We watched the signing of the "Abraham Accords" yesterday with interest. It was a big deal for Israel. After all, any time that Israel can sign peace treaties (okay, normalization treaties) with other Arab countries, that is bound to be a big deal. The deal and the process have elicited some very polarized reactions so I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a few comments about this process.
First of all, I think it is fair to acknowledge that, however we got here, this type of deal is a favourable and beneficial deal for most players in the region. Although it may be characterized primarily as an "arms deal" between the U.S. and the UAE wherein the U.S. will now sell F-35s and other weaponry to the UAE, there is more to it than that. The UAE and Israel have begun to negotiate deals and arrangements in a wide range of areas including technology, medicine, energy, tourism and, yes, defence. This type of relationship, if it proceeds, will lead to a much warmer peace than Israel has with Egypt or Jordan. If it takes root and develops, it may well lead to a very different Middle East. Other countries may come along and the peace between Israel and Egypt may develop further. Israelis may soon find themselves visiting more Arab countries regularly and vice-versa and that is exciting.
At the signing ceremony yesterday, including the accompanying press conferences, President Trump stated that he expected "5 or 6 other countries" to come along very soon. Apparently, after the press conference he upped this to "7 to 9." Now, I don't really think, given the track record, that anyone has any great reason to believe very much of what this president promises. Who knows what these other countries are demanding in the negotiations? Or how far apart they really are? Or whether any of these deals can really be closed? But I will say this - if Israel were to be able to enter deals with 5 or 6 other countries - including some large and significant ones - that would have to be considered a huge step towards Middle East peace and a brighter future for the whole region. So far, the names I have heard mentioned include Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Lebanon, and, ultimately, Saudi Arabia. It would certainly be a huge credit to Trump and Kushner if they were able to close most or all of these deals.
If the other countries do not fall into line as expected, yesterday's deal may not amount to very much and may not change much in the region. Some indications from yesterday's proceedings support a pessimistic view about the whole ordeal. Neither Bahrain nor the UAE brought their heads of state. Instead, each side brought their foreign ministers (secretaries of state, if you will). For Israel, the Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi (part of the Blue and White wing of the governing coalition) was left at home and did not attend with Prime Minister Netanyahu. In fact, press reports here indicate that he wasn't even aware of the contents of the deal. Neither the Israeli cabinet nor the Israeli Knesset have yet voted to approve the deal and it is unclear that anyone, other than Netanyahu, is aware of its full contents.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and the representatives from the UAE and Bahrain all spoke glowingly about President Trump. That seems to have been one of the key terms of the deal. In fact, Netanyahu did not even acknowledge the foreign representatives from the UAE and Bahrain until later in his speech. He did not speak about plans for Israel and the UAE. One might have thought he could have publicly invited the UAE and Bahrain leaders to visit Israel during this speech or he could have reviewed some of the hopes and aspirations that citizens of each country might have. But instead, the focus was on Netanyahu himself as well as Trump. It is a shame that Netanyahu seems so willing to go along with turning Israel into a partisan issue in United States politics. I am not convinced that this is a policy that is in Israel's interests long term, especially if Trump should lose the November election.
For their part, the representatives of the UAE and Bahrain also went along with the cue to lavish praise upon President Trump, repeatedly. All that was missing was an official ring-kissing procession. They both said little about Israel but called for peace across the Middle East. The Bahraini representative called for a "just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict but really did not discuss what was so great about this particular deal for Bahrain and Israel respectively. The ceremony, overall, had the feel of a campaign rally for Trump and Netanyahu rather than a key diplomatic event.
Critics of the deal and of the Trump-Kushner approach to the Middle East have argued that Trump has titled U.S. policy towards Israel and has effectively taken positions that Bibi himself would have put forward. In some cases, this is fair comment. the Trump administration has cut aid to the Palestinians, has recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and has recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The Trump administration has also put together a "Deal of the Century" proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians without Palestinian involvement. And yes, it is a fairly one-sided document.
That being said, the Trump-Kushner proposal, does call for an independent Palestinian State, something rejected by Netanyahu, his Likud party and the various parties to the right of Likud in the Knesset. It does not include all of the territory that the Palestinians would like and it does not include a right of return to Israel for the many Palestinian refugees. But it does include territorial compromise by Israel and it is a negotiable plan rather than the a bottom line. It is unclear whether there would be any negotiations regarding Jerusalem.
It is true that this approach tilts towards Israel. But it has also true that previous plans including the Arab League Plan and the Clinton plan tilted, almost completely, to the Palestinian side, especially the Arab League Plan which called for a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders including the Old City. Even where Israeli leaders were willing to go along with a plan that included most of these terms (i.e. the Clinton plan in 2000) that was not acceptable to the Palestinians. I do think that a Clinton-type plan left the station shortly after Arafat rejected it. Especially after political changes in Israel that were probably linked, to some extent, to the rejectionist approach of the Palestinians at the time.
For years the surrounding Arab countries have been willing to support Palestinian intransigence by characterizing Israel as the main enemy and threat in the region and refusing to enter into peace and normalization deals with Israel - for fear of having been viewed as betraying the Palestinian cause. But over the course of the past 53 years since the 1967 war and 72 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, this has been a failing policy. It has led to a great deal of war and violence, terrorism, perennial refugee camps and has helped bolster dictatorial regimes in the region who have used the Palestinian cause to suppress their own populations and downplay other criticism about how their countries are run. And it really hasn't brought the Palestinians any closer to their own state.
The current approach led by Trump and Kushner marks a significant departure from this failed policy. On the one hand, the U.S. has tilted towards Israel in some areas, much to the chagrin of the EU, the "progressive wing" of the Democratic Party, Turkey, Iran and some other countries. On the other hand, the goal of the policy seems to be to bring in other Arab nations, to become friends and allies of Israel - but also to help work towards a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in a way that is more realistic.
It is noteworthy that Netanyahu has called the deals with the UAE and Bahrain "deals from strength" that trade "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace." But Netanyahu is being disingenuous. As part of these deals, Israel has agreed to refrain from unilaterally annexing any of the disputed territories and has also agreed not to oppose a U.S. decision to sell the UAE F-35s.
The Crown Prince of the UAE states that he believed that the UAE could be in a much better position to assist with the Israeli -Palestinian conflict if it were viewed with some measure of trust and friendship by Israel. The UAE and Israel have taken steps to build that relationship since as early as 2010. But this does mark a new phase - and concurrently, a potentially new level of influence for the UAE in its dealings with Israel. By including a requirement that Israel abandon any proposal to unilaterally annex land, some of which is earmarked for a future Palestinian state, the UAE has signified that it will take an active role in trying to bring about a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
That brings us to the current situation. There are really a few very different routes that this process may now take.
If Trump and Kushner are correct that this process has the potential to bring about a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians - I believe that Saudi Arabia would be the key turning point. Saudi Arabia may well have the clout to insist that it will only sign a full peace deal with Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
In this scenario, a proposal or plan may be developed that is somewhere between the Trump-Kushner plan and the Clinton Plan. It would result in the formation of a Palestinian State and a full resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem is that it may not be acceptable, initially, to the Palestinians or even the Israelis. But here the hope would be that the combination of the support of a large number of other Arab countries, financial, economic and other assistance for the Palestinians would leave the Palestinians with no other real alternatives.
On the other side of the equation, Netanyahu has actively campaigned against the creation of a Palestinian state and has suggested that he opposes this part of the Trump-Kushner plan. He stated this repeatedly during the last Israeli election campaign. But at some point, if pushed by Trump and Kushner - and with the possibility of having diplomatic relations, even warm ones, with a large number of countries in the Middle East, Israel may also have no other real alternative but to accept the deal.
On the other hand, no matter what Trump, Kushner or Netanyahu do, there will continue to be rejectionists in the Middle East. Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah and Hamas have all registered their strong opposition to this approach and the Palestinian Authority has called the UAE and Bahrain "back stabbers." If the other Middle Eastern countries will not go along with the Trump-Kushner approach and if the PA decides to turn to violence as its response (as it has many times in the past), an Israeli-Palestinian deal may be as far off as it has ever been.
If, in November, Trump is re-elected, he may decide to pressure Israel to accept a plan that he can sell to the other Arab countries - and ultimately try to use those countries to get the Palestinians to agree as well. There are a lot of "ifs" here and Trump is very unpredictable. And, of course, there is a still a good chance that he will not be re-elected.
If Biden is elected, he will have a difficult decision to make. If he takes the Obama approach to the Middle East, that would mean trying to open up negotiations with Iran immediately, restoring funding to the Palestinians unconditionally and cooling the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others. This may effectively end the current track of pushing for peace deals between Israel and neighbouring countries as a first step towards peace.
But if Biden is elected and he can be convinced that some genuine progress has been made - and the U.S. is close to brokering a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel (that also involves an Israel-Palestinian deal), Biden might even continue a version of this path. He will almost certainly restore funding to the Palestinians either way and try to re-open dialogue with the PA. But he might not tilt U.S. policy back to where it was under Obama.
Overall, I think this is all a great opportunity for Israel. The Palestinians rejected the Clinton plan in 2000 and lost what was probably the best proposal they might ever get from Israel. They probably regret having done so even if they will not publicly admit it. At this juncture, if Israel could reach a deal with the Palestinians, along the lines of what has been proposed by Trump and Kushner, it would probably be about the best deal Israel could hope to get even if the final deal involves additional Israeli concessions. If it is a deal that would also involve full peace deals with most of the surrounding Arab countries, it would be an opportunity that Israel would probably not want to pass up.
While President Obama and Netanyahu had a great deal of public quarrels, the U.S.-Israel relationship remained very strong throughout Obama's presidency. This was the case despite some of the steps taken by Obama over the course of his presidency, especially his support for anti-Israel UN resolutions at the very end of his second term and the dispute with Israel over the wisdom of the Iranian nuclear deal. But at the same time, throughout the Obama presidency, the U.S. continued to cooperate with Israel fully in a wide range of technological, military, economic and other areas despite the often successful efforts of Netanyahu to portray the situation otherwise. President Obama did not take any significant steps to try and impose a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If Biden is elected, he may well look at all aspects of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship and find a way to do things a bit differently. He may want to restore the public perception of the U.S.-Israel relationship as one that is non-partisan even while repairing the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. He will have a challenging time with Netanyahu in this regard but if the ultimate result is comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians with most other Arab countries in agreement - it may make sense to continue a version of the Trump-Kushner approach even if a Biden vision is viewed as being a bit more balanced.