Biden needs a special envoy for Middle East normalization
Like much of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the historic normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab states have been tarnished by the partisan politicking of the American and Israeli leaders who signed them. Even now, in their shared quest for a second act, former leaders Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu have sought to leverage their involvement in the agreements for personal, political gains. The left — intuitively averse to all things Trump — has played into their hands: Progressives lament the accords as entrenching non-democratic regimes and undermining the prospects for peace with the Palestinians. Many progressives have sought to distance themselves as a result. The Biden administration must not let either side undermine this breakthrough. To the contrary, they should name a “Special Envoy for normalization” and prioritize making these deals their own.
Israel’s new government has been quick to dislodge the agreements from its predecessor’s grip: Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s first overseas trip will be to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on June 29. Unlike his predecessor — whose efforts to exploit normalization for election chits were foiled by the UAE — he is expected to be greeted warmly upon arrival. Whereas Netanyhu went to great lengths to monopolize the accords, Israel has now adopted a whole-of-government approach to implementing the agreements. Officials from across the bureaucracy are working hand-in-hand with civil society to translate these framework agreements from handshakes to partnerships — sending a clear message to the world that in Israel, normalization is not a partisan matter.
The Biden administration should do the same. Normalization makes the region safer and more stable. It will enable deeper economic integration, spur investment in innovation, energy, agriculture and tech, as well as promote much-needed development in parts of North Africa. The new block can be used to isolate Iran and serve as leverage. Expanding these agreements could create unprecedented opportunities for the U.S. to advance its objectives in the region, including improving military interoperability and burden sharing. The new administration can move away from the Trump administration’s fire sale approach and offer prospective normalizers incentives that align more closely with America’s interests in the region. They can also ensure that the issues that they care about most — like advancing Palestinian rights — run through the accords and not alongside them by leveraging opportunities to coordinate relief, advance economic opportunities and even pressure the Israelis.
To succeed, support for normalization must be unequivocally bipartisan. The Biden administration has certainly said the right things, speaking to the “strategic importance” of normalization and expressing “full support for strengthening and expanding” the deals. But it is not yet clear who will shepherd that support. While many senior State Department officials’ portfolios will intersect with this work — from the regional ambassadors to White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk — no single desk is fully accountable for the issue.
There are already 55 special envoys and comprable portfolios on topics that range from hostage affairs to Libya. Normalization needs a clear address too — a champion who can both support the hard work that will go into actualizing and leveraging the existing agreements to advance U.S. interests, while also driving the herculean efforts required to secure new ones. And while that role can take on many forms — including through double-hatting an ambassador already posted to the region — the parties, as well as American constituents who care deeply about the region, need a central place to turn to.
Congress can play a role here as well. In a guaranteed-to-pass bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans called on the State Department to provide a strategy to “expand and strengthen” the accords and to improve interdepartmental “cooperation and coordination” to that end. But the watery bill stops short of creating a much-needed envoy. Congress has a long history of steering executive branch personnel priorities: in 2004, they forced the creation of a “Special Envoy for Antisemitism,” a post they have continued to upgrade. Also, this past winter they created a “Cyber Czar.” By designating adequate funds for these roles, Congress can support the administration’s efforts to elevate key objectives — without undermining other priorities.
When Bill Clinton assumed office in 1992, he inherited the Madrid negotiations of George H.W. Bush. While the two presidents approached the conflict differently, the progress Clinton ultimately made was only possible because his Republican predecessor left room for continuity. The pursuit of peace in the Middle East — between any and all regional actors — cannot be relegated to a partisan endeavor. But if Biden fails to take meaningful action to advance these accords, he will be complacent in doing just that: bequeathing a partisan legacy of advancing regional peace to his predecessor. Despite the tragic events that transpired between Israel and Gaza in May, regional interest in normalization continues unabated. If the Biden administration fails to capture this moment, it will be a huge missed opportunity.
Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
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