Despite the Biden administration’s verbal support of the Abraham Accords, it is doing little on the ground to strengthen them. Several events since my last update signal that the region is drifting further and further away from the Abraham Accords.
US Misses Several Opportunities to Bolster Abraham Accords
The State Department missed several opportunities to bolster the Abraham Accords in the past month.
At the end of the Trump administration, many experts predicted that Saudi Arabia, Oman and Indonesia were the best prospects to join the Abraham Accords. But a recent State Department meeting with Indonesia focused on women, youth issues, and climate change, not the Accords. Recent State Department meetings with Saudi officials suggests that the Biden administration is more focused on pressuring Saudi Arabia on the peace process in Sudan and in Yemen, not with Israel and the Accords. The State Department also appears to have not recently raised the issue of hajj flights of Israeli-Arabs to Saudi Arabia, and Israel’s offer to allow such flights for the sake of normalization with the Kingdom awaits the Kingdom’s response. A State Department meeting with Omani officials suggests peace in Yemen is a top priority for US-Omani relations, while the Abraham Accords is not.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken failed to petition Kuwait to join the Abraham Accords, according to the readout from his recent meeting with Kuwait’s foreign minister. The Assistant Secretary of State also failed to mention the Abraham Accords in a recent visit to Iraq.
While Sudan is ensnared in a civil war, recent State Department meetings with Sudanese officials seemed to have not mentioned the Abraham Accords at all, according to press releases (see here, here and here). The Abraham Accords have stalled in Sudan prior to the civil war, while Israel has offered to mediate between the warring factions (Saudi Arabia has already taken on that role).
In a recent call with Jordan, the State Department focused on Syria, but not how Jordan could contribute to the Abraham Accords. This omission occurred in the midst of Israel arresting (and then releasing) one of Jordan’s MPs for allegedly smuggling in weapons into Judea and Samaria (commonly known as the “West Bank”).
Iran Continuing To Advance Militarily and Diplomatically
Iran continues to flex its military muscles in the region. Iran has reportedly been offering the Islamic Jihad $5 million for every day that it does not enter into a ceasefire with Israel and continues to launch missiles into the Jewish state. Iran is also encouraging Hamas to unite with Islamic Jihad for rocket attacks in Israel. This comes as many in the Palestinian Authority (PA) are expecting that Hamas is planning a coup against the PA in Judea and Samaria. To substantiate their fears of a coup, PA officials point to a Hamas preacher in Gaza recently calling for Palestinians to spy on PA security officials that are believed to be working with Israel. It was also recently discovered that Iran used earthquake aid to Syria as a front to smuggle in weapons to Iranian-backed militias. Additionally, Iran recently seized two oil tankers within one week in the Persian Gulf.
On the diplomatic front, Iran is continuing to score wins and emerge from isolation. Iran’s president visited Syria, the first such visit since 2010. In Syria, the two countries signed an agreement encompassing oil, rail, free trade, and agriculture. Iran’s railway company wants to link to Lattakia, a port in Syria, and expand its footprint to Iraq and Syria. Iran’s foreign minister also visited Saudi Arabia, the first official visit since the two countries restored ties in a deal brokered by China. The foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Russia met in Moscow to discuss “cooperation in the fight against terrorism” as well as restoring Syrian sovereignty in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war. Iran has also had recent high level meetingswith Iraq, Lebanon, and Oman.
UAE Drifting (Again) to China
Meanwhile, the UAE, the strongest of the Arab Abraham Accord partners, has recently been wavering in its support for American interests. After being pressured by the United States to halt building a military base near Abu Dhabi in cooperation with China, the UAE has once again resumed construction of that base. This base is reportedly one of many that China is planning to expand its military footprint worldwide. While briefings on UAE-China ties are classified, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who has access to those briefings, has expressed concerns about repercussions of having CCP installations so close to US assets. Not only does the US has an air force base near Abu Dhabi, but Huawei has tried to sell 5G technology to the UAE. According to Krishnamoorthi, “Alarm bells go off because we know that Huawei infrastructure gives the CCP a back door into accessing important data about users on the network. It gives them a surveillance capability that they don’t necessarily have with Nokia or Ericsson infrastructure.”
Perhaps more alarming is that China and the UAE have recently signed a deal in nuclear energy cooperation. And in another show of growing UAE-China ties, China paid for 65,000 tons of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the UAE in yuan. This marks the first time an energy deal was paid in yuan.
With the UAE drifting more to China, a resurgent Iran, and missed opportunities, the Abraham Accords are facing significant setbacks. The Biden administration must work to broker deals with Saudi Arabia, Oman, Indonesia and others to join the Accords, or risk the Middle East drifting more into Chinese, Iranian, and Russian hands.
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Biden Administration Sacrificing Saudi-Israel Deal on Altar of Palestinian Statehood
Iran kicked out one-third of its nuclear inspectors. The Biden administration is on the verge of getting Iran to release five hostages in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion of Iranian cash, and potentially five Iranian prisoners held in US custody. As Iran is on the march, a breakthrough in Middle East peace can’t come fast enough.
The best way to check Iranian ambitions in the region would be the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. While such a deal would be “tectonic,” the Biden administration is destroying the prospects for normalization because it continues to be obsessed with linking the deal to Palestinian nationalism.
More than any of the known Palestinian demands to date, the Biden administration is fixated on Palestinian statehood. And the administration continues to browbeat Israel on that point. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently claimed that both Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration view a two-state solution an important piece to any deal. Previously, Blinken told Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, that Israel would be “misreading the situation” if it doesn’t think that significant concessions to the Palestinians would be required to broker a Saudi-Israel deal. White House National Security Council spokesman Jake Sullivan also told Dermer that that Israel will need to give significant concessions to the Palestinians so that the Biden administration can sell the deal to Democrats in Congress.
One unconfirmed Saudi press report stated that the Saudis have walked away from talks, due to concerns that Israel wouldn’t agree to placate the Palestinians. However, both an American and an Israeli official have asserted that that report is false.
What is more likely is that the Saudis are taking a pragmatic, not absolutist, approach to a Palestinian track. According to an unnamed Arab official who is familiar with recent talks between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority (PA) earlier this month, Saudi Arabia is now communicating to the PA that it is willing to abandon the two-state solution as a pre-condition for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and that the PA needs to acclimate its demands to that fact. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has proposed to re-start aid to the PA, halted since 2016, in efforts to get the PA to at least tacitly support normalization.
The Israeli response to Palestinian nationalism is much more publicly opposed. Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi has rejected the idea of Palestinian statehood as part of the deal. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the concept of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians as a part of normalization is “a fiction” as such a deal “has nothing to do with Judea and Samaria [commonly referred to in the West as the ‘West Bank’].”
Israel’s hostility to Palestinian nationalism is well founded. As the Oslo Accords turn 30 years old, the so called “peace process” has failed to bring peace to Israel, as Israel has had to defend itself against at least five warsand countless smaller violent conflicts against the Palestinians since 1993. PA President Mahmoud Abbas continued to show his true bigoted face with a recent anti-Semitic diatribe, part and parcel of the systemic anti-Semitism and incitement to violence of the PA.
The Biden administration continues to stand in the way of Saudi Arabia’s normalization of relations with Israel, as it continues to pursue maximalist demands on Palestinian statehood. This is a non-starter for Israel, and not a top concern for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is primarily focused on using the deal to leverage its strength against Iran – as Saudi Arabia is looking to secure US support for advanced weapons, a NATO-like alliance, and civilian nuclear energy. In order to make a sustainable counterweight against Iranian aggression, the Biden administration must jettison its demands for Palestinian statehood, and at the very least answer Saudi concerns with a serious counter-offer. Failure to buttress Israel, Saudi Arabia and our Gulf allies will likely result in a resurgent Iran.
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