WASHINGTON – President Donald J. Trump declared in September: “The beginning of a new Middle East.”
In the White House, Trump announced new diplomatic agreements between Israel and two of its Gulf Arab neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
“After decades of division and conflict,” said Trump, flanked by leaders from the region in a scene that was later repeated in his campaign ads, the Abraham Accords “laid the foundations for a comprehensive peace across the region.”
Eight months later, such peace remains a distant hope, especially for the most famous intractable conflict in the Middle East, that between Israel and the Palestinians. In fiery scenes all too reminiscent of the ancient Middle East, this conflict has entered its bloodiest phase in seven years and again criticizes Trump’s approach as it raises questions about the future of the accords as President Biden grapples with the role of United States facing looks now play in the region.
Mr Trump’s approach has essentially been to circumvent the challenge of easing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in order to foster closer ties between Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states, largely based on their shared concerns about Iran.
The agreements he was involved in negotiating generally showed that some of Israel’s Arab neighbors showed less interest in helping the Palestinians, giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more leeway to pursue strategies that further exacerbated Israeli-Palestinian tensions .
“It was very difficult for anyone who knows the region to believe that the signing of the Abrahamic Accords would be a breakthrough for peace,” said Zaha Hassan, a visiting scholar for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which focuses on Palestinian issues specialized.
Vali Nasr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the agreements were “based on the idea that the Palestinian question is dead,” and rewarded Netanyahu’s tenacious approach to Israeli settlement activities in support of other expansive territorial claims.
“This was proof of his theory that you can have land and peace,” said Nasr.
Former Trump officials said the hyperbolic former president billed the Abraham Accords, which were later extended to Morocco and Sudan, but they were never seen as a means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the contrary, the deal, which expanded trade and normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the four Arab states in whole or in part, instead acted as a reprimand for the Palestinians by showing that their cause no longer defined relations in the region.
Sunni Arab rulers, angry with the Palestinian leadership and tacitly allied with Israel against Shiite Iran for years, moved on.
Jason Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s Middle East Envoy through October 2019, argued that the current spasm of violence in and around Israel “underscores why the Abraham Accords are so important to the region”.
After Palestinian leaders finally rejected a January 2020 Trump peace plan that proposed the creation of a Palestinian state under conditions heavily geared towards Israeli demands, the accords deliberately severed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Israel’s relations with the Arabs World, said Greenblatt.
They “have taken the Palestinians’ veto power to move the region forward,” he added.
Others noted that before agreeing to the agreements, the United Arab Emirates had given Mr. Netanyahu a pledge to halt a possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, which had the potential to spark a major Palestinian uprising. (Trump officials also opposed such annexation, and Mr Netanyahu may still not have enforced it.)
Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator who served under three presidents, described the deals as an important step for the region but said the violence in Israel’s cities and Gaza Strip shows how “the Palestinian issue still holds a cloud over the people Israel’s relations can throw “its Arab neighbors.
“The idea that this was ‘Peace in Our Time’ obviously ignored the one existential conflict in the region. It wasn’t between Israel and the Arab states, ”said Ross.
Most analysts say the deals – which Biden government officials say they want to support and even expand to more nations – can survive the current violence. After all, officials involved in drafting the agreement said no one had the illusion that such clashes were a thing of the past.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
May 15, 2021, 8:59 p.m. ET
But images of Israeli police raids against Arabs in Jerusalem and air strikes that topple skyscrapers in Gaza are clearly causing nuisance.
In a statement last week, the UAE Foreign Ministry “strongly condemned” Israel’s proposed evictions in East Jerusalem and a police attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where Israeli officials said Palestinians had been storing stones throwing them at the Israeli police.
Last month, the UAE also denounced “acts of violence by right-wing extremist groups in occupied East Jerusalem” and warned that the region “could slide into new levels of instability in ways that threaten peace”.
Bahrain and other Gulf states have condemned Israel in similar tones. In a statement by the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, on Friday “all parties”, not just Israel, were urged to exercise restraint and pursue a ceasefire.
A former Trump official argued that public pressure from countries like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on Israel after the agreements carried more weight than was the case from newly official diplomatic partners. However, none of the governments involved in the agreements play a major role in efforts to achieve a ceasefire – a responsibility that has historically been assumed by Egypt and Qatar.
“It is the non-Abraham Convention Arabs who will really play a central role in ending this fire,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Israeli-Arab adviser among six state secretaries.
At an event held by the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the Biden administration “welcomes and supports” the Abraham Accords and that “Israel’s group of friends will grow even larger” next year. “
But with dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries since then, most of them Palestinians, analysts say the prospect of other Arab nations joining the accords is poor.
“I would say it is very, very unlikely that anyone else will join the deal,” said Nasr. “It will lose a lot of dynamism and energy.”
A nation seen as a potential candidate, Saudi Arabia, has imposed some of the strongest condemnations against Israel in the past few days. A statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry called on the international community to “hold the Israeli occupation responsible for this escalation and immediately stop its escalation measures, which violate all international norms and laws”.
Some Biden analysts and government officials say the deals were the culmination of a four-year Trump policy that included and empowered Mr. Netanyahu and isolated the Palestinians. Mr Trump’s approach, they said, nearly stifled hopes for the two-state solution pursued by several previous American presidents and tipped the balance of power between official Palestinian leaders and Hamas extremists in Gaza.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official, admitted that Israel had clashed with the Palestinians even under democratic governments, which had chosen a more balanced approach to the conflict than Trump’s nakedly pro-Israel stance.
And he said opportunistic rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel after the outbreak of Jewish-Arab violence in Jerusalem were not Trump’s fault.
But Mr Goldenberg argued that the current violence against Internecine in Israel “is at least partially driven by the fact that the Trump administration supports extremist elements in Israel every step of the way,” including the Israeli settlement movement.
In November 2019, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo changed longstanding US policy by stating that the US did not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law. (The Biden government intends to reverse this position once a government attorney review is completed.)
Mr Trump also moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and officially recognized the city as Israel’s capital. This enraged the Palestinians, who had long expected East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state they are building.
“Trump opened the door to Israel to accelerate house demolition and settlement activities,” Ms Hassan said. “And when that happens and you see Israel affecting it, you see the Palestinian resistance.”
Former Trump officials note that expert predictions of a Palestinian outbreak never materialized during Mr Trump’s tenure, particularly after the embassy moved, and suggest that Biden’s friendliness toward the Palestinians – including restoring that of Mr Trump canceled humanitarian aid – Trump – has encouraged them to challenge Israel.
Even some Trump administration officials said any suggestion that the deals equate to peace in the Middle East are exaggerated.
“During my time in the White House, I always urged people not to use that term,” Greenblatt said.