Ellen Knickmeyer, Aya Batrawy & Laurie Kellman
AP / June 10, 2021
The Biden administration is laying the groundwork for a renewed push to encourage more Arab countries to sign accords with Israel and working to strengthen existing deals after last month’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip interrupted those diplomatic efforts.
The embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords is a rare carryover of a signature Trump administration policy by President Joe Biden and other Democrats.
The Trump administration put U.S. clout and incentives into landing the country-by-country pacts by four Arab states last year, easing enmity and isolation for the Jewish state in the Middle East that had dated back to Israel’s 1948 founding. The Biden administration saw significant prospects of several other Arab governments signing accords soothing and normalizing relations with Israel. U.S. officials have declined to publicly identify the countries they regard as promising prospects.
Sudan, which signed a general declaration of peaceful intent but has not yet signed on to diplomatic relations with Israel, had been a prospect. Oman, which has a policy of non-interference that allows it to be a broker across the Middle East’s fault lines, long has been seen by Westerners as a likely contender.
But the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas militant rulers last month has complicated U.S.-backed diplomacy for new Abraham accords.
The fighting “has strengthened the conviction of opponents of normalization” with Israel, activist Doura Gambo said in Sudan. Sudanese were already divided over their government’s agreement last year to become one of the four Arab states signing accords. In Sudan’s case, the Trump administration offered financial relief from U.S. sanctions.
Last month’s bloodshed, which killed 254 Palestinians — including 66 children and at least 22 members of one family — resonated deeply with the Arab public, including in the other countries that had signed accords with Israel: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Thirteen people died in Israel, including two children and one soldier.
The Biden administration is considering appointing a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to a Mideast role that would marshal and potentially expand the country-by-country accords between Israel and Mideast governments.
Two people familiar with the matter confirmed Shapiro was being considered for the job, as first reported by The Washington Post. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
U.S. officials also are working to encourage more business, education and other ties among the four Arab states and Israel. They hope visible success there will also promote the bilateral accords in the region, at the same time the U.S. works to advance resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Last year, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country in over two decades to establish ties with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively. It was a move that bypassed the Palestinians, who saw it as betrayal.
The Abraham Accords include a general declaration of support for peaceful relations in the Middle East among Jews, Muslims and Christians, all followers of religions linked to the patriarch Abraham. The Trump administration saw the accords partly as paving a path toward full ties with Israel, including in security and intelligence cooperation to counter common rivals, such as Iran.
The deals former President Donald Trump struck were “an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.
In addition, “we’re looking at countries that may want to join in and, and take part and begin to normalize their own relations with Israel. That, too, has been very much part of conversations I’ve had with, with several of my counterparts,” Blinken added.
Opponents of these deals, however, argue that they undermine Arab consensus around only recognizing Israel when it resumes serious peace talks with the Palestinians that lead to tangible concessions.
“These agreements were never about the peace process,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, who charges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the accords as an alternative to peace-making with the Palestinians.
“Were they helpful to the peace process? No, they were not,” Muasher said. “They gave Israel the false impression that it can forge peace agreements with Arab states as a substitute for coming to terms with the Palestinians.”
Supporters of the country-by-country accords say isolating Israel failed to overcome decades of stalemate on Palestinians’ demand for their own state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
“As many ways as the Biden administration will depart from Trump policy in the region, there will be places where it sees an interest in continuity,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who spoke to officials in Oman on a trip immediately before last month’s Gaza war erupted.
Before any new efforts on the accords move forward, big political and pragmatic developments need to fall into place in the region. Eyes are on Israel at the moment to see how a possible new coalition government led by a new prime minister may affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, especially in the aftermath of the Gaza war.
The Knesset is set to vote on Sunday on whether to confirm the new government and end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. If it does, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett will become prime minister. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.
The accords signed by the four Arab nations so far seem solidly in place despite the strain of last month’s war. So too do the big incentives that the Trump administration threw in to help close the deals, such as U.S. recognition of the disputed territory of Western Sahara for Morocco.
In the UAE, a Gulf financial hub that has been the most enthusiastic about establishing ties with Israel, Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the government is gauging public sentiment, but can also control the street and sometimes defy whatever public opposition there is.
“The UAE have taken this decision. They knew exactly where they are and knew the risk, and they are not going back on it,” he said.
Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City, Kellman from Jerusalem and Batrawy from Dubai. AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee contributed from Washington. AP writer Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem, and AP writer Samy Magdy contributed from Cairo