Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary
The Biden administration has made little progress in advancing normalization agreements between Israel and Arab and Muslim-majority countries more than one year since they were first established under the Trump administration.
Supporters of the agreements, called the Abraham Accords, say President Biden is missing a key opportunity on an issue that enjoys rare bipartisan support in a polarized and hyper-partisan Congress.
They add that the president can reap tangible successes in the Middle East, including on improving conditions for Palestinians, while taking ownership of a Trump foreign policy success.
The stalled progress is likely to give ammo to Republicans ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections, who seek to skewer the Biden administration over its policy of rapprochement with Iran and reestablishing ties with the Palestinians that were severed under Trump.
And the administration has come under fire for appearing to fail to defend Kurdish Iraqis who were condemned, and reportedly physically threatened, for calling to normalize ties with Israel.
“It is beyond unexplainable that the Biden administration is distancing America from this noble effort of the Iraqi people to normalize relations with Israel. We should pray for their efforts, not shun them,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in response to a statement by the U.S.-led coalition to defeat ISIS that denied knowledge of the calls for normalization.
Pompeo, one of the architects of the accords and a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, will be in Jerusalem next week to celebrate their one-year anniversary with Israeli officials.
Also in attendance will be Trump’s son-in-law and former special adviser Jared Kushner, who was integral in shaping the deal, along with former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who will be inaugurating the “Friedman Center for Peace through Strength” to coincide with the celebrations.
The Abraham Accords were first announced in August 2020 as a breakthrough in normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, marking the first Arab country to establish relations with Israel in more than two decades, since Jordan in 1994.
Bahrain was the second country to sign on to the deals followed by pronouncements from Sudan and Morocco to deepen ties with Israel.
“I have to say that it exceeded my expectations,” Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute who served as an adviser on Palestinian negotiations between 1999 and 2001, said of the success of the accords.
“Relations are going strong, embassies are being formally established, economic relations are just only growing … certainly we’re seeing a momentum,” he added.
While the trigger for the UAE recognizing Israel was an effort to preserve Palestinian national aspirations — securing a commitment by Israel to halt plans for annexation greenlighted by the Trump administration — al-Omari said that the deepening ties with Abu Dhabi and the subsequent agreements with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco show how far the Palestinian issue has fallen from the agenda of Arab and Muslim countries.
“In the end it’s invalidated the old paradigm that Israeli peace with the Arabs has to go first with the Palestinian track. These are all transformations,” he said.
Yet including issues related to the Palestinians with prospective Abraham Accord partners could present an opportunity for the Biden administration to secure a key signatory like Saudi Arabia, and move forward its commitments to improving the situation for Palestinians in general, said Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a research and policy advocacy organization.
Saudi Arabia, which the Trump administration touted as being close to signing on to the accords, has resisted so far, insisting that normalization with Israel is contingent on Palestinian statehood.
“If countries that normalize with Israel keep this in mind,” Koplow continued. “To say to Israelis, ‘listen there are things [with the Palestinians] that make it harder for us to normalize, and if you stop some of these things, then more agreements can be had’ — that’s a model that we’ve seen work once already and I think it’s likely to keep on going.”
Advancing efforts to bolster peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians through the Abraham Accords has garnered bipartisan support in Congress.
The Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) in the House and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in the Senate, calls for the State Department to assess how the Abraham Accords “advance prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
But supporters of the accords say they have yet to see the Biden administration prioritize these negotiations.
“The Biden administration has been tepid — to be charitable — on moving forward,” Koplow said. “One challenge is that the model that the Trump administration developed is simply not wise for the United States.”
The Trump administration came under intense scrutiny by both Republicans and Democrats over the basis of the agreements reached with the UAE, Sudan and Morocco.
This included selling F-35 advanced fighter jets and other military sales to Abu Dhabi, removing Sudan from the State Sponsor of Terrorism List, and recognizing Morocco’s claim to the contested territory of Western Sahara.
While the Biden team has allowed the F-35 sale to proceed, it has done little to address the status of Western Sahara for Morocco, or Sudan’s role in the Abraham Accords, which has yet to officially sign the agreement.
While Biden has put forth the possibility of a Washington visit for Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok — raised during a call with national security adviser Jake Sullivan last month — a high level Sudanese diplomat said they are waiting for the official invitation.
“We are halfway there,” the diplomat said of the yearlong wait to sign the accords.
Bonnie Glick, who served as deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Trump administration, called finalizing Sudan’s participation as a “low-hanging-fruit opportunity to have an impact on a Muslim country that needs our help.”
“Sudan probably took the biggest risk of any country that’s signed on to the accords. This is a brand-new government that came to power by toppling an Islamist autocracy,” she said.
“You have a military government that’s trying to transition to a civilian government, and they took a calculated risk and said, ‘We’re going to sign the Abraham Accords.’ And since the Biden administration came in, there has been silence on the Sudan component in particular.”
Biden officials say they are engaged in efforts to expand the accords by adding in new countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month hosted a Zoom call with his counterparts in Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco celebrating the one-year anniversary of the accords.
“This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward,” Blinken said.
But al-Omari, of the Washington Institute, criticized this event as “muted.”
“It is a fact that the Biden administration has not been, very robustly, involved in building on these accords,” he said.
Despite the absence of the Biden administration, ties are deepening between Israel and Gulf states, largely an outgrowth of more than a decade of secret ties over concerns of Iran’s ambitions in the region and, following normalization, excitement over increased economic opportunities and security initiatives.
Israel is touting as a landmark achievement its pavilion in Dubai at the World Expo; direct flights and exchanges of hundreds of thousands of its citizens with the UAE; and raising the possibility that Oman could be the next country to join the accords.
“We have, I believe, created a change of dynamics and a change of attitude in the Middle East and in the region,” Eliav Benjamin, head of the bureau of the Middle East and Peace process division at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a briefing with reporters Wednesday.
This paradigm shift between Israel and its neighbors, Benjamin continued, is about “being much more pragmatic and practical on dealing with issues that we have at hand.”
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