American, Israeli and Arab diplomats are celebrating Wednesday’s one-year anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords — the historic normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab powers that many saw as the greatest diplomatic game-changer of the Trump administration.
While President Biden has yet to appoint a special envoy to focus on building upon the agreements, White House officials emphasized on Tuesday that the administration “strongly supports” the normalization deals and is “working to expand” them.
President Trump on Sept. 15, 2020, hosted then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for a formal signing ceremony on the White House grounds, hailing the deal as the “dawn of a new age” for Middle East diplomacy.
While breaking sharply with Mr. Trump in other foreign policy areas, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is slated to gather for a virtual event Friday with his counterparts from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain to mark the anniversary, while U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a celebratory event in New York on Monday that “clearly, we want to build on this model and replicate this success.”
Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert, meanwhile, echoed the administration’s message on Tuesday at an event in Washington that was hosted by former President Donald Trump‘s son-in-law Jared Kushner. The Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors to the United States were in attendance.
While critics say the Biden administration remains reluctant to promote the Trump-era initiative, foreign policy experts generally contend the administration has had little choice but to embrace the Abraham Accords.
“This wasn’t an easy call for the Biden administration. Partisan politics clouded the process,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “These were agreements brokered by Trump, and there is strong pushback from elements of Biden’s party to not acknowledge a single Trump policy as positive.”
At the same time, Mr. Schanzer said, “rejecting the Abraham Accords was really not an option. Historians would not portray Biden kindly had he gone down that road. I think he knew that. Just imagine if Ronald Reagan didn’t acknowledge or encourage the Camp David Accords, just because it was a Jimmy Carter legacy. Simply unthinkable.”
He added that the “environment is still ripe” in the Middle East for the accords to expand.
Challenging the orthodoxy
The accords were made possible by an unprecedented Trump administration push to pressure Arab and Israeli leaders to put aside long-standing disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead focus on direct diplomacy between Israel and individual Gulf Arab powers.
Breaking with the long-held orthodoxy in Washington, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner argued progress could be made despite the frozen Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and that, in the long run, a durable settlement for the Palestinians could be helped by better ties between Israel and its neighbors.
U.S. diplomats and former Trump administration officials, including Mr. Kushner who served as a top Middle East adviser to the president, elevated the push throughout 2019, culminating with the September 2020 ceremony inking of the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
The accords, named after the prophet recognized by Judaism and Islam, were subsequently expanded to include diplomatic deals by Israel with Morocco and Sudan.
Saudi Arabia has yet to follow suit. But there are indications that the issue is being closely considered in Riyadh, and there is consensus among regional experts that the agreements marked a milestone: the first public acknowledgments of Israel by Arab nations since Egypt and Jordan broke from the rest of the Middle East and established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
The accords have drawn sharp criticism, most notably from Iranian, Turkish and Palestinian leaders, who argue that they undermine a long-standing Arab consensus that recognition of Israel should be granted only in exchange for Israeli agreement to give the Palestinians their own state.
The accords, the Palestinians argue, have only emboldened the Israeli government to accelerate the annexation of Palestinian-claimed areas of the West Bank.
Trump critics also claim the former administration resorted to costly quid pro quo deals to win UAE, Sudanese and Moroccan support for the accords — specifically by agreeing to the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, the removal of Sudan from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the recognition of Morocco’s disputed sovereignty claims to broad areas of the Western Sahara.
But it’s the historic nature of the accords that the celebrations have been mainly focused on, with some emphasizing the potential for expanded normalizations and relations between Israel and Arab powers across the Middle East, including, potentially Saudi Arabia.
“The moderate countries in the Middle East must unite to tackle our shared challenges, such as climate change, and form a regional alliance to confront our shared threats, first and foremost, Iran,” Israel‘s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan said in New York on Monday.
“Such an alliance could share intelligence about different threats and even collaborate on defensive capabilities,” Mr. Erdan said, according to The Times of Israel. “Can you imagine Israeli air defense systems like Iron Dome protecting the airspace of our new partners in the Gulf? Maybe one day even Saudi Arabia?”
Some analysts say the Biden administration, distracted by COVID-19 and the Afghanistan crisis, has dragged its feet in getting behind such thinking, having moved quickly during its first weeks in office to remove National Security Council staff who had worked on the accords. While The Washington Post reported in June that the administration was considering tapping Obama-era U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro to take over as special envoy to promote the accords, the appointment has yet to materialize.
Mr. Biden in June also nominated Obama administration State Department official and Wall Street executive Thomas Nides to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, but a Senate confirmation hearing has not been held.
Events in Israel have also complicated diplomacy, with Mr. Netanyahu ousted by a coalition government headed by Naftali Bennett and Israel engaged in a brief but intense military exchange with Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in May.
Jonathan H. Ferziger, a Jerusalem-based analyst and nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council, argues the Biden administration‘s support for the Trump-era initiative has “been tepid at best.”
“By neglecting to take ownership of the Abraham Accords and mumbling only faint praise for Israel‘s new ties with former Arab adversaries, [President Biden] is helping drag Arab-Israeli peace — the rock of bipartisan Middle East policy — into partisan politics,” Mr. Ferziger wrote recently in Foreign Policy.
“Letting Trump retain ownership of this breakthrough in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and not working aggressively to extend its reach,” he added, “is a mistake on which Republicans are sure to capitalize as they plot their return to the White House in three more years.”
Biden administration officials rejected that characterization on Monday. A White House spokesperson said in a background email to The Washington Times that the administration has “worked to strengthen the existing accords.”
“We believe these accords demonstrate the benefits to breaking down barriers and increasing cooperation in the Middle East,” the spokesperson said, “particularly in ways that promote economic development and people-to-people ties.”
Mr. Biden said in an Aug. 30 White House meeting with Mr. Bennett that he is committed to expanding Israeli normalization arrangements with others. “We support Israel’s developing deeper ties, as well, with the Arab and Muslim neighbors and — and globally,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “That’s a trend that I think should be encouraged and not discouraged, and we’re going to do all we can to be value added.”
Ms. Lempert, meanwhile, told those in attendance at the event hosted by Mr. Kushner in Washington on Tuesday that she was “delighted” to be on hand to celebrate “these historic agreements and all the progress that has been made over the last year.”
“The Abraham Accords represent not an end, but a beginning. The Biden administration made clear from the very outset that it will continue working to expand normalization efforts and bring new countries into the fold,” Ms. Lempert said.