Israel.

Fifteen years later, Jordan followed suit.

This meant Israel exchanged ambassadors with Egypt and Jordan, and ordinary people could fly between the countries’ international airports.

The Jordan agreement emerged in conjunction with the landmark Oslo peace accords that for the first time established Israeli and Palestinian recognition of each other, earning the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for signatories Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

Part of the agreement was a guarantee that Israel, the Palestinians and world powers like the United States would pursue the so-called two-state solution — the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state sitting next to Israel.

That remains an elusive goal today, more than a generation later.


Did that ‘thaw’ continue, improving Israel’s regional ties?

Not even close.

Unlike Egypt and Jordan, most of the countries in the Middle East year after year insisted that until Israel ended its occupation of the West Bank and other Palestinian lands, they would not recognize or normalize diplomatic relations with Israel.


Jerusalem, especially, was a source of contention: Israelis and Palestinians alike claimed the holy city as their capital.

Efforts to pursue the two-state solution repeatedly floundered.


What changed during the Trump administration?

The equation changed dramatically under President Trump, who largely abandoned U.S. efforts to remain somewhat neutral. Siding firmly with Israel, Trump brushed aside Palestinian concerns, relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to disputed land in Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.

His administration invited other Arab countries, especially from the Persian Gulf, to explore a new relationship with Israel.

In fact, several of those gulf countries already had quiet, behind-the-scenes business and security relations with Israel. But this would be the first public display.

On Sept. 15, 2020, in an elaborate White House ceremony, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed an agreement called the Abraham Accords for “peace, diplomatic relations and full normalization” with Israel.


The UAE insisted Israel back off from any plans for a wholesale annexation of the West Bank in exchange for its agreement.

But otherwise, few demands were made of Israel regarding the plight of Palestinians. Critics say Trump squandered an opportunity to make progress on the conflict, in essence handing Israel the better relations it long sought without making any significant concessions to the Palestinians.


Did the accords change things substantively?

It was a remarkable shift in Middle East alliances.

The participating countries opened embassies and flight paths, while Israeli tourists for the first time could travel to the shopping mecca of Dubai.

At the signing ceremony, Trump announced his confidence that other nations would soon follow suit. And while Morocco and Sudan did, no other major Arab country has done so.

In this new equation, the prize was Saudi Arabia. Trump, and especially his son-in-law and special advisor, Jared Kushner, had lobbied the Saudis hard. But the Saudis resisted, largely because of King Salman’s lingering allegiance to the Palestinians.


His heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is thought to have no such loyalty and to have been eager to join the economic windfall that better relations with Israel might portend. As a result, Saudi Arabia was moving slowly toward a normalization agreement with Israel, according to U.S. officials. Saudi Arabia also had big asks, including a massive defense pact with Washington.


How has the Israel-Hamas war changed ties?

The war — which so far has left close to 1,200 Israelis and more than 26,000 Palestinians dead, according to each side — put an immediate brake on Saudi Arabia and other nations getting closer to Israel.

Bahrain, one of the countries that opened ties with Israel, recalled its ambassador.

There has been an enormous drop in tourism travel between Tel Aviv and the United Arab Emirates, although the UAE has not canceled the flights nor recalled its ambassador from Israel.

The other two countries that signed on to the Abraham Accords, Morocco and Sudan, had lesser dealings with Israel all along, and have not reversed the agreement. Their acquiescence had more to do with getting concessions from the U.S. than stepping up relations with Israel.

Morocco has allowed rare massive street demonstrations against Israel.

Sudan and Morocco were tepid in criticism of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, but quick to join regional opprobrium over Israel’s retaliation.

And all of the Arab nations involved in the Abraham Accords have demanded an immediate cease-fire in the war.


What does all this mean for the fate of the Abraham Accords?

It is not yet clear if any of these countries, ruled primarily by royal families and dictators, will ever return to a path of normalization with Israel.

While not democratic, they are mindful, and wary, of the anger toward Israel and support for Palestinians among their own populations. The war has only heightened those feelings.

But there are lucrative business and military deals at stake, and several leaders have told the Biden administration they hope to continue to improve relations with Israel once the current crisis is over, U.S. officials say.

Saudi Arabia will be the country to watch. The desert kingdom has given Israel a potential shot at opening ties, saying in recent days that it would consider such steps if a credible path to statehood for the Palestinians is established.

A senior UAE official said last month that its new strategic relationship with Israel, including economic ties, remained a “long-term” goal.