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1. Not all is normal with the Abraham Accords normalization
It’s been just over a year since the Abraham Accords were signed in a majestic ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn. A lot has changed since then: The gracious host at the White House has become a Florida retiree seeking a way back to politics despite being banned from social media; the Israeli counterpart has relocated to the Knesset opposition benches while starring in his other role as Defendant No. 1 in The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu. (The UAE and Bahrain leaders who shared the stage in the signing ceremony are doing just fine, by the way.)
A lot more has happened during this past year.
Two other countries—Sudan and Morocco—joined the original Abraham Accords signatories in normalizing relations with Israel. Some also count Kosovo, a Muslim-majority European country, as one of of the Abraham Accords normalizing states.
And more importantly, the deal turned out to be a huge success. Daily flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv have taken tens of thousands of Israeli tourists to the oil-rich Gulf country, where they found enthusiastic hosts, a welcoming spirit and even kosher food at the all-you-can-eat hotel buffet. Trade relations between Israel and UAE, as well as Bahrain, have soared, with new collaboration and investment deals becoming so commonplace that they don’t even make the headlines. And most significantly, the normalization accords are widely popular among Israelis, almost regardless of political views or religious beliefs.
There’s only one problem: Joe Biden.
Biden inherited a deal viewed by Democrats as intrinsically flawed. According to their logic, and that of most Middle East experts in Washington, normalization with Arab countries should be the reward Israel receives for reaching a deal with the Palestinians, not a means of bypassing the Palestinian issue altogether.
But the Biden administration’s initially cool reception to the deal signed with Gulf countries (including the new administration’s refusal to use the term “Abraham Accords,” arguing—rightly—that these are not peace accords but rather normalization agreements) dissipated with time, giving way to a recognition that the accords (or whatever you choose to call them) are here to stay, and that they serve as a rare positive development in this troubled region.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken a lead role on this issue. He openly embraced the accords, hosted a virtual one-year anniversary event with his counterparts from the countries that are part of the accords and this week will facilitate a trilateral in-person meeting with foreign ministers of Israel and the UAE.
2. Normalizing Biden’s approach
The main issue with the accords, however, remains unsolved.
How can the Biden administration—committed to the advancement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—embrace a deal signed with the distinct purpose of undermining the Palestinians and sidelining the ongoing conflict?
Overcoming this obstacle means turning the Abraham Accords into a vehicle for advancement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, or at least a means of ensuring that solving the region’s real conflict does not fall by the wayside.
Experts at the Israel Policy Forum are coming out this week with a 67-page report aimed at just that: tying the normalization deals to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To do so, they call on the Biden administration to make sure that steps toward future normalization deals (with Qatar, Oman, or—the big prize—Saudi Arabia) are coupled with Israeli commitments to avoid settlement expansion and steps that could harm the prospects of a two-state solution. The report details many actions that can be taken in this direction, including giving the Palestinians a stake of the benefits reaped by the Abraham Accords, getting the Gulf countries more involved in rebuilding Gaza, and ensuring that Egypt and Jordan are not sidelined by the new deals with Gulf states.
A bill making its way through Congress, the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021, also includes language requiring the administration to report on how the accords are being used to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The bottom line is clear: The task now facing Biden is building on the Trump-era accords to advance his two-state agenda, rather than seeing it as an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
3. Credit due?
And now for the political calculation:
Is it time for Biden, the Washington Middle East establishment and members of the self-described “peace camp” to come out and admit they were wrong? That despite their disdain for Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, and despite the fact that Jared Kushner treated the Abraham Accords process more as a real estate deal than as a geopolitical minefield, their effort actually produced positive effects?
In practice, that has already happened.
The Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu Abraham Accords (and yes, once again, these are not peace accords) are now part of any future U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Whatever shape the region takes in the future, and whichever solution actually leads to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Trump and Kushner will deserve some credit for adding a valuable brick to its foundation.
They reached this point by taking all the wrong roads, by willfully ignoring the Palestinians and by upending decades of bipartisan American policy toward the region. But somehow, it worked. And if Biden succeeds in making use of this success to advance the two-state solution, Trump and Kushner may deserve even greater credit, of a kind they had never sought to get.
4. The thing about Rand Paul
Tired of the Iron Dome funding ordeal? So is everyone else.
Except for Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, who for the past week has been single-handedly holding up passage of the $1 billion aid package to Israel.
For those following Paul’s legislative career, this comes as no surprise. The staunch libertarian doesn’t like spending government money and really hates doing so to support foreign countries. Paul keeps on claiming he is actually pro-Israel and insists that his only problem is with spending U.S. taxpayer money without providing a source to cover the costs. His critics (and there are many in the pro-Israel and Jewish communities) respond that it’s kind of hard, maybe even impossible, to keep calling yourself pro-Israel while consistently voting against Israel in the Senate.
5. Double standard?
Rand Paul’s refusal to allow a quick vote on Iron Dome funding triggered across-the-board condemnations from all major players on the pro-Israel scene. AIPAC denounced Paul, bundling his vote with that of those who voted against the bill in the House and saying their votes “undermine Israel’s security, cost innocent lives, make war more likely, and embolden Iran-backed terrorists.” AIPAC made sure to tag in its tweet two Democrats (Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and two Republicans (Paul and Thomas Massie, who was the only member of the GOP to vote against the funding in the House).
These are strong words, but they don’t compare to those used against Rashida Tlaib and other progressive Democrats who voted against the bill in the House. (Ben Samuels at Haaretz breaks down the diverging reactions to Iron Dome objectors on the left and on the right.)
The criticism is obvious: Israelis and many of their supporters in the U.S. are more willing to go after Democrats than Republicans, are more prone to comparing criticism of Israel from the left to antisemitism, and may be quicker to attack women, especially non-white women, especially Muslim non-white women, than they are to go after politicians like Rand Paul, who is, for those not familiar, a white Christian male.
But there’s also a counter-argument: As objectionable as Paul’s actions may be in the eyes of the pro-Israel community, his brand of libertarianism is not a growing force within the GOP, and therefore there is no looming threat from that end for pro-Israel policies.
Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, on the other hand, are part of a group that is gaining strength within the Democratic constituency. True, they are still marginal, but their clout is on the rise. In other words: There’s also a political calculation behind the hate directed at progressive Democrats. For the pro-Israel community, they are the face of a real problem in decades to come, whereas Rand Paul is no more than a relic of a dying school of thought.