In the era of the Abraham Accords, why is Algeria articulating fiercely pro-Palestinian positions?

Middle East historians will look back at 2020 as a watershed year for Israel’s diplomatic integration into the Arab region. Within the final months of the year, four Arab states — the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco — all announced their plans to formalise diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet amid this wave of normalisation, Algeria has made its pro-Palestinian position crystal clear.

Soon after the US, UAE, and Israel announced the Abraham Accords on August 13, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune stated: “There is a mad rush among [some] Arabs to normalise ties. We will not participate in it. We will not accept it. We will not bless it. [The] Palestine cause is sacred, and we will not give it up.” 

A history of anti-colonialism

To understand why Algeria is so firmly opposed to normalising ties with Israel, we must consider Algeria’s bloody war of independence (1954-1962). This experience of fighting against French colonial rule retains a special status not only in the Algerian psyche, but also in the collective conscience throughout Arab/Muslim countries. It is tough to exaggerate how much this chapter of the North African country’s history shapes Algerian identity and perspectives on the Palestinian cause. 

Algerians believe that they serve as a model for people in the Global South who struggle against colonialism and imperialism. As the International Interest's Sami Hamdi put it, “Algerians feel a deep resonance with the Palestinians who have been colonized for some 82 years and believe that whatever the difficulties, resistance will eventually succeed.”

There is no doubt that when Tebboune called the Palestinian cause “sacred”, he was truly speaking on behalf of the Algerian people. The country’s “somewhat exceptional history makes resistance against colonial powers writ large a narrative crucially central to the Algerian state as we know it,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a Senior Fellow at the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime told me in an interview.

“Algiers has little choice but to stick to its pro-Palestinian stance of the last five or six decades,” Harchaoui explains. “This remains true even if the Palestinian leadership inspires very few nowadays in the Arab world. In Algeria, the Palestinian cause is more about Algerian identity and Algerian sovereignty than anything else.”

In 1988, when Palestine declared its independence, Algeria was the first country in the world to officially recognise its statehood. This decision further contributed to the depth of Algerian-Palestinian relations. Even when other Arab states — notably those which signed the Abraham Accords last year — essentially dropped their pan-Arab commitments to the Palestinian struggle, Algeria has stood by the cause.

Algerian fears of Gulf adventurism in North Africa

An important factor is domestic opinion in Algeria, which is fiercely pro-Palestinian with essentially the entire citizenry opposing the normalisation of relations with Tel Aviv under current circumstances. The population’s views of Abu Dhabi are also key to understanding why Algeria’s leadership has voiced its staunch opposition to the Israel-UAE diplomatic deal, as well as Abu Dhabi’s efforts to push more Arab and African states to join the Abraham Accords. 

“The UAE is viewed with deep suspicion by the Algerian public, especially amongst supporters of the Hirak [protest movement] who saw Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed [commonly known as MBZ] as a counter-revolutionary force,” Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, tells me. “So challenging Israel-UAE relations is popular too.” 

Evidence of anti-Emirati sentiments among the Hirak came in May 2019 when demonstrators in various Algerian cities were waving Palestinian flags and voicing messages for MBZ, whom many of those on the street perceived to be facilitating then-White House advisor Jared Kushner’s “Deal of the Century”.

Condemning the UAE and Bahrain’s decision to open full-fledged relations with Israel is a way for the Algerian government to slam Gulf states, which in recent years Algiers has come to view with growing disdain. The ambitious interventions of certain GCC members — the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia — in countries bordering Algeria have left officials in Algiers seeing these Gulf powerhouses as destabilising actors.

Shortly after Morocco agreed to formalise relations with Israel in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, Algeria’s prime minister, Abdelaziz Djerad, declared that there is a “real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity”.

Algerian officials genuinely see the normalisation trend pushed by Abu Dhabi as a threat to their own country. “There is deep concern among Algerian policymakers that Morocco's normalization of ties with Israel is intended by Rabat to be a weapon wielded against Algeria," according to Hamdi. 

The influence of Gulf media outlets and lobbying networks in Washington are a part of this picture as well. As Algerian officialdom sees it, there is good reason to worry that one day certain GCC states could leverage such networks and lobbyists against Algeria if the country finds itself beset by instability or messy political dilemmas at home. 

Core beliefs

In the grander picture, Algerian beliefs about national sovereignty and the right for countries to determine their own destiny are central to any understanding of why Algiers so staunchly opposes the Abraham Accords. Believing that Arab/African states like Sudan and Morocco (as well as reportedly almost Mauritania too) normalised relations with Israel due to US pressure through highly transactional quid pro quo deals, Algeria views these countries as having engaged Israel on terms that suited other powers’ interests and not their own. 

Firmly committed to the principles of a “sovereigntist governing ideology”, Algerians chafe at the idea of other countries pressuring Algeria or its neighbours into accepting Israel before the Jewish state returns to the 1949-1967 borders, especially given how unpopular normalisation is among the public within Arab countries. For Algeria, being free of such foreign pressures is a matter of national pride. 

Ultimately, to those who understand Algeria’s foreign policy vision, it is no surprise that Algiers has responded to the Abraham Accords with a well-articulated position. This pro-Palestinian stance is principled, coherent, and rooted in a uniquely Algerian way of thinking about international relations. The fact that this position goes against a current trend in the Arab world does not increase the odds of Algeria abandoning it.      

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