Senate seeks to enhance Arab-Israeli normalization at the expense of the Palestinians

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) (screenshot)

Josh Ruebner

Mondoweiss  /  April 1, 2021

A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced a bill to advance the Trump administration policy of normalizing ties between Israel and Arab governments. It is highly doubtful the Biden administration will oppose it.

A bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill last week to advance the normalization of ties between Israel and Arab governments in a move to further politically isolate the Palestinian people and give Israel greater latitude to entrench its ongoing settler-colonialism against them.

S.1061, the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021, was introduced on March 25 by Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Todd Young (R-IN), and Ben Cardin (D-MD), and cosponsored by 13 additional Senators, including some Democrats, such as Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Tim Kaine (D-VA), who have previously spoken out in support of Palestinian human rights.

The bill was supported by AIPAC during its virtual lobbying conference earlier this month.

In a joint media release, Portman, the sponsor of the bill, stated that “this bill will encourage normalization of relations between Israel and other countries in the region, which will help build on the success of the Abraham Accords, support our ally Israel and enshrine the longstanding US policy that encourages Arab League states to normalize relations with Israel.”

Although the official text of the bill has not been posted yet, Jewish Insider ran what appears to be the text of the bill on its website. 

While the bill pays perfunctory lip-service to the establishment of a Palestinian state and grasps at straws to argue that normalization of ties between Israel and Arab governments will magically facilitate that outcome, the intent of the bill is the opposite: to build on the Trump administration’s cynical business deals with Arab governments to further their interests at the expense of the Palestinian people.

The fact that none of the Senators even bothered to mention the Palestinian people in their media release is a more accurate gauge of the bill’s intention of furthering Israel’s goal of eliminating Palestinian rights.

Contents of the bill

Instead, the 14-page bill is rife with a plethora of new and often redundant Executive Branch reporting requirements to Congress, the outcome of which will be to send bureaucrats into a paroxysm of new paperwork and mobilize several governmental agencies to pressure additional Arab governments into throwing the Palestinian people under the bus.

For example, the bill would require the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress on the Biden administration’ strategy to build upon the Trump administration’s so-called Abraham Accords, including an assessment of “staffing and resourcing requirements” for the State Department, USAID, the Pentagon, and others to “expand and strengthen” normalization efforts.

The report would also contain “a detailed description” of how the Biden administration “will leverage diplomatic lines of effort and resources from other stakeholders (including from foreign governments, international donors, and multilateral institutions) to encourage normalization.”

While this may sound like a snoozer of a report, its ramifications down the road could be consequential, creating the pretext for a heretofore unknown bureaucratic need for large-scale appropriations to implement this strategy.  

The bill would also necessitate a report on what the United States is doing to promote normalization in international institutions, including “options for leveraging contributions of international donors, institutions, and partner countries to facilitate people-to-people and government-to-government relations between Israelis and Arabs.”

It is not far-fetched to envision Congress enacting subsequent legislation based on this report to condition US contributions to or participation in these multilateral fora should they prove to be insufficiently committed to normalization.

The bill would also create an annual reporting requirement from the State Department to Congress to track and monitor so-called “anti-normalization laws” and prosecutions under them, along with purported “extrajudicial retribution” against people normalizing ties with Israel.

Again, while the reporting requirement in itself is not exactly earth-shattering, it could lay the groundwork for future legislative efforts to create a special envoy to promote normalization and to set up a rigorous sanctions regime against countries which run afoul of the reports.

In short, while the legislation itself would do nothing more than generate new reports and focus additional bureaucratic attention on normalization efforts, these reports, in turn, could produce additional legislation to significantly ratchet up the pressure on Arab governments to normalize ties with Israel.

Conflating anti-normalization with antisemitism      

Beyond the reporting requirements of the bill, another disturbing feature of the legislation is its back-handed conflation of anti-normalization with antisemitism. To its credit, the bill does call out racism and Islamophobia, but only as factors that “hinder improvement of relations between Israel, Arab states, and other relevant countries and regions.”

But while the bill is mum on Israel’s racist policies and practices toward the Palestinian people, it is quick to identify antisemitism as the motivating factor behind anti-normalization efforts. For example, the bill states that it is the policy of the United States “to work to combat anti-Semitism and support normalization with Israel, including by countering anti-Semitic narratives on social media and state media and pressing for curricula reform in education.”

This reductionist characterization of anti-normalization sentiment in Arab countries feeds into Islamophobic tropes the bill claims to oppose. By assuming that deep-seated opposition to recognizing Israel before the establishment of a just and lasting peace with the Palestinian people is motivated predominately or exclusively by religious animus, rather than by legitimate political principles, the bills plays into Orientalist stereotypes of Arabs as irreducible religious fanatics who are implacably opposed to Jewish people and Judaism, rather than the settler-colonial principles of Zionism.

Biden response?

It is highly doubtful that the Biden administration would throw any roadblocks in the way of this bill, as it has showered this particular Trump administration initiative with effusive praise. 

“We very much support the Abraham Accords,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a January 27 press conference. “We think that Israel normalizing relations with its neighbours and other countries in the region is a very positive development, and so we applauded them, and we hope that there may be an opportunity to build on them in the months and years ahead.”

If enacted into law, S.1061 would provide the Biden administration with additional statutory encouragement to further this normalization process at the expense of Palestinian rights, and set the stage for more far-reaching legislation at a later date.

Josh Ruebner is the Senior Principal at Progress Up Consulting; former Policy Director at the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Middle East Analyst at the Congressional Research Service; author of Israel: Democracy or Apartheid State? and Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace