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Forget 'peace,' did Abraham Accords set stage for Israel-Gaza conflict?

Almost every assumption that undergirded the Israel-Arab normalization agreements was disastrously wrong, and now we are paying the price.

Middle East

It’s easy to forget now, but the shocking and horrific violence that set off the current hostilities in the Middle East, where Hamas militants slaughtered and kidnapped innocent Israeli civilians, was predicted. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump warned in October 2020 that terrorist violence was set to be imminently inflamed.

Trump's DHS didn’t claim it was because, in President Joe Biden words, of “sheer evil” from those who exist only “to kill Jews.” Rather, it pointed to the Abraham Accords: the U.S.-led effort to normalize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which Trump claimed would shift the course of Middle Eastern history from “decades of division and conflict” and which the Biden administration claimed would make the region “safer and more prosperous.”

So how did we end up with the exact opposite?

For decades, the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meaning the provision of an independent state for the Palestinian people and the end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, was central to the task of engineering peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This was a problem, since between successive Israeli governments steadily chipping away at the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict and dwindling U.S. interest in pressuring the Israeli state to follow through on the commitment, that resolution started to look increasingly impossible.

But over time, the priorities of the Arab states shifted away from the Palestinians, too. Their largely authoritarian leadership became more preoccupied with matters like maintaining political control in the wake of the Arab Spring protests — for which support from an advanced military power like Israel might prove useful — and an increasingly assertive Iran, which then-newly appointed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman called a “much more urgent and more important” issue.

This shift dovetailed with the Trump administration’s ultra-Israel-friendly stance and its own goal of further isolating Iran in the region. The resulting Abraham Accords were, at least in the neoconservative world, considered a stroke of “genius.” Rather than finding a solution to the seemingly intractable question of Palestinian statehood, it simply sidelined it.

The signers dropped this long-standing precondition as they re-established diplomatic relations and deepened security and economic cooperation with Israel, while Trump lavished them with rewards, like an arms deal for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and U.S. recognition of the annexation of West Sahara for Morocco. It effectively supplanted the Saudi government’s Arab Peace Initiative, which since its 2002 introduction had been the foundation of the Arab world’s program for resolving the conflict, placing the Palestinians front and center.

The new normalization agreements’ foundational and cynical assumption was that the plight of the Palestinians could and would be safely ignored and forgotten about by both the region’s governments and the broader international community. Both the Trump administration and, reportedly, bin Salman, pressured Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to assent, while the states that signed continued paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, claiming this normalization push would halt Israel’s annexation plans for its illegal West Bank settlements.

In reality, the text of the agreements barely mentioned Palestinians, outside of a few vague assurances to keep working toward a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that Morocco maintained a “coherent, constant and unchanged position” on the matter. This was, to put it mildly, far short of what both Palestinians and their supporters in the U.S. Congress demanded.

As Arab states began gradually deepening ties with Israel, they increasingly backed away from their historic positions. Bin Salman declared (and subsequently walked back) that Israelis “have the right to have their own land,” effectively sanctioning the loss of what the Muslim world viewed as Palestinians’ historic land.

When violence broke out in April 2021 at the Al-Aqsa mosque, with Israeli forces raiding one of Islam’s holiest sites, the UAE response was notably muted. That the normalization process continued despite what would earlier have been viewed as an unacceptable provocation against both Palestinians and Islam itself was celebrated by the accords’ supporters, as proof that ongoing repression of Palestinians could indeed be safely ignored.

But the Palestinian issue could not simply be wished away, and the signing of the pacts created a set of contradictions that fueled the tensions that erupted October 7. The vast majority of the populations of Israel’s Arab neighbors opposed the accords, as did some leaders, like Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who charged that the signers had “lost their moral compass,” and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who declared that “no architecture for regional security and development can stand over the burning ashes of this conflict.”

So did Palestinians themselves, across opinion surveys, with both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas calling it a “betrayal,” a “treacherous stab,” and “grave harm.” Hamas also called for “an integrated plan to bring down normalization.” Protests against the accords erupted in Morocco, one of the signers.

The signing of the Accords was particularly fraught in Saudi Arabia. The country’s powerful clerics continued to oppose Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. But beyond that, the Saudi leadership’s internal legitimacy and its standing as the region’s leader of the Islamic continued to rest in part on its commitment to the Palestinians. Regional rival Iran quickly stepped in to fill this vacuum left by Saudi support for the deals, sharply criticizing the normalization effort as a “betrayal of Palestinian aspirations for freedom.”

Meanwhile, Israeli policy didn’t change as promised, and in fact, only hardened. Since 2020, when the accords were signed, illegal settlements have expanded and even ramped up alongside settler violence. The Netanyahu government has now advanced a record number of settler housing units, and transferred administration of the occupied territories from military to civilian hands, widely interpreted as signaling plans for annexation, even as figures like former Abbas adviser Ghaith al-Omari claimed the accords had “already delivered to the Palestinians” by stopping this policy.

This past September, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States admitted annexation hadn’t actually stopped.

The Biden administration could have reversed Trump’s efforts, and placed pressure on Israel to halt these plans, as well as end its settlement expansion while making good on its promises and obligations under the peace process. Instead, the president continued Trump’s normalization efforts while breaking from presidential precedent and not even attempting to advance the peace process, all while issuing little to no criticism of the Israeli government’s violations.

He has in fact escalated the issue, pushing for an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement, with the only concession to Palestinians the mere preservation of the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace — an agreement that would also entail further nuclear proliferation in the region and giving Saudi Arabia security assurances. Even so, Biden’s secretary of state continues to claim that this could “be used to advance” such a peace.

So while Hamas had reportedly planned this operation for two years, and claimed it was motivated by years of violence at Al-Aqsa, its attack also can’t be understood without the bipartisan push for Israeli-Arab normalization at the Palestinians’ expense, and the outrage, anger, and despair it has inspired.

What is clear — from Hamas’s extraordinary violence, the wider regional war it threatens to spark, as well as the major pro-Palestinian protests across Arab countries in response to Israel’s bombing campaign — is that almost every assumption that undergirded the Abraham Accords was disastrously wrong, not least the idea that dismissing the Palestinians would make for a more peaceful Middle East.
Washington DC, USA - September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House. (noamgalai/shutterstock)
Washington DC, USA - September 15, 2020: Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan attend the Abraham Accords ceremony in The White House. (noamgalai/shutterstock)
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