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A path to peace from Biden’s trip — How the Arab states can help

biden crown prince
Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP
U.S. President Joe Biden, center left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, arrive for the family photo during the “GCC+3” (Gulf Cooperation Council) meeting at a hotel in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah Saturday, July 16, 2022.

President Biden approached his Middle East trip with a strategic view. Many critics took the narrow view that he failed to secure any announced increase in oil production or to make any progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Time will tell whether his discussions will yield not just a more stable oil market but also one in which the Saudis and others are actively collaborating with us to manage a stable transition away from fossil fuels over the next two decades.

However, on the Palestinian issue, the critics missed that Biden sees the region differently. In speaking to Arab leaders of nine states in Jedda, Biden said that “we will operate in the context of the Middle East as it is today: a region more united than it has been in years … Increasingly, the world is seeing the Mideast through the lens of opening and opportunity.”

The new reality in the region — providing economic cooperation between Arabs and Israel — means Biden understood there is a new paradigm for peace-making between Israelis and Palestinians. As he told an Israeli television interviewer on the eve of the trip, “the more Israel is integrated into the region as an equal and is accepted, the more likely there is going to be a means by which they can eventually come to accommodation with the Palestinians down the road.” If in the past an Israeli-Palestinian deal was the gateway between Israel and Arab states, now Biden is saying the reverse. The message is that ties with the Arabs give Israel something to lose.

But there also is a different Arab angle to the Biden view: Arab states are no longer willing to wait for the Palestinians and forego what is in their interests. Because Sunni Arab leaders are increasingly mindful that Israel can help on critical domestic needs, ranging from water to cyber security challenges, they are seeking cooperation with Israel. What began as under-the-radar cooperation against terror and traditional security threats is now expanding to include domestic economic needs. That reality has emerged very much in the open with the Abraham Accord countries, especially in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-Israeli ties. However, with Israeli business people now doing business in Saudi Arabia, albeit on second passports, the phenomena is clearly not limited to the countries that have made formal peace with Israel.

President Biden’s trip showed how one Abraham Accord country, Morocco, could help the Palestinians now: Morocco played a key role in getting Israel to agree to keeping the Allenby Bridge crossing — one which Palestinians use to cross to and from Jordan — open on a 24/7 basis. Biden administration officials also made clear during the trip that the Negev Forum, a regional framework of four Arab states hosted by Israel, should involve the Palestinians on different economic working groups ranging from health to food security.

Arab states themselves understand they have leverage in making peace with Israel. When the Emirates approached the Trump administration in July 2020, they conveyed that they were ready for full normalization with Israel provided that Israel did not unilaterally annex West Bank territory allotted to it under the Trump peace plan. The Palestinians rejected what the Emiratis were doing, seeing Israel rewarded with normalization before occupation was ended. What the Palestinian leadership has failed to realize is that the needs of Arab states now mean they are no longer willing to wait for the Palestinians, particularly because they doubt the Palestinian leadership is capable of doing anything to help resolve the conflict.

Like the Palestinians, most critics of Israel hold it solely responsible for the conflict with the Palestinians. They absolve the Palestinians of the need to do anything except be on the receiving end of Israeli concessions. They ignore that peace-making is a two-way street, including preparing both publics for peace and acknowledging that Jews also have a historical attachment to the land. The inability to acknowledge Israeli needs, and the continuing public incitement against Israel which necessarily legitimizes violence, gives the Israeli public little reason to think that the Palestinians will ever make real peace. Therefore, they are unwilling to support any political concessions to the Palestinians.

The problem for Israel is that the Palestinians are not going anywhere and staying on the current path will yield one state in time. The irony is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are capable of politically breaking their stalemate.

But Arab states can play a role here. 

Consider how the UAE approached the issue of full normalization: Its leaders tied it to Israel not taking a negative step toward the Palestinians. Other Arab states could offer variations of this model. For example, the Saudis could offer to open a commercial trade office in Tel Aviv, something that would serve their interest in building a resilient, tech-driven economy; for this, they could ask the Israelis to stop building to the east of the security barrier in the West Bank, meaning Israel would not build on 92 percent of the West Bank. That would preserve the two-state outcome, even as it demonstrated to the Palestinians that the Saudis were preventing incremental Israeli annexation. 

Alternatively, a less political move but one that could greatly benefit Palestinians would be for the Saudis to invest in water infrastructure in the West Bank — something hugely important, given water shortages, but something that would necessitate the Saudis working directly with the Israelis to be able to implement the projects.

Put simply, in an environment of political gridlock between Israelis and Palestinians, a new factor is needed to unlock possibilities. Arab state outreach to Israelis is going to happen anyway, so why not take advantage of it? It can help Palestinians and make Israeli political moves more acceptable to the Israeli public.

Biden was right to recognize the region is changing and to promote the new paradigm.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny.” Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Between 2013-2014 he served in the Office of the Secretary of State as a senior adviser to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. He is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the creator of the Decision Points podcast. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMakovsky.

Tags Abraham Accords Arab-Israeli peace Biden Biden foreign affairs Biden foreign policy Biden Middle East trip Gulf Arab states Israel Israeli settlement Israeli–Palestinian conflict Israeli–Palestinian peace process Middle East peace Middle East Policy Palestinian National Authority West Bank

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