January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
The Trump administration’s Israel policy notched a significant victory with the signing of the Abraham Accords, the September 2020 peace agreement between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel. It was a landmark for regional stability and a wake-up call for Palestinian officials whose national project has stalled. The Palestinians now find themselves increasingly isolated in their own neighborhood.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas began the Trump era with a May 2017 meeting at the White House, a highwater mark for the octogenarian leader. To his chagrin, the Trump administration subsequently recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, moved the U.S. Embassy to the city in May 2018, signed a bill in August 2018 to halt economic aid to the PA until it stopped paying terrorists, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019. In November 2019, Secretary of State Pompeo expressed the administration’s view that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not illegal “per se.”1 The White House also cut funding to certain Palestinian aid programs and some international organizations viewed as biased against Israel. Pundits warned that these pro-Israel moves would set the region afire, but the Arab street did not erupt in protest.2 Perhaps the only notable exception was Gaza, where Hamas continues to stoke unrest.
In January 2020, President Trump released his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.3 The framework front-loaded benefits for Israel, such as allowing it to declare sovereignty over roughly 30 percent of the West Bank. The plan also included benefits for Palestinians, especially economic assistance. Yet to access these benefits, the Palestinians would have to put their house in order over a four-year period. If that deadline expired without meeting the Trump administration’s demands, the Israelis would have a green light to annex additional territory in the West Bank. The administration’s demands of the Palestinians included herculean efforts such as fighting corruption and reuniting Palestinian factions that have been at war since 2007.
Concurrently, the Trump administration doubled down on its parallel policy of peacemaking between Israel and the Sunni Arab Gulf states. The roots of this rapprochement can be traced to the mutual fear of Iranian aggression, concerns about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, antipathy for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and fear that Washington would pivot away from the region.4 The Trump administration leveraged the quiet growth of Israel-Gulf relations and pushed for a broader regional framework that ultimately matured in 2020. In October, Sudan entered into a normalization deal with Israel. Morocco followed suit in December.
Early signs of normalization were apparent when Bahrain hosted the White House’s economic workshop for Palestinian prosperity in June 2019.5 In January 2020, several Arab envoys attended the unveiling of Trump’s peace plan. Others issued statements of cautious optimism.6 Meanwhile, administration officials made trips to other Arab countries to encourage normalization with Israel.
When the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain finally normalized their ties with Israel, they presented their decision as a means of staving off Israeli annexation in the West Bank. Encouragingly, they also indicated their desire for a warm peace, unlike the cold relations that followed Israeli agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.7 The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain emphasized their continuing support for the Palestinian cause, yet they – and perhaps a number of other countries, including Sudan and Morocco – have clearly ceased to view the Palestinian issue as a core national interest.
Israel’s military prowess, close ties with the United States, technological innovation, and other attributes have made it an attractive partner. Other Arab countries may now follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Forthcoming normalization deals could include Oman, Saudi Arabia, and even Qatar.
The Trump administration, specifically Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, championed an outside-in approach to Middle East peace that prioritized peace deals with regional states over intensive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, even if peace between the Palestinians and Israelis remained a priority. Previous administrations had attempted to create Israeli-Palestinian peace as a precursor to the normalization of Israel’s relationships in the Middle East. They failed repeatedly. The Trump team focused instead on the potential for progress elsewhere. In doing so, the United States notched significant diplomatic victories and laid the foundation for a new regional order in which the Palestinian conflict no longer dictates the course of Israeli-Arab relations.
Gulf Arab states stand to gain tremendously from Israel’s innovation, particularly in the defense and water technology sectors. Israel, meanwhile, will enjoy greater regional integration, particularly given the United Arab Emirates’ status as a commercial and transportation hub. Both sides will benefit from increased coordination to thwart Iran’s nefarious activities. The warm peace between Israel and the Gulf states could even set an example to thaw the cold Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace deals.
Of course, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict persists. The Palestinians still seek international support to pursue their strategy of intransigence, irredentism, and rejectionism. However, their leverage is eroding as acceptance of Israel becomes a regional norm. In the coming years, Abbas (or his successor) may encounter pressure from Israel’s new partners to negotiate in good faith.
These new partners will likely have leverage. With a global pandemic, declining oil revenues, and numerous foreign and domestic challenges, Arab countries are already adjusting their financial support for the Palestinians. This has been reflected in an 85 percent decrease in Arab funding provided to the Palestinian Authority.8
Of course, pressure on the Palestinians may not yield fruit. Abbas (who also serves as Fatah’s chairman) is too weak to negotiate, let alone implement a deal with Israel. Abbas has ruled for a decade past the end of his allotted term as president. He refuses to name a successor despite his age and failing health. Pervasive corruption has undermined PA legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip is ruled by the terrorist group Hamas, which violently expelled Fatah in 2007 and is committed to Israel’s destruction. Hamas and Fatah routinely pledge unity in the cause of Palestinian statehood, yet their mutual antipathy has prevented any such deal from materializing. For sustainable peace to be achieved, the Palestinians must first get their house in order.
The upside of Arab-Israel normalization is enormous, even if the Palestinians continue to refuse negotiations. Nothing short of a transformed Middle East hangs in the balance. Still, the United States must proceed cautiously. The United Arab Emirates and other countries normalizing ties with Israel have professed their desire to acquire cutting-edge American military technology previously off limits to them – the F-35 multirole aircraft is at the top of their list. However, as demonstrated by the fall of the shah in Iran in 1979 or even by the current problems with Turkey, the United States must be careful about supplying military hardware to Middle Eastern governments. Today’s friend could quickly become tomorrow’s enemy. And the United States must remain committed to Israel’s qualitative military edge.
- Evaluate the previous administration’s policies individually and assess where successes can be amplified under new U.S. leadership. Complete reversals would stunt U.S. progress.
- Be open to creative thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s alternative approach jolted a stagnant, decades-old peace process. The Biden administration can seize on this opportunity.
- Continue to encourage regional normalization and support other countries looking to benefit from both peace with Israel and upgraded ties with the United States. The White House has a tremendous opportunity to promote regional stability by uniting American allies to counter both Shiite and Sunni extremists.
- Assess individual countries’ needs to determine where improving their trilateral relationships with the United States and Israel could bolster regional security. This can help encourage the Palestinians to negotiate, serve as a bulwark against Iranian regional ambitions, and increase coordination among American allies. For example, the United States should:
- Elevate Oman’s profile with congressional visits and by sending a high-level White House delegation. The United States should also allow Oman to access International Development Finance Corporation funds for infrastructure projects, particularly in the ports of Duqm, Salalah, and Sohar.
- Seize on the Saudis’ waning support in Congress to encourage them to support emerging regional peace deals and make peace with Israel themselves.
- Work with the Arab states that have normalized with Israel to ensure that their domestic policies, public rhetoric, and votes at the United Nations reflect these new realities. This is essential for a warm peace. Additional efforts should be made to ensure the flourishing of economic ties and cooperation across multiple fields with the countries that have already committed to peace. These efforts should serve as inducements for countries considering similar moves.
- Combat the systemic anti-Israel bias that permeates the UN system. Greater scrutiny should be placed on organizations that exacerbate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, such as the UN Relief and Works Agency, which falsely inflates the number of refugees claimed by the Palestinians. Similar scrutiny should be placed on the UN Human Rights Council, which unfairly targets Israel in a disproportionate manner and ultimately undermines the stated mission of the organization. Such moves can also ultimately empower the independence of the Palestinians, which remains an important American policy objective.
- Ensure that increased military support for Arab allies that make peace with Israel does not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge. This is enshrined in U.S. law.
- Actualize the congressional vision for a U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group.9 This will ensure that Israel’s best technology that can help the United States address specific needs is accessible to the United States earlier and in a manner that enables the United States to protect this technology from reaching the hands of adversaries.
- Make the restoration of aid to the PA contingent upon the PA’s commitment to U.S.-led diplomacy and halting payments to terrorists. The White House should be wary of Palestinian attempts to disguise these payments.
- Prepare for a chaotic Palestinian succession. Abbas is more than a decade past the official end of his term as president. Abbas’ age, poor health, lack of legitimacy, and refusal to appoint a successor could yield a volatile succession crisis.