Biden carries forward a Trump-era Middle East policy

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On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host his counterparts from Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Washington. These meetings will take place shortly after the 1st anniversary of The Abraham Accords. They are the historic normalization agreements that Israel signed with two Arab kingdoms — Bahrain and the UAE. Morocco and Sudan were also following suit before Donald Trump left office.

The accords remain one of Trump’s major foreign policy legacies and seemed to signal a shift in a Middle East paradigm. With the exception of Jordan and Egypt, who had normalized relations to Israel for years, Arab governments had tied establishing diplomatic ties to an agreement between Israel and Palestine. But in August 2020, a major Arab player — the UAE — chose to ignore Palestinian concerns in favor of the promise of expanded trade links with Israel, enhanced potential security cooperation against Iran and new political incentives from an eager Trump administration.

For all of their many objections to Trump’s broader agenda, Biden officials appear somewhat keen on building upon the Abraham Accords. Biden, on his campaign trail, praised the normalization agreements a year ago even though he was critical of Trump’s other policies. It seemed that the possibility of normalization between the UAE and Bahrain convinced Benjamin Netanyahu, then Prime Minister, to stop plans to officially annex West Bank parts.

“By forestalling that possibility and replacing it with the hope of greater connection and integration in the region, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have pointed a path toward a more peaceful, stable Middle East,” Biden wrote in August 2020. “A Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress, and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace.”

The deal’s boosters point to immediate tangible gains. Normalization between the UAE and Israel has already led to at least $675 million in bilateral trade, direct flights between the two countries, an influx of tourists and expanded people-to-people contacts.

In a September joint op-ed for the Financial Times, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Yair Lapid — the foreign ministers Blinken is hosting Wednesday — celebrated the perceived “generational shift” underway.

“As two of the world’s most dynamic and advanced countries, the UAE and Israel together can help turbocharge economic opportunity by pushing for deeper regional integration,” they wrote.

That economic pitch, in principle, extends to the Palestinians, though little has changed in the grim dynamic that sees an Israeli military occupation hold sway over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and an asphyxiating military blockade circumscribe the lives of roughly two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When hostilities flared earlier this year, the Arab states that normalized ties with Israel did little to change the calculus of Israeli military operations, defend Palestinians facing expulsion from their homes in East Jerusalem or kick start any meaningful political process between the two embittered sides.

“The record of the normalizing states before and especially after opening up relations with Israel has only reinforced the impression that they are not interested in taking on a wider portfolio when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” noted a report from the Israel Policy Forum, which urged the Biden administration to “induce greater participation” in Palestinian affairs “on the part of the normalizers.”

But that may be a tough ask for an administration that is keen not to rock the boat. Biden finds in Israel’s current government a set of leaders who are less of an irritant than Netanyahu was when Biden was vice president. There have been a few noticeable shifts in style and emphasis from the Trump years, with the United States resuming aid funding to Palestinians that had been cut by Trump while coaxing Israel to repair relations with Jordan, long the key Arab interlocutor in the conflict.

Beyond that, though, Biden officials “are committed to not doing much” and are “very status quo-oriented,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Today’s WorldView. The Abraham Accords were used by the Trump administration “as a means to show that the Palestinian question was not relevant” in the Arab World, Elgindy said.

The Biden administration may not press hard to expand the Abraham Accords to new Arab states — including what Israel would consider the big prize, Saudi Arabia — but it is also tacitly supporting the “shrinking” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a concept touted by both Lapid and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Israel could work with its allies to improve the economic lives of Palestinians in order to ease tensions, rather than ignoring their political demands.

But “to its critics, the new mantra is merely a rebranding of Israel’s decades-old approach to the Palestinians,” wrote Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times. “They frame it as a clever public relations strategy that obscures a longstanding intention by successive Israeli leaders, including Bennett, to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, entrench Israel’s presence there and make it harder to reverse the 54-year occupation.”

Biden will go along with this, in part because he accepts “Bennett’s argument that Israel’s left-right coalition government could not survive a peace process requiring the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,” wrote veteran U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk in a new essay for Foreign Affairs.

All of the enthusiastic summits in Washington, Tel Aviv or Abu Dhabi, though, can’t obscure that unreconciled underlying reality. “The Palestinian question may not carry the same weight in the region that it once did, but it is not resolved,” wrote Jeremy Pressman, director of Middle East studies at the University of Connecticut. “Despite Israel’s efforts to build ties with certain Arab countries, it remains an important issue and source of instability. Bypassing it through regional diplomacy will not make it go away.”

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