It has often been noted that it’s easier to represent war visually than it is to represent peace. When did you last go to see a peace movie? But peace agreements provide photo opps of the signing of peace agreements by leaders who synecdochically stand in for whole nations. This has certainly been the case for previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours under the auspices of the USA.
Consider two previous occasions on which peace agreements were signed at the White House, first in 1979 between Israel and Egypt, then in 1993 between Israel and the PLO. The hands of the leaders portray reconciliation and the relinquishing of weapons in different ways. President Carter demonstrates his mediating role by joining hands with President of Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Begin of Israel, just six years after the two countries fought each other in a bitter war. President Clinton’s outstretched arms and tall stature seem to create through magnanimous power the space in which Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin come together in an allegedly reluctant handshake. Clinton was also there to observe a much warmer handshake between Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan when the two countries signed a peace agreement on their border in 1994.
If this is the simple iconography of peace agreements, it should be straightforward to represent the agreements signed at the White House between the governments of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as peace. Yet, it doesn’t look that way to me.
Perhaps its the absence of hand-shaking, which might be attributed to Covid-19 precautions if there were any evidence of such precautions being taken throughout the event. As it is, it looks as if Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan have all just received a certificate of good behaviour from Trump.
This picture of peace is lacking not simply because of an absent iconographic element, but because of what is missing from it as what scholar W.J.T. Mitchell calls an “imagetext.” An “imagetext” is a hybrid of picture and text and the accompanying texts to the pictures of signing these peace agreements are the stories and dramas for which the pictures are culminating events. If a picture is going to speak a thousand words, you have to know the story. In 1979, the story included wars between Israel and Egypt, the media event of Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel in 1977, and the setbacks and breakthroughs of the negotiations at Camp David. The backdrop to the signing of the Oslo accords was the first intifada, revelations about track-two diplomacy behind the scenes, the apparent conversion of two main protagonists, Rabin and Arafat, from men of war of to peacemakers. To some extent then, as many have said, this doesn’t look like a peace treaty because Israel has not been at war with the UAE or Bahrain. So there has been little drama – other than surprise – to provide the text for this image.
There is more to it than that. This doesn’t look like peace because, even while the agreement claims that the normalization of relations between states is intended to contribute towards peace in the region, including a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does the opposite. Not only is its context the conflict between the Gulf States and Iran, but like its predecessor, Trump’s “Vision for Peace,” it undermines the prospects for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Normalization of relations with Arab states was one of the diplomatic carrots held out in the 2002 Arab peace initiative for Israel to end its occupation and creeping annexation of the Palestinian Territories. As things stand, the occupation has become normalized by Israel, especially under Trump’s administration. Israel no longer pays any evident price for its relentless and continuing injustices, except perhaps for erosive moral corruption, as remarked by Raja Shehadeh. On the same day that the agreement was signed in Washington, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that a Jerusalem court had ordered the “eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem. The beneficiaries will be settler associations who argued that the homes belonged to Jews before 1948.” Needless to say, Palestinian refugees who owned property in Jerusalem until 1948 are not eligible to reclaim their homes as they are not Jewish. That is one of the injustices that the “Abraham Accords” sanctions, seemingly taking inspiration not from mythical shared ancestry but from the Biblical story of Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, depicted here by Israeli artist Jakob Steinhardt in 1950, with the refugees of 1948 in mind.