Biden has an opportunity to put his own stamp on Arab-Israeli relations

Biden has an opportunity to put his own stamp on Arab-Israeli relations
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The Abraham Accords have the Biden administration in a bit of a bind. Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Wednesday hosted Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed to discuss “accomplishments since the signing of the Abraham Accords and other important issues,” as Blinken tweeted on Saturday. 

The meeting was the first in-person, trilateral summit between representatives of the United States, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel — parties to the first breakthrough normalization agreement struck last year — since President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE took office. It builds on a virtual program that Blinken held last month to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords signing in September 2020. Yet, until that event, the White House was apprehensive about touching the normalization issue, apparently reluctant to use the “Abraham Accords” branding. 

What makes the accords so vexing for Biden? On one hand, Israel-Arab state normalization is unquestionably in America’s interest, helping to disentangle complicated alliance politics and advance a longstanding bipartisan policy objective. Biden and his advisers have stated they support normalization, and they started engaging more actively with the process around the anniversary of the accords. However, the White House is clearly a little uneasy with what is widely seen as a Donald TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE legacy project.  

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Moreover, while Biden backs normalization, the Abraham Accords were purposefully aimed at compartmentalizing Israel-Arab state relations from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s son-in-law and former adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerHillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Hackers are making big money Kushner associate pardoned by Trump in plea discussions over cyberstalking charges Biden has an opportunity to put his own stamp on Arab-Israeli relations MORE said as much explicitly. This puts the agreements — as presently conceived — at odds with the Biden administration’s avowedly pro-two-state solution stance. Compounding all of this, the Middle East has not been at the top of the Biden administration’s policy agenda. 

The relations that the Abraham Accords formally established have been humming along, notwithstanding the relatively sparse attention from the White House. The warmth with which the Israeli exhibition was received at the Dubai Expo this month attests to the depth of the relations that have been established between Israel and the UAE. But normalization also has continued to leave the Palestinians behind, which makes a full Middle East peace elusive and may contribute to the administration’s reluctance to fully embrace it.  

The Abraham Accords dealt a serious blow to the old framework of Arab-Israeli relations, in which normalization was conditioned upon an end to the occupation and a final status agreement. Since then, it has been hard to make the case that the current trajectory of the normalization process is good for the Palestinians. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

If the Biden administration wants to put its own stamp on the Abraham Accords, it should press the existing parties to the agreements — and any additional Arab countries that open ties with Israel — to extend the benefits of normalization to the Palestinians. There are significant opportunities here, which we lay out in a new study released this week by Israel Policy Forum, that follow the existing normalization model while creating progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.  

A free trade zone in the Jordan Valley facilitating trade between Palestinians and Arab countries should be established. Tourism programs between Israel and its new Arab partners should include Palestinian private and governmental stakeholders. Normalizers can take on a role as donor states or facilitators of humanitarian aid in Gaza, providing much-needed relief and stability to the embattled enclave while diminishing the influence of Hamas-friendly Qatar. Normalizing states may make requests on the political front as well, as they continue advancing their own relations with Israel — whether a halt to demolitions of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, compromises on Jerusalem flashpoints such as Sheikh Jarrah (which helped trigger full-scale conflict in May), or shifting some responsibilities in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (PA). 

These measures also could inspire Jordan and Egypt, Israel’s earlier Arab treaty partners who are sensitive to Israeli-Palestinian issues, to take a more proactive role in Israeli-Palestinian mediation and upgrade their own cold peace with Israel — perhaps a case of FOMO (fear of missing out) on the attention being paid to the new normalizers. 

While the current normalizers found it fairly easy to reach an agreement with Israel, some may be more reluctant — after all, the majority of Arab governments still do not recognize Israel. Allowing the Abraham Accords’ Arab state parties to take credit for these kinds of policy achievements may make normalization an easier pill to swallow for the holdouts. Each of these steps also can help to reduce Palestinian opposition and resentment surrounding normalization, smoothing ties between Ramallah, Jerusalem and Washington, which the Biden administration has been keen to repair.

Because the organizing principle of the Abraham Accords under Trump was separating Israel-Arab state ties from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is unlikely the initiative will come from the normalizers here. A calculated request will have to come from the United States. Fortunately, there is evidence that the political will may be present in Washington. The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently approved the bipartisan Israel Relations Normalization Act, which requires an “assessment of opportunities created by normalization agreements with Israel to advance prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” linking the two issues. Companion legislation is pending in the Senate. 

There are challenges to further normalization. Biden is unlikely to approach authoritarian Arab governments with far-reaching military and political inducements like Trump’s F-35 sale to the UAE or recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara — nor would we endorse such an approach. Non-military alternatives, such as economic or touristic benefits, do exist but the Trump administration may have set expectations too high.

Nonetheless, future normalization between Israel and additional Arab states is a question of when, not if. If the Biden administration wants to set a course that can bring even wider benefits to all involved, including the Palestinians, the United States can try for a different take on normalization.

Michael Koplow is chief policy officer, Shira Efron is a policy adviser and Evan Gottesman is an adviser at the Israel Policy Forum. They are the co-authors of a new policy report, “The New Normal,” examining the Abraham Accords’ ramifications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Follow on Twitter @IsraelPolicy4m.