President Trump and the Recent Arab-Israeli Normalizations

October 25, 2020
by Servet Akman, published on 25 October 2020
President Trump and the Recent Arab-Israeli Normalizations

Eleven days to the elections in the United States, President Donald Trump announced the deal that Israel and Sudan have agreed to normalize relations. President Trump said there are five more Arab countries ready to join the bandwagon to have ties with Israel.

The deal came several weeks after the United Arab Emirates and Israel signed the normalization agreement, known as Abraham Accords. Amid speculations, a senior Israeli defense official spoke to the press and said “Soon Sudan and later Saudi Arabia will come out of the closet” without further elaboration.

President Trump deserves credit for these peace deals and it is clear that he wants to turn these diplomatic achievements into campaign gains. But interpreting Trump’s attempts to establish ties between the Arab states and Israel simply from an electoral point of view is misleading.

Arab states committed themselves to the two-state solution at the Arab League’s Beirut Summit in 2002. The initiative conditions normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel to Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This approach has been widely accepted by the international community, and the two-state solution has been the backbone of any effort to bring a solution to this protracted conflict.  

However, Israel has been trying to reverse the Arab Peace Initiative, saying that normalization of relations with the Arab states would eventually contribute to the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s calls had found no support until President Trump. Speaking to The Atlantic in December 2016, US Secretary of State confidently said that “there will be no separate peace between the Arab world and Israel before a two-state-solution with Palestine has been reached.” Secretary Kerry also rebuffed the claims by Israeli politicians that the Arab world is in a different place and said a separate peace deal could never be reached without resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first.

History has proved Secretary Kerry wrong. With the help of President Trump, Israel has been able to normalize relations with the UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan. It is likely that Saudi Arabia, and few others, will soon normalize relations with Israel. By refraining from publicly criticizing the Abraham Accords and allowing its airspace to be used for flights from Israel to the UAE, Saudi Arabia signals that it wants to normalize relations with Israel too. Secret talks between the two countries have been underway for some time.

Agreements between Israel and the Arab states were not achieved simply because the Arab world is in a different place than it was two decades ago. President Trump has been the main determinant of the course of recent events. Assuming office in January 2017, Trump’s first visit abroad was to Saudi Arabia where he also met with the leaders of the Arab states. His next step was Israel. President Trump became the first sitting US president visiting and praying at the Western Wall. That was a gesture signaling a change in the US policy. Following the historic tour in the Middle East, President Trump started to take a series of steps that severely undermined the two-state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump appointed David Friedman as US ambassador to Israel, Jason Greenblaatt and Jared Kushner as his advisors for the Middle East. In the counsel of them, who are known for their pro-Israeli views, President Trump has been giving unconditional support to Israel.

In this regard, President Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, without mentioning the status of the East Jerusalem. Soon after, he decided to move US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Several other countries followed suit and relocated their embassies. Trump Administration also downplayed the two-state-solution, questioned the illegality of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, halted funding to UNRWA rendering it dysfunctional. These moves triggered some reactions from the Muslim world, but most Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sufficed with condemnation statements.

The unconditional support and the bold actions by the US have solidified Israel’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general and further reduced expectations for a just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Convinced that the two-state-solution is no longer viable, it is not surprising that some Arab states abandoned their previous commitments and went for normalization of relations with Israel. They claim normalization with Israel would benefit the Palestinians. Pursuant to the Abraham Accords, Israel suspended its efforts to annex the West Bank.

The new geopolitical concerns in the region also paved the way for this. Military confrontations in Yemen and Libya exposed the need for advanced military technology against the adversaries. Therefore, the UAE made the sales of F-35s part of the normalization deal with Israel. Initially repudiating the rumors, Israel had to announce publicly that it will not oppose the sales of F-35s to the UAE, provided that Israel’s military superiority is ensured.

Although these deals may seem contingent on President Trump, I do not expect a radical shift in the US policy if he loses the elections. US would continue to support Israel having normal relations with the Arab world, and honor the lucrative arms sales deal to Gulf countries, especially at a time when the world economy is hit by coronavirus measures. After all, Biden had to acknowledge President Trump’s role in achieving the Abraham Accords and said shelving annexation plans is not a bad thing.

The fact that direct flights and visa waivers are already in place, and many cooperation deals are being signed between Israel and the UAE demonstrates that the parties are serious in deepening the ties.

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