The Biden administration has cautiously embraced the Trump-era Abraham Accords, ending a long diplomatic freeze between Israel and key Arab powers, but has missed a crucial opportunity to build on the historic agreements by capitalizing on growing regional unity against the threat posed by Iran.
As President Trump’s signature diplomatic breakthrough marks its second anniversary this week, critics say President Biden has focused on a floundering pursuit of a renewed nuclear deal with Tehran while failing to expand the game-changing normalization agreements forged by Mr. Trump and his aides.
Whether or not the nuclear deal is achieved, some analysts say, the moment is ripe to promote greater alignment between the region’s predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab nations and Israel, which has long been the archenemy of Iran, the region’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse.
An expansion would mark a transformative shift, ending Israel’s long isolation from much of the region and presenting a united front against Tehran.
“The mutual fear of Iran presents obvious opportunities for new alliances between Israel and the Sunni states,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Mr. Schanzer offered the comment after Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a key architect of the deal with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab states, openly lamented what he said was the Biden administration’s failure to advance the Abraham Accords.
“I think the biggest disappointment so far is that more countries haven’t been brought into it,” Mr. Kushner said Monday at an event hosted by the Abraham Accords Peace Institute and the pro-Trump America First Policy Institute celebrating the accords ahead of their official anniversary Thursday.
Mr. Kushner, who served as a top Middle East adviser in the Trump administration, played an instrumental role in negotiating the accords, which involved an unprecedented push to encourage Arab and Israeli leaders to put aside long-standing disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and focus instead on building direct economic, diplomatic and security ties.
Breaking with long-held orthodoxy in Washington, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner argued that progress could be made despite the frozen Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the long run, they said, better ties between Israel and its neighbors could help build a durable settlement for Palestinians.
The effort culminated with a September 2020 ceremony in Washington, where Israeli, UAE and Bahraini officials signed normalization agreements. It was Arab nations’ first public acknowledgment of Israel since Egypt and Jordan broke from the rest of the Middle East to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
The accords, named after the prophet recognized by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were subsequently expanded to include Israeli diplomatic deals with Morocco and Sudan.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which is widely considered to be the most powerful of the Gulf Arab powers, has signaled tacit acceptance of the spirit of the accords but has declined to formally join.
Mr. Biden, who cautiously welcomed the Trump agreements upon entering office, has not promoted an expansion in a full-throated manner. As the anniversary of the agreements approached in August 2021, the president offered the broad assessment that a deepening of Israeli ties with the “Arab and Muslim neighbors” and “globally” was a “trend that I think should be encouraged and not discouraged, and we’re going to do all we can to be value-added.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at an Abraham Accords anniversary event in New York last year that “clearly, we want to build on this model and replicate this success.”
Critics say the administration’s regional approach has been less focused and should return to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and to restoring the Iran nuclear accord that Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018.
Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 killing of Washington Post opinion writer and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi dampened the prospect that the kingdom would join the Abraham Accords.
‘Very close’ to a bigger deal
Former Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who was also instrumental in the Trump-era push for Arab powers to normalize relations with Israel, told The Washington Times in an interview late last year that the former administration was “very close” to getting Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords in 2020. He lamented that the Biden administration had squandered the momentum.
“They took their time even using the phrase ‘Abraham Accords,’” said the former ambassador, who argued that the troubled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the lengthy diplomatic push for rapprochement with Iran had shaken regional confidence in America’s image as a strong ally capable of drawing more countries, most notably the Saudis, into the agreements.
The accords did factor heavily into Mr. Biden’s trip to the Middle East in July. The president visited Israel and Saudi Arabia and took a historic direct flight between the two nations. He also succeeded in promoting stronger security coordination between Arab powers and Israel in general. The once-unthinkable pursuit became increasingly viable with mutual Arab and Israeli concerns over threats emanating from Iran.
The trip fostered cooperation among Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials helped finalize a deal to transfer Egyptian sovereignty over two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Israel’s access to the Red Sea requires passage through the islands, and the status had been unresolved since the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Mr. Schanzer told The Times that the agreement “amounted to Saudi recognition of Israel” and that “the Biden administration deserves credit for this, even if it was an initiative first conceived by the Trump administration.”
“But Biden [has] left a lot on the table,” said Mr. Schanzer. “The momentum has slowed, and that falls on the president’s shoulders.”
It’s unclear whether the administration has the foreign policy bandwidth or desire to capitalize on regional unease over its Iran policy by encouraging more Arab powers to join the Abraham Accords.
In contrast with Mr. Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran, Mr. Biden has been waiting for the Islamic republic to accept his offer to ease sanctions in exchange for a return to compliance with the agreement’s curbs on its suspect nuclear programs.
The original 2015 deal among Iran, the U.S., Europe, China and Russia gave the Islamic republic sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for limits to and inspections of its nuclear program. Iran claims the program is peaceful, but the U.N. Security Council has long suspected it of being geared toward making atomic bombs.
Iran appeared close to accepting Mr. Biden’s offer last month, but the negotiations have stalled.
“With an Iran deal lingering, two things are happening. On the one hand, some countries are hedging by engaging with Iran in an effort to de-conflict,” said Mr. Schanzer. “On the other hand, regional players are looking to draw closer to Israel, which is the only country truly capable of challenging the Islamic republic, whether it springs toward a bomb or not.”
With regard to the Abraham Accords, Mr. Schanzer said, “slowed momentum probably means missed opportunities.”
“More can be done to move Saudi Arabia in the right direction,” he said. “Indonesia could be a candidate. So could Oman. So could Qatar. Even Kuwait.
“There was a sense of eventuality about normalization in 2020,” Mr. Schanzer said. “I think most observers still believe that this is where the region is heading. U.S. influence can speed things up and shape the future alignments of the region.
“Normalization is crucial for the future of the Middle East,” he added. “The last seven decades have seen multiple rounds of needless violence that have only served to impoverish and destabilize the region. If peace expands, the opportunities for cooperation in technology, agriculture, cyber, water, intelligence and other areas are virtually endless.”