In push for Israel-Arab ties, US to name normalisation coordinator

But the 11-day war in Gaza has complicated US-backed diplomacy for new Abraham accords and boosted the stature of such militant organisations as Hamas.
Thursday 10/06/2021
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz, at the State Department in Washington, June 3, 2021. REUTERS
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz, at the State Department in Washington, June 3, 2021. (REUTERS)

WASHINGTON--The Biden administration is laying the groundwork for a renewed push to encourage more Arab countries to sign normalisation accords with Israel while working to strengthen existing deals after last month’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip interrupted those diplomatic efforts and threw a damper on any normalisation plans.

The embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords is a rare carryover of a signature Trump administration policy by President Joe Biden and other Democrats.  It reflects the bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

The Biden administration saw the significant prospect of several other Arab governments signing accords soothing and normalising relations with Israel. However, US officials have declined to publicly identify the countries they regard as promising prospects.

Sudan inked a general declaration of peaceful intent but has not yet signed up to diplomatic relations with Israel ahead of its next legislative elections. Oman, which has a policy of non-interference that allows it to be a broker across the Middle East’s fault lines, has long been seen by Westerners as a likely contender.

But the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas militant rulers last month has complicated US-backed diplomacy for new Abraham accords. It has even boosted the stature of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and widened the popularity of their radical agenda.

The fighting “has strengthened the conviction of opponents of normalisation” with Israel, activist Doura Gambo said in Sudan. The Sudanese were already divided over their government’s agreement last year to become one of the four Arab states signing accords. In Sudan’s case, the Trump administration offered financial relief from US sanctions.

Last month’s bloodshed, which killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children and at least 22 members of one family, resonated deeply with the Arab public, including in the other countries that had already signed accords with Israel: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Thirteen people died in Israel, including two children and one soldier.

For the general Arab public, the recent confrontation showed that Israel has been unwilling to address the issue of Palestinian national rights, despite the normalisation moves.

 Country-by-country accords 

Even before fleshing out its plans to promote a Palestinian-Israeli settlement based on the two-state- solution defended by Democrats, the Biden administration is considering appointing a former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to a Mideast role that would marshal and potentially expand the country-by-country accords between Israel and Mideast governments.

Two people familiar with the matter confirmed Shapiro was being considered for the job, as first reported by The Washington Post.

US officials are also working to encourage more business, education and other ties among the four Arab states and Israel. They hope visible success there will also promote the bilateral accords in the region, while the US works to advance resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Last year, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country in over two decades to establish ties with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The deals former President Donald Trump struck were “an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.

In addition, “we’re looking at countries that may want to join in and take part and begin to normalise their own relations with Israel. That, too, has been very much part of conversations I’ve had with, with several of my counterparts,” Blinken added.

Opponents of these deals, however, argue that they undermine Arab consensus around only recognising Israel when it resumes serious peace talks with the Palestinians that lead to tangible concessions.

“These agreements were never about the peace process,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, who charges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the accords as an alternative to peace-making with the Palestinians.

“Were they helpful to the peace process? No, they were not,” Muasher said. “They gave Israel the false impression that it can forge peace agreements with Arab states as a substitute for coming to terms with the Palestinians.”

In the small North African nation of Tunisia, activists are jockeying to introduce an anti-normlisation bill in parliament. Tunisian President Kais Saied said earlier this week countries that normalised with Israel were “free to do so. But likewise we are free to die free.”

Supporters of the country-by-country accords say isolating Israel failed to overcome decades of stalemate on Palestinians’ demand for their own state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

“As many ways as the Biden administration will depart from Trump policy in the region, there will be places where it sees an interest in continuity,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who spoke to officials in Oman on a trip immediately before last month’s Gaza war erupted.

Before any new efforts on the accords move forward, big political and pragmatic developments need to fall into place in the region so as to promote a settlement to the Palestinian question, Middle East analysts say. The Biden administration has yet to develop a clear vision of what a fair settlement would look like and demonstrate a willingness to weigh in on Israel.

At the moment, eyes are  on the Jewish state to see how a possible new coalition government led by a new prime minister may affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, especially in the aftermath of the Gaza war.

The Knesset is set to vote on Sunday on whether to confirm the new government and end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. If it does, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett will become prime minister. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.  Bennett, an advocate of more settlements, is seen an unlikely supporter of the two-state-solution, the endgame of any settlement.

The accords signed by the four Arab nations so far seem solidly in place despite the strain of last month’s war. So too do the big incentives that the Trump administration threw in to help close the deals. An example is the US Republican administration’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

In the UAE, a Gulf financial hub that has been the most enthusiastic about establishing ties with Israel, Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the government is gauging public sentiment, but can also control the street and sometimes defy whatever public opposition there is.

“The UAE have taken this decision. They knew exactly where they are and knew the risk and they are not going back on it,” he said.

The way things stand today in the Middle East, normalisation does not seem to enjoy a popular momentum across the region. But the US administration still sees potential in bilateral diplomatic arrangements.