Although President Joe Biden’s foreign policy has several striking differences from that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, he has embraced one of Trump’s policies: support for the “Abraham Accords,” which saw several Arab states establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020. At the time of the Accords’ signing, the Arab signatories—namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—claimed to their domestic constituencies that better relations with Israel would allow them to advocate on behalf of the Palestinians more effectively. This diplomatic effort, however, has done nothing to advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which remains the core unresolved issue in the Middle East. The fact that movement to expand the Abraham Accords has now slowed down as Israeli-Palestinian violence has increased should give U.S. policymakers pause about pinning their hopes on other Arab countries joining them—particularly Saudi Arabia.
What Netanyahu Wants
It is no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long wanted Israeli-Arab normalization without any Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue. For many years, this arrangement seemed impossible to establish; in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the Arab League collectively endorsed peace negotiations with Israel only if the Palestinian issue was resolved. However, the entry of Trump to the Oval Office provided the Israeli leader with a cornucopia of gifts, with no expectation that Israel would improve the treatment of the Palestinians.
Under Trump, the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to that city, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, closed the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem that primarily served the Palestinian community, and proposed a “peace plan” without consulting the Palestinians that envisioned Israel swallowing one-third of the West Bank and dividing the remaining sections into a patchwork of disjointed islands surrounded by Israeli territory. Netanyahu was pleased by Trump’s actions, and featured the two leaders side-by-side on large billboards in Israel during his 2019 political campaign. In addition to being beneficial for Israel, the Abraham Accords were a vindication for him personally: by persuading the UAE and Bahrain to sign, he had successfully separated the Palestinian issue from the normalization issue, a longtime personal aspiration.
While Biden opposed the Trump peace plan, and was seen as more-even handed in his approach to the Palestinian issue, he did not reverse any of Trump’s decisions vis-à-vis Israel; the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem remains open, and America’s recognition of the Golan Heights has not been rescinded. Indeed, since taking office, Biden has sought to build on the Abraham Accords and expand them.
This decision has not come without political costs. To reward Morocco for joining the Accords, Trump unilaterally recognized Rabat’s claim to the territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony with many inhabitants who oppose Moroccan control. This decision angered Algeria, which long opposed Morocco’s territorial ambitions in Western Sahara, and the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi rebel movement contesting Morocco’s military in the region. While Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, recently met with his Algerian counterpart to try to smooth over ruffled feathers by emphasizing that the Biden administration supports the UN’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the Western Sahara dispute, Biden has not formally reversed the Trump administration’s decision.
The Abraham Accords caused deep anguish in the Palestinian territories, as a clear majority of Palestinians of varying political persuasions saw them as a betrayal of their cause by some Arab states, abetted by the United States. In the eyes of many Palestinians, Arab normalization with Israel is a trump card that should only be played at the end of a genuine peace process. In other words, in the Palestinian view, normalization should be delayed until Palestinian national self-determination is achieved.
Even Jordan, which established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, was uneasy about the Abraham Accords. The Jordanian government has had to tread very delicately on this issue, given that 60 percent of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian descent.
The Consequences of Escalation
However, the advent of Israel’s far-right government after Netanyahu’s electoral victory in December 2022, has complicated the Abraham Accords. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right Otzma Yehudit legislator who was once convicted of anti-Arab racism, has done exceptional damage to Israel’s new Arab relations by marching on the Haram al-Sharif in January 2023 (and again in July 2023), causing widespread anger not only among Palestinians but also among Muslims across the Middle East. In addition, the building of more settlements in the West Bank, overseen by extremist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and an uptick in settler violence against the Palestinians has caused similar outrage.
Such acts have led even the UAE to condemn Israeli policies. Since the beginning of the year, Abu Dhabi has sharply criticized Ben-Gvir’s antics, Israeli settlement building, and the recent raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin in the northern West Bank. The UAE was joined by many other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in these condemnations, and the incidents caused the UAE authorities to suspend an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to visit the country for an official state visit. While Emirati-Israeli relations remain steadfast, with Netanyahu scheduled to visit Dubai for the COP28 conference in November, the recent developments have tempered the momentum for expanding the Abraham Accords.
Netanyahu’s highest objective for the Abraham Accords would be for Saudi Arabia to join, and there has been much speculation that, with Washington’s help, such an achievement is within reach. There have also been many reports suggesting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Kingdom’s de facto leader, has put demands on the United States for this normalization effort to come to fruition, such as agreeing to the kingdom’s desire to develop a civilian nuclear program, NATO-like U.S. security guarantees, and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales to the kingdom.
But lost in all of this speculation is Saudi Arabia’s deep sensitivities over the Palestinian issue. As the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic world, Riyadh simply cannot ignore Israeli provocations in Jerusalem, which hosts the third-holiest site in Islam. Nor can it ignore the plight of the Palestinians. A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington explicitly stated in June 2023 that the kingdom will not normalize ties with Israel until a Palestinian state is established.
For these reasons, the optimism in 2020 that the Abraham Accords would usher in a new era in Arab-Israeli relations has given way to a more realistic assessment of the Middle East’s geopolitics. As it was before the Accords, the Palestinian issue remains the chief stumbling block, and no U.S. entreaties to prospective Arab states to join the Accords can change this reality until a future Israeli government is willing to make significant concessions.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.