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Biden carries forward a Trump-era Middle East policy


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On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host his counterparts from Israel and the United Arab Emirates in Washington. The meetings come shortly after the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the landmark normalization agreements between Israel and two Arab kingdoms — the UAE and Bahrain. Before President Donald Trump reluctantly left office, Morocco and Sudan had also followed suit.

The accords remain one of Trump’s major foreign policy legacies and seemed to signal a shift in a Middle East paradigm. For years, Arab governments — with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, which had already normalized relations with Israel — had linked establishing diplomatic ties with Israel to a lasting peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. But in August 2020, a major Arab player — the UAE — chose to ignore Palestinian concerns in favor of the promise of expanded trade links with Israel, enhanced potential security cooperation against Iran and new political incentives from an eager Trump administration.

The concessions came swiftly: The Emiratis secured a major American arms deal; Morocco convinced Trump to buck decades of bipartisan U.S. policy and recognize its claims to Western Sahara; Sudan got itself taken off the United States’ state sponsors of terrorism list.

For all of their many objections to Trump’s broader agenda, Biden officials appear somewhat keen on building upon the Abraham Accords. A year ago on the campaign trail, Biden hailed the normalization deals even as he assailed Trump on numerous other fronts. At the time, it seemed the prospect of normalization with the UAE and Bahrain had convinced then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to suspend plans to formally annex parts of the West Bank.

“By forestalling that possibility and replacing it with the hope of greater connection and integration in the region, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have pointed a path toward a more peaceful, stable Middle East,” Biden wrote in August 2020. “A Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress, and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace.”

The deal’s boosters point to immediate tangible gains. Normalization between the UAE and Israel has already led to at least $675 million in bilateral trade, direct flights between the two countries, an influx of tourists and expanded people-to-people contacts.

In a September joint op-ed for the Financial Times, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Yair Lapid — the foreign ministers Blinken is hosting Wednesday — celebrated the perceived “generational shift” underway.

“As two of the world’s most dynamic and advanced countries, the UAE and Israel together can help turbocharge economic opportunity by pushing for deeper regional integration,” they wrote.

That economic pitch, in principle, extends to the Palestinians, though little has changed in the grim dynamic that sees an Israeli military occupation hold sway over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and an asphyxiating military blockade circumscribe the lives of roughly two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. When hostilities flared earlier this year, the Arab states that normalized ties with Israel did little to change the calculus of Israeli military operations, defend Palestinians facing expulsion from their homes in East Jerusalem or kick start any meaningful political process between the two embittered sides.

“The record of the normalizing states before and especially after opening up relations with Israel has only reinforced the impression that they are not interested in taking on a wider portfolio when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” noted a report from the Israel Policy Forum, which urged the Biden administration to “induce greater participation” in Palestinian affairs “on the part of the normalizers.”

But that may be a tough ask for an administration that is keen not to rock the boat. Biden finds in Israel’s current government a set of leaders who are less of an irritant than Netanyahu was when Biden was vice president. There have been a few noticeable shifts in style and emphasis from the Trump years, with the United States resuming aid funding to Palestinians that had been cut by Trump while coaxing Israel to repair relations with Jordan, long the key Arab interlocutor in the conflict.

Beyond that, though, Biden officials “are committed to not doing much” and are “very status quo-oriented,” Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Today’s WorldView. For the Trump administration, the Abraham Accords served “as a way to demonstrate that the Palestinian issue was no longer salient” in the Arab world, Elgindy added.

The Biden administration may not press hard to expand the Abraham Accords to new Arab states — including what Israel would consider the big prize, Saudi Arabia — but it is also tacitly supporting the “shrinking” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a concept touted by both Lapid and current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Rather than reckoning with Palestinian political demands, Israel and its allies could try to boost Palestinian economic life in the hope of softening tensions.

But “to its critics, the new mantra is merely a rebranding of Israel’s decades-old approach to the Palestinians,” wrote Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times. “They frame it as a clever public relations strategy that obscures a longstanding intention by successive Israeli leaders, including Bennett, to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, entrench Israel’s presence there and make it harder to reverse the 54-year occupation.”

Biden will go along with this, in part because he accepts “Bennett’s argument that Israel’s left-right coalition government could not survive a peace process requiring the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza,” wrote veteran U.S. diplomat Martin Indyk in a new essay for Foreign Affairs.

All of the enthusiastic summits in Washington, Tel Aviv or Abu Dhabi, though, can’t obscure that unreconciled underlying reality. “The Palestinian question may not carry the same weight in the region that it once did, but it is not resolved,” wrote Jeremy Pressman, director of Middle East studies at the University of Connecticut. “Notwithstanding Israel’s progress in building ties with some Arab countries, the occupation remains a potent issue and a source of instability. Bypassing it through regional diplomacy will not make it go away.”

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