Why Has Biden Stopped Pushing for Arab-Israeli Peace?
The historic Arab-Israel normalization agreements of 2020, known as the Abraham Accords, were an extraordinary triumph of U.S. diplomacy. More than a quarter century after Israel’s last peace deal with one of its Arab neighbors, the United States brokered four such deals in rapid succession in the final five months of Donald Trump’s presidency. Love Trump or hate him, the accords represented a stunning advancement in Washington’s decades long quest to secure its vital interests in the Middle East by helping reconcile its most important regional partners.
Unfortunately, much of that diplomatic momentum to widen the circle of peace was lost in U.S. President Joe Biden’s first year in office. Four new deals in five months and then… one year of nothing. As Biden enters his second year in office this week, failing to build on Middle East peace is arguably the biggest missed opportunity of his foreign policy so far.
Thankfully, with their agreements already in place, Israel and its new partners in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco (the process in Sudan was paralyzed by that country’s political turmoil) were still able to make remarkable progress in their relations in 2021, building the diplomatic, social, and economic foundations of a genuinely warm peace—as opposed to the colder, arms-length peace that followed Israel’s agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Direct flights started, embassies were opened, and summits took place. Agreements on cybersecurity, space exploration, and food security were inked. In the middle of a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Israelis visited the UAE. Investments worth billions of dollars have been lined up, and trade between Israel and the UAE alone was expected to approach $1 billion in 2021.
But all this progress was made in spite of the Biden administration, not because of it. For a variety of reasons—and, let’s be honest, not least because of their disdain for the two figures most associated with the accords, Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—Biden and his team were slow to play the excellent hand they had been dealt by their predecessor. While paying lip service to the accords, not a single concrete initiative was launched during the administration’s first months to advance or expand them.
What took precedence instead was a series of policies almost tailor-made to discourage more of Washington’s traditional Arab partners from taking the plunge with Israel—from Biden’s race to the exits in Afghanistan to abandoning Trump’s maximum pressure policy against Iran to making an early show out of downgrading the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.
None of it was designed with a mind to inspiring confidence among skittish Arab leaders that the United States would have their back if they took risks for peace with the Jewish state. All of it suggested that deepening and expanding Arab-Israel normalization had dropped far down Washington’s list of foreign-policy priorities.
That should change as Biden begins his second year in office, as emphasized by a task force of U.S. national security experts convened by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. (Full disclosure: We both work for the institute and were involved in drafting the task force’s report.) As surely as the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt ended the era of large-scale Arab-Israeli wars and shaped the strategic trajectory of the Middle East in ways overwhelmingly favorable to U.S. interests for the past four decades, the Abraham Accords have opened the door to an era of Arab-Israeli cooperation whose impact on the region could be no less positive over the next four decades. But just as the 2020 deals would never have happened absent U.S. leadership, ensuring the accords now reach their full potential will require equally determined and focused U.S. diplomacy.
What are the stakes? First, there is an opportunity to end seven decades of conflict between Israel and most of the Arab states. Second, there’s the prospect of organizing—for the first time ever—a U.S.-led coalition that brings Washington’s most important Middle East partners together in common cause to bolster stability, security, and prosperity in a part of the world that remains vital to the global economy. Third, there’s a chance to empower Washington’s closest regional friends to jointly carry more of the burden of maintaining order in their neighborhood as the United States devotes increasing resources to containing and deterring the global challenges posed by China and Russia. And fourth, there’s the opportunity to score a series of historic diplomatic victories that would do wonders for the United States’ global prestige, credibility, and soft power at a time when all are increasingly in doubt.
To give credit where credit is due, the Biden administration did take a number of hopeful steps in the final months of 2021 that suggested it was beginning to realize the value of the Abraham Accords. Particularly after the Afghanistan debacle last August, their activities in support of the agreements saw a significant uptick. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted several events to highlight the accords’ anniversary. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, traveled to Saudi Arabia in late September and discussed normalization in a meeting with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Blinken did the same in December during a trip to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. And in November, in the Red Sea, the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet organized the first combined military exercise involving ships from Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain.
That’s all good. But now is the time for Biden to up his game and remove all doubt that widening the circle of Arab-Israeli peace is one of his highest priorities. How? Name a special presidential envoy for normalization. Next, convene a summit meeting at Camp David with the leaders of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan to establish an ongoing forum for building a new regional security architecture with Israel as an integral member.
Militarily, take advantage of the almost limitless opportunities now available to slowly but surely build Arab-Israeli defense ties as the result of Trump’s decision a year ago to move Israel into U.S. Central Command’s area of operations, alongside the armed forces of almost all of the United States’ Arab partners. Make last November’s naval exercises in the Red Sea the first in a regular series that draws in more Arab states over time and involves air, sea, land, and cybersecurity domains. Integrate Israeli forces and capabilities as much as possible into the multinational task forces that the U.S. Navy already leads to uphold freedom of navigation in the region, defend its vital maritime chokepoints, and combat the malign activities at sea of Iran and its network of terrorist proxies.
Central Command is also perfectly positioned to bring Israel and its Arab partners together to help solve one of their most urgent common threats: the increasingly deadly arsenal of missiles and drones wielded by Iran and its militia allies around the region. Monday’s deadly attack on the UAE by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels was a potent reminder. No country on earth has had more success building multilayered missile defenses than Israel. And thanks to the Houthis, no country on earth has probably been targeted by more drones than Saudi Arabia. Pull Saudi Arabia into a regionwide air defense effort, and you’ll almost surely be halfway down the road to the ultimate normalization prize: peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia—Islam’s birthplace and still the Arab world’s most influential country. It would be the key to unlocking Israel’s reconciliation with the vast majority of the world’s Muslim countries.
Biden’s agenda in 2022 should be clear: Embrace the accords. Make them your own. Strengthen U.S. partners and advance U.S. security. Do what China and Russia could only hope to do in their wildest dreams and broker a new set of Arab-Israeli peace deals. Dramatically enhance the United States’ prestige and influence on the world stage. Restore your own stature as a leading international statesman. And who knows—you might even win a Nobel Prize.
Then, you could send Trump a nice thank-you note. Or not.
John Hannah is a Senior Fellow and Jonathan Ruhe is Director of Foreign Policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
Originally published in Foreign Policy.