Stop Tiptoeing Around Russia
It Is Time to End Washington’s Decades of Deference to Moscow
On September 15, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump stood on the White House balcony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to unveil one of his administration’s signature foreign policy achievements: the Abraham Accords. Trump declared that the pact, through which Bahrain and the UAE became the first two Gulf states to recognize Israel, signaled “the dawn of a new Middle East.” Since that time, Sudan and Morocco have also normalized relations with Israel and the UAE inked a trade deal with the country. This splintering of Arab unity has been remarkable, given the Arab world’s long-standing commitment to withhold political recognition until Israel agrees to end its military occupation over Arab land and comply with international law.
To deepen the ties inaugurated by the accords, Israel hosted a summit in March bringing together representatives of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, and the United States. At the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded those in attendance that Arab normalization is no substitute for a political solution between Israelis and Palestinians. But even though others made reference to Israeli-Palestinian peace in their prepared remarks, that topic was not on the agenda. Palestinians were not even invited to the gathering. And Jordan and Saudi Arabia—two players that would be integral in brokering a two-state solution—were notably absent.
When the UAE signed the Abraham Accords, the country’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, declared that the “most immediate and significant outcome” of the deal was Israel’s pledge to suspend its planned annexation of Palestinian land and pursue a negotiated peace deal. Yet de facto annexation continues unabated, and Israeli leaders have all but forsworn talks with Palestinians. The truth is that the accords have not advanced peace in the Middle East because Israel’s aim in signing the accords was to redirect world attention away from its military occupation, not to end it. Without international engagement, Palestinian displacement and Israeli land grabs will continue. Witness how in early May, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that eight villages in the West Bank can be leveled and hundreds of residents expelled so the Israeli military can use the area as a firing zone.
The daily violence that is Israel’s military occupation takes place largely without international outcry. That the United States criticized the Israeli police for attacking mourners at the funeral of the Palestinian-American broadcaster Shireen Abu Aqleh—who was likely killed by a targeted Israeli attack while reporting in the occupied West Bank, according to reports by The Associated Press and CNN—is the exception that proves the rule. If the last two months are a harbinger, then the stage is set for the situation to become increasingly volatile across the occupied territories. Palestinians will refuse to have their basic rights indefinitely deferred.
The Abraham Accords have allowed a growing number of Arab states to openly cooperate with Israel on security and economic matters—with no requirement that Israel stop building settlements in return. Under the Trump administration, two and a half times as many settlement units were approved for construction in the West Bank as had been during the Obama administration’s second term in office. Work on road systems and infrastructure is set to accommodate an additional one million settlers, according to the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now.
The settlement boom is the natural result of Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan, a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that predated the Abraham Accords. Developed in close collaboration with Israel’s right-wing government, the plan offered a roadmap for how Israel might maintain permanent control over the West Bank. What Trump dubbed the “deal of the century” would have resolved all final-status issues between Israelis and Palestinians in Israel’s favor: Israel would have sovereignty over the West Bank, no Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homeland, even the Israeli settlements that would fall into the new Palestinian state's borders would remain under Israeli control, and Israel would have the entirety of Jerusalem as its exclusive capital, save a few densely populated Palestinian areas. The regional projects envisioned under the plan would have allowed Israel to literally bulldoze past the internationally recognized green line that separates it from the occupied territories to create a “Greater Israel” reinforced by donor-funded telecom cables, gas pipelines, tourist treks, and transportation networks.
There appears to be no interest in peacemaking among Israel’s leadership.
When, as expected, Palestinians refused to live without political or civil rights under permanent Israeli subjugation, the Abraham Accords opened a political back door to implement the plan without Palestinian acquiescence. The pact also emboldened Israel’s ultranationalists, particularly in Jerusalem. Palestinians and Israeli security forces have repeatedly clashed at the al Aqsa mosque, which has been governed by an Islamic trust administered by Jordan; the status quo policy had been, in essence, “Muslims pray, non-Muslims visit.” Increasingly, however, Jews are openly praying there. Christians in Jerusalem have not been immune to the aggression of Israeli settler organizations: with court orders in hand, settlers have harassed Christians and obstructed their access to holy sites with impunity, and Israel has placed limits on Palestinian Christian attendance at Easter services in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
There appears to be no interest in peacemaking among Israel’s leadership. While Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has expressed openness to giving more permits for Palestinians to work in Israel and for some of their spouses to reside legally in the West Bank, he has rejected the idea of talks with Palestinians. But as Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared in February, Palestinians should not expect a full-fledged state as an outcome even if peace talks resume.
Subsequent events suggest the start of an intifada reminiscent of the one that began in 2000, when Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke down and Ariel Sharon visited the al Aqsa mosque compound in his campaign for the Israeli premiership. Last December, the Israel Defense Forces acknowledged its “shoot to kill” policy for Palestinian rock throwers and others who pose no immediate threat. Small wonder that almost 50 Palestinians have been killed between January and March, a five-fold increase over the same period the previous year. Armed Palestinians—both citizens of Israel and residents of the West Bank—have killed 18 people inside Israel, where Israelis had a sense of security. Israeli search-and-arrest operations and checkpoint shootings have resulted in mounting Palestinian fatalities. Among the victims was Ghada Sabateen, an unarmed, partially blind 47-year-old teacher and mother of six. In the midst of this escalation, Bennett has instructed Israelis to carry weapons, and the Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is threatening to revive suicide attacks. All signs are that the situation will only get worse.
U.S. President Joe Biden has stated his strong support for both the two-state solution and the Abraham Accords. Yet he has left in place policies of his predecessor that treat settlements in the West Bank as part of Israel’s sovereign territory. On the one political agenda item that the Biden administration is keen to roll back from the Trump era—the closure of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which once served as the de facto embassy to Palestinians—Israel is refusing to cooperate. (The former consulate was folded into the U.S. embassy to Israel shortly after Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and moved the embassy there.)
Undeterred, the Biden administration is prioritizing a Trump-era legislative mechanism to bolster the accords that may legitimize illegal settlements. In December 2020, Congress passed the Nita Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA) to direct U.S. financing for joint investment projects among Israelis, Palestinians, and regional stakeholders. In a glaring omission, MEPPA contains no protections to prevent settlers from benefiting from the fund. In fact, an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who spoke to Jewish Insider in April 2022 on condition of anonymity indicated that projects involving settlers will not be excluded from consideration so long as they support the two-state solution. Although it is possible that some settlers support a two-state solution, it is hard to imagine what a litmus test would look like.
Despite these concerns, the Democrat-controlled Congress passed the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which requires the State Department to leverage U.S. power and resources to expand and deepen the Abraham Accords. Mandating the peddling of U.S. influence in the service of a foreign government is never good policy. It is especially dangerous when a growing list of prominent legal experts and institutions, including a February 2022 analysis by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, have determined that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank territories amounts to apartheid. Washington ought to be troubled by the moral and legal consequences of being so closely invested in Israel’s actions in the occupied territories, particularly as it considers supporting an International Criminal Court case for war crimes in Ukraine. The international standing of the United States is ill served when U.S. officials advocate for accountability for Russian atrocities while also helping prevent accountability for offenses committed by Israel.
The United States offered much to induce Arab states to sign the Abraham Accords. The UAE, an authoritarian regime with a problematic human rights record, received a promise of sophisticated weapons systems. Sudan was removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Morocco was able to obtain U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over Western Sahara, territory that the international community recognizes as occupied and that the Sahrawi people claim as theirs.
These actions do not serve U.S. interests any more than they serve the cause of peace. Dumping more weapons into a region that already receives almost half of U.S. transfers will further fuel a Middle East arms race, making violent conflict more likely, not less. It will also mean providing even more advanced weapons to Israel, a major arms-exporting country in its own right, in order to meet congressional commitments to maintain Israel’s military edge in the region. Providing such largess with no strings attached only reduces U.S. leverage with Israel. It is why the Israeli prime minister can refuse to allow the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to reopen and why he can say that even if the United States resuscitates the Iran nuclear deal, Israel alone will decide if and when to take action against Iran.
The Abraham Accords and the regional development projects they hope to foster will not bring economic relief to the donor-dependent Palestinians. That is because the accords do nothing to alleviate Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement and their access to land and natural resources. According to the World Bank, these Israeli policies cost the West Bank economy billions of dollars every year. The biggest obstacle to Palestinian economic development isn’t a lack of capital or ingenuity; it is the occupation.
Important U.S. interests have been compromised in the pursuit of Arab normalization with Israel.
Other important U.S. interests have been compromised in the pursuit of Arab normalization with Israel. Pushing Arab governments with populations that widely support Palestinian rights and oppose normalization to sign the accords invites those governments to step up authoritarian tactics to quash dissent, complicating democracy and human rights promotion. U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, despite what international law has to say about it, gives U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China an opening to excuse their own disregard for normative behavior. Similarly, delisting Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism as a quid pro quo to recognize Israel—rather than delisting the country because it has met specific benchmarks regarding terrorism—politicizes counterterrorism efforts and compromises U.S. national security.
As Biden prepares for his first trip as president to Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming months, and as another regional summit appears to be in the works, Washington should make an unequivocal commitment to a durable Middle East peace. The United States can support regional cooperation while also pursuing its own interests, but doing so means clearly defining when and how it will use its power. It should avoid offering incentives to other Arab governments to join the accords so long as Israel continues to take Palestinian land. With those countries that have already normalized relations with Israel, it should assert that it will not back regional engagements that flout the border between Israel and the occupied territories or undermine Palestinian rights.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the United States should lead by example. Ahead of the trip, Biden should disavow Trump’s so-called peace plan and reverse policies that treat the occupied West Bank as part of Israel. His administration should also instruct USAID and other federal agencies to ensure that assistance for Palestinian economic development is directed in a way that respects international law.
The United States cannot afford to kick the political can down the road until there is a more opportune moment for peacemaking. Palestinians and Israelis have reached a dead end, and the ground is unstable. Prioritizing the Abraham Accords while putting Palestinian rights on ice sends clear but diverging messages to both sides. To the Israelis: you have a free hand to take the West Bank. To the Palestinians: you are on your own. That is a recipe for violence.