Just over a year ago, a deal was signed on the White House lawn between Israel and two tiny Arab Gulf countries. It was billed as a game changer in the Middle East.
Called the Abraham Accords, the deal normalized relations between the Jewish state, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and got the ball rolling with Sudan and Morocco. The Bahrainis and Emiratis were the first, and only, Arab states to formalize ties with Israel since Jordan and Egypt decades ago.
The Israelis had every right to be thrilled. Embassies were exchanged, direct flights began, and about 200,000 Israelis flocked to the Emirates in the last year, including many business delegations. Israel has a big pavilion in the current Dubai World Expo, whose motto is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.”
On Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid joked familiarly with the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, at a news conference in Washington alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Lapid invited bin Zayed to his Tel Aviv home for dinner.
Yet there is a glaring omission in the Abraham Accords that was noticeable in the banter on the stage, an omission that threatens Israel more than its Arab partners. The Biden team could help but is reluctant to get involved.
Palestinians left out
That omission: Palestinians were not part of the Abraham Accords, which were deliberately formulated to work around them. At Wednesday’s news conference, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation on the West Bank, in Gaza, and Jerusalem got only the most pro forma mention.
Prior to the accords, the common Mideast wisdom contended that further normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states (beyond Egypt and Jordan) must be preceded by an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. This was the formula enshrined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, promoted by Saudi Arabia.
But former President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, turned that formula on its head with the Abraham Accords. They called for normalization by Arab states to come first in an effort to compel the Palestinians to accept a very limited form of autonomy proposed by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under Trump and Netanyahu’s plan, the concept of a two-state solution with a disarmed Palestinian state alongside Israel would end, once and for all.
The Palestinians refused. Trump and Netanyahu were defeated. And now, despite the people-to-people warmth of the new Gulf-Israel accords, reality rears its head.
The expanding Arab normalization isn’t likely to go much further. It was primarily based on common security needs since Israel and the Gulf states share a hostility toward Iranian aggression. They have been sharing intelligence and exchanging unofficial visits for years.
But common security concerns weren’t sufficient to get a deal. The Trump White House sweetened the pot by selling the UAE advanced F-35 jets, removing Sudan from the list of terrorism sponsors, and recognizing Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara (a position reversed by President Biden).
The Trump team even considered granting Saudi Arabia primary responsibility for Jerusalem’s Holy Places, pushing aside close U.S. ally Jordan, but this effort failed. No further big bribes are likely under Biden, and the Saudis seem unlikely to normalize relations in the foreseeable future.
Most important, the Abraham Accords won’t solve Israel’s Palestine problem. The state of Israel faces the same existential problem it did before the accords: Continued occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Arab East Jerusalem effectively creates one Israeli state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And within that territory the number of Palestinians already outnumbers Israeli Jews.
In an effort to address the big omission, the Israel Policy Forum (which supports a “viable two-state solution”) has put out a timely report on whether the accords might be used to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Called The New Normal: Arab-Israeli Normalization and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the report argues that the Israeli government might be willing to accept trade-offs that advance Israeli-Palestinian peace in exchange for further normalization.
And it urges the UAE and other Arab normalizers to press for Palestinian involvement in economic initiatives on trade, environment, and tourism that evolve under the accords.
But the authors recognize that the Gulf Arabs have little interest in getting involved in the Palestinian issue, nor is Israel eager to bring the Palestinian Authority into the process. “For any of this to work we need a bigger American role,” coauthor Michael Koplow told me. “Without it, it will be tougher to proceed and bring in the Palestinians.”
Moreover, without political talks, it is impossible to improve the Palestinian economic situation. Investment in the West Bank and Gaza is stalled due to the uncertain political situation, where Israel can block imports or exports or movement of workers, or even bandwidth for fast internet.
So the economic promise of the Abraham Accords should indeed be expanded to include Palestinians, but this can’t be done without a parallel renewal of Israeli-Palestinian political talks. That would require pressure from the White House on both the Israelis and the Emiratis.
Unless those accords expand, and political talks evolve, Israel will still face its existential Palestinian problem. All the excitement of the Dubai World Expo won’t change that immutable fact.