The Limits of Israel’s Normalization Deals with a Few Arab States

One year after the signing of the Abraham Accords, it’s clear that the Palestinian issue isn’t going away—no matter how much Trump and Netanyahu wanted it to.

Israelis are celebrating the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords—a breakthrough of improved relations with some of their Arab neighbors, fostered by the U.S.-brokered normalization pact. Many have compared the agreements to game-changing treaties with Egypt or Jordan decades ago, even though those were actual peace deals that put an end to hostilities between the Jewish state and two of its immediate neighbors. Still, the accords have made a tangible impact on Israeli lives. Tens of thousands of Israelis have flown on newly created flights to the United Arab Emirates. Trade and business deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars are being inked. Technology partnerships are being formed for joint projects on energy, security, food, connectivity, health, and water. One Israeli I spoke with recently marveled that the daughter of a friend was heading to a bachelorette party in Dubai—something previously unheard of in that part of the world.

To be sure, the Abraham Accords, signed on September 15, 2020, in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House, offered the historic promise of better relations, peace, and prosperity between Israel and the Gulf states Bahrain and the UAE, as well as Morocco and Sudan, which joined later. For many Israelis, it’s like being in a new club of nations; as one put it, “It’s like the tectonic plates are beginning to move, shift, and crack, and open a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.”

At the same time, however, Israel is no further along in resolving arguably its greatest existential crisis. Former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have hoped that signing the Abraham Accords would signal Israel’s ability to move forward without resolving the Palestinian issue, capitalizing on frustration among some Gulf Arab states tired of the impasse in peace negotiations with Palestinians. Netanyahu even threatened to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank and continue expanding Jewish settlements there without a peace deal—essentially treating the status quo as sustainable. The UAE said part of its price for the deal would be for Netanyahu to back off the idea of annexation.

President Joe Biden has been rightly cautious and low-key in his embrace of the accords, forged by two longtime rivals, Netanyahu and former President Donald Trump, both of whom are now out of power after being ousted by their voters.

The Abraham Accords—shrewdly named for the biblical patriarch of Jews, Muslims, and Christians—also harbor seeds of disunity. The deal irresponsibly bypassed the Palestinians and the Gordian knot of their conflict with Israel. It left Palestinian demands for freedom, security, and justice to be decided later, which is a recipe for trouble. It heralded no deal for an enduring peace in Israel and seemed to suggest that Israel could circumvent the Palestinians in its quest for broader acceptance in the region. It carried a false promise that became painfully evident this past spring.

The 11-day war in May between Israel and the Islamist terror group Hamas in the Gaza Strip proved that the Palestinian issue is not going away. If anything, the parties are only at a pause between the cycles of violence that continue to cripple the political psyches of Israel and Palestinians. At least 260 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed during the flare-up in fighting. And while tensions have subsided since the Biden administration brokered an end to hostilities, they have not totally dissipated. More rockets from the Hamas-ruled enclave have been fired at Israel in the past two months.

Palestinians in Gaza are desperately poor, isolated, and living in a hellscape of debris. They have seen the deadly Hamas rocket strikes on Israel, countered with the lethal and massive destruction of their infrastructure by Israeli counterstrikes. It’s a cycle of violence that will return again and again, so long as nothing is done substantively to resolve underlying disputes between Israel and the Palestinians over territory, Palestinian refugees, Israeli settlers, and the status of Jerusalem. The next war will surely come if things stay the same. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

“This accord did not impact the Palestinians in Gaza,” Elie Rekhess, Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University, told me. “The fact that the UAE seems less interested in their fate doesn’t mean their situation has changed. It may well be that when you are in a desperate situation and feel no one cares, there can be a desperate reaction. And the Palestinian central leadership in the West Bank is weak, and there is a vacuum, and vacuums do not remain empty.”

Rekhess pointed to the broader strategic danger for Israel in the region as well, including a potential rise in the power of militant Islamist groups after the fall of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan. “Gaza is an Islamic situation, and what happened in Afghanistan already is impacting Gaza. You have Iran, and now the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and Gaza—so they are encouraged that there is victory. The ripple effect of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will reach Gaza. It is seen as a spiritual, material, and political victory for the rule of Islamic sharia. Hamas and Islamic Jihad will both take heart from this.”

In his remarks to the UN General Assembly this week, Biden declared that the U.S. supports a two-state solution, as “the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign, and democratic Palestinian state.” However, if Israel does not become proactive in trying to make headway on the Palestinian issue, resume peace talks, or find a way to disentangle itself from the Palestinians living in the West Bank, Israelis will remain at risk and extremists in Gaza will gain more leverage to recruit others to join their violent struggle.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with senior diplomats from Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco on September 17 over Zoom to mark the anniversary of the Abraham Accords. He declared that the Biden administration “will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward.” He noted that “the benefits continue to grow” from the agreements, citing people-to-people ties, unprecedented air travel between the countries, the opening of embassies by Israel and the UAE in each other’s nations, and the naming of ambassadors.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he welcomed “this new era of cooperation and friendship” with Israel’s Arab neighbors and underscored his country’s hopes that other Arab nations will join soon, noting that “this Abraham Accords club is open to new members as well.”

But no new Arab states seem poised to sign up, as of now, and each of the Arab diplomats who spoke underscored the importance of Israel reaching a comprehensive and just peace agreement with the Palestinians—something Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said is not likely in the foreseeable future. Bennett also has said he will not establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel on his watch, the only way Israel can remain a Jewish democracy.

As Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s foreign minister, made clear, “There is no other alternative to a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state” in the West Bank and Gaza. He added that Morocco expects that the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital, “has to be preserved as a common heritage of humanity, as a symbol of peaceful coexistence” of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. (Israel claims Jerusalem as its eternal, undivided capital.)

There are other headwinds Israel must be prepared to navigate, beyond the geopolitics of the region: the domestic politics of the conflict in the United States. There’s growing sentiment among progressives in Congress, Muslims, and even many Jewish Americans—who overwhelmingly lean liberal—that endless subjugation of the Palestinians cannot continue. Given the $3.8 billion in U.S. aid to Israel annually, most of it military assistance, the administration has the leverage to take a tougher stand to bring Israel back into the peace negotiations to prepare the way, down the road, for a two-state solution. Biden is less eager to make Israel-Palestinian relations an issue than many of his Democratic colleagues in Congress; House Democrats recently tried to remove $1 billion to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception program in a bill to avert a federal government shutdown. The spending provision ultimately made it through the House on September 23, but the contingent of progressives who want to take a harder line on Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians is only getting larger.

“This approach must recognize that Israel has the absolute right to live in peace and security, but so do the Palestinians,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in an opinion piece earlier this year in The New York Times. “We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter.”

But Israel’s current government shouldn’t want to resolve the conflict to appease the American left. It shouldn’t only want to resolve the conflict to spare Palestinians the many indignities of living under occupation—though that should certainly be one motivation. It should work proactively now to resolve the conflict so its own people don’t have to endure any more of the cycles of bloodshed and horror that cripple the possibility of reconciliation and long-term peace in the region.

This is one thing the Abraham Accords have not accomplished, and will not be able to. As the Israeli journalist Gili Cohen, diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Kan Broadcasting, said: “We can travel to Dubai and have fun, but we still have to return to reality.”

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Storer H. Rowley

Storer H. Rowley is a former national editor, editorial board member, and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He teaches journalism and communication at Northwestern University.