A year after the Abraham Accords, Biden takes a cautious approach to Arab-Israeli normalisation

The UAE signing the Abraham agreements [GETTY]
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
12 August, 2021

When Donald Trump’s administration announced a US-brokered normalisation deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a year ago on 13 August 2020, the news was met with fanfare on the right and dismissive scepticism on the left and centre of the US political spectrum.

How could an agreement dubbed “historic” by its supporters have so little support from so many, particularly from the new US administration who would be inheriting what was labelled a peace deal by its predecessor?

Looking at the main points of the accord, it is clear that it was not in fact a ‘peace deal’, nor was it done with any long-term vision. It did, however, recognise a reality that will be difficult to undo.

"Trump thought that the Gulf countries were the only ones that counted. They have clout and resources. That's how Trump views the world"

“When this first came out, I was teaching a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I read the document and thought it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t read it since. It was a fake peace plan. What a joke,” Ronald Stockton, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, told The New Arab.

“Trump thought that the Gulf countries were the only ones that counted. They have clout and resources. That’s how Trump views the world,” said Stockton, noting the administration’s close ties with the former prime minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. “The Palestinians got pushed aside.”

The Abraham Accords, named for the Abrahamic faiths of those in the Middle East, was a process negotiated by Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, Special Representative for International Negotiations.

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Normalisation with the UAE was soon followed by Bahrain, and later by Sudan and Morocco. Saudi Arabia and Oman were expected to follow, but have said they would only normalise ties with Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders.

The accords followed the unveiling in January 2020 of the Trump administration’s ‘deal of the century’, a dead-on-arrival peace plan which proposed, among other things, the Israeli annexation of 30% of the occupied West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and all illegal settlements.

The Biden administration has so far exercised caution in its response to the Abraham Accords, when possible, not mentioning them by name and preferring to use the term normalisation when referring to diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states.

Additionally, Biden has resumed aid to the Palestinians, which had been halted under his predecessor, and has committed to reopening the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem, which was shuttered by the overtly pro-Israel Trump administration.

UAE Bahrain Israel Normalisation
The Trump administration's overt pro-Israel stance sidelined Palestinians. [Getty]

Though not officially part of the Abraham Accords, the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, a largely symbolic but nevertheless provocative decision under Trump, will likely remain under Biden and for the foreseeable future.

The current administration’s passive response, and in some ways tacit acceptance, of Trump’s rupture with decades of US diplomacy in the region could be detrimental to a potential future peace deal, given the sidelining of Palestinians.

“There had been a line, as weak as it was. The Arab peace initiative was not a great standard, but it still paid lip service to the Palestinians. The Abraham Accords broke that,” Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told TNA.

In addition to sidelining the Palestinians, she worries about the US giving legitimacy to authoritarianism, citing reports of social media users in the UAE facing backlash from their government over content critical of normalisation with Israel following the Abraham Accords.

"There had been a line, as weak as it was. The Arab peace initiative was not a great standard, but it still paid lip service to the Palestinians. The Abraham Accords broke that"

Along similar lines, Anwar Mhajne, assistant professor of political science at Stonehill College, wonders if an alignment between Israel and the Arab Gulf states will give them more leverage to pressure Israel on its policies towards Palestinians, or whether it will have the opposite effect. So far, she has seen the latter.

“The UAE condemned Israel for storming the al-Aqsa mosque without threatening any consequences,” noting how the violence this past spring, including May’s deadly assault on Gaza, exposed the UAE’s lack of leverage. She is curious if that could change in the future. “We will see what happens when the next round of violence occurs.”  

On the other hand, the Abraham Accords point to an underlying reality that has been building for some time in the region: the alignment of interests between Israel and Gulf states.

Patrick James, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, describes this as an alignment of the haves (Israel and Gulf states) versus the have-nots (Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians), and he sees the “haves” as the more realistic and viable allies for the US.

“Moral concerns have been shelved,” he told TNA. “Whether you love it or hate it, Israel is a more valuable ally than the Palestinians.”

He added, “The alliances have been codified. They’re already there.”

Moreover, he believes that Biden, in staying relatively quiet about Trump’s past policies in the Middle East, is busy with domestic and other foreign policy issues and is thinking about his party’s upcoming elections, including in swing districts.

He doesn’t expect Biden to reverse the Abraham Accords. “He can’t go too far back in the other direction.” 

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews