First-term Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), who stocked his office with 13 former Trump administration staffers, thinks the eruption of violence between Israel and Hamas this week is partly President Joe Biden’s fault.
“Last fall we saw a watershed shift toward peace w/the Abraham Accords,” Haggerty tweeted on Wednesday. “The entire region was eager for more. Biden had 4 months to build on this ... Instead, Biden squandered those 4 months.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee member’s case is one that other Republicans and allies of former President Trump have been making in recent days.
They note Trump brokered normalization-of-relations deals between Israel and four Arab nations: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Those pacts, known as the Abraham Accords, served two main purposes.
The first was straightforward: They allowed Israel to engage openly and officially with countries that refused to recognize its existence for years. That historic development received bipartisan support in the US, and many today want Biden to build upon the foundation Trump left him.
The second was more nuanced. Many of those and other Arab nations, like Saudi Arabia, are key backers of Palestinians in their decades-long dispute with Israel. But by getting them to interact with Israel, the idea was that they might let their support for the Palestinians slip and side a little closer with the Israelis.
If that happened, the theory went, Palestinian leaders would have no choice but to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. Jared Kushner, the main architect of the accords during the Trump years, has remained confident this might happen. “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal two months ago.
It’s hard to overstate how bold this play was. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, now Biden’s top climate envoy, told a Washington, DC, audience in 2016 that there was no chance of striking normalization pacts before signing a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world,” he said. “That is a hard reality.”
So are Hagerty and his fellow conservatives right? Are we witnessing violence that’s seen over 80 people in Gaza and seven others in Israel killed because Biden “squandered” the momentum of Trump’s Abraham Accords? Experts I spoke to are unanimous in their answer: absolutely not.
“That’s nonsense on multiple levels, to be honest,” said H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in DC. “I just don’t really buy that argument at all,” Guy Ziv, an assistant professor at American University, also in the capital, said of the growing conservative argument.
The reason, they and others say, is that the Abraham Accords weren’t struck to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were designed, well, to help Israel normalize relations with Arab nations.
The plight of the Palestinians was an afterthought, if even that. Along with the US, “the Abraham Accords gave Israel the impression they could proceed without anything significant with the Palestinians,” Hellyer said.
And that was a problem, because instead of trying to strike some sort of deal with the Palestinians, the Israelis realized they could push for whatever they wanted with America’s full support. In effect, the Abraham Accords emboldened the Israelis while allowing them to disregard Palestinian demands or rights.
That, simply put, doesn’t resolve a conflict. It fuels it.
The current crisis is over issues the Abraham Accords ignored
Hagerty and his ilk have a point. The Biden administration purposely aimed to stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to focus on other priorities like the coronavirus pandemic, the rise of China, and bolstering America’s democracy. To this day, the president has yet to name an ambassador to Israel or a special envoy for the crisis, and now his team is scrambling to push regional players to deescalate tensions.
That on its own would lend credence to the squandered-opportunity narrative. Such a case would ring truer, though, if the Abraham Accords had had any positive effect on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they didn’t, which means Biden’s hands-off approach and failure so far to strike another normalization deal isn’t why Israel and Gaza are warring.
What does explain the troubling fight is more local to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Last week, Israeli police in Jerusalem blocked off the Damascus Gate, a popular gathering place for Arabs during Ramadan, sparking protests. An attempt by Jewish settlers to evict longtime Arab residents of Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, inflamed tensions, leading to violent clashes with Israeli police. Arab youth attacked ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city, and Jewish extremists assailed Arab residents.
All of this culminated in a violent Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem’s holiest site for Muslims, located on the Temple Mount (the holiest site in the world for Jews).
Then Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007, fired rockets at Jerusalem. Ostensibly, this was a display of solidarity with the protesters on the ground. But it appears to have been a political calculation — Hamas attempting to capitalize on Palestinian anger over the violence in Jerusalem to expand its own influence, especially in the wake of recently canceled Palestinian elections that likely would have strengthened its political position.
Israel retaliated strongly, and now rockets from Gaza rip through civilians homes in Israel, and Israeli warplanes bomb Hamas and civilian targets in Gaza.
Little of that has anything to do with the Abraham Accords, at least not directly. In fact, the pacts deliberately sidelined the Palestinian issue in favor of other priorities.
“The Emiratis had their own impetus, the Bahrainis their own impetus. And then the Moroccans wanted their sovereignty over Western Sahara recognized in exchanged for very limited recognition of Israel. And the Sudanese were put in a terribly awful position due to the continuation of sanctions,” said Carnegie’s Hellyer. “But across the board, Palestinians were absent from the impetus.”
On the one hand, that’s understandable: Trump’s team certainly didn’t want to wait for progress on the peace process before helping Israel normalize relations with four former adversaries. But on the other hand, that decision was deeply problematic because it left the crisis to fester just as Biden was coming into office.
The eruption after Israeli police and Palestinian protesters clashed at the mosque is case in point. “You can’t just wish this issue away,” said American University’s Ziv. “The situation is getting out of control.”
It’s so out of control now that Kushner’s hope for closer Israeli-Arab ties to revive the peace process likely won’t come true anytime soon. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine any Palestinians would want to negotiate for peace imminently.
There’s still a role for Biden to play. After helping to calm tensions, Ziv said, the president should present his own vision for a peace plan and put pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians to start talking. “There’s no adult in the room, and that’s where the US could step in,” he told me.
What won’t work, though, is believing more side accords that don’t involve the Palestinians will somehow lead to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It hasn’t worked yet, and it likely won’t work in the future, either.