Biden backs normalisation without a Palestinian state
At a meeting of the Arab League in Beirut in March 2002, Saudi Arabia made a proposal for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. This was based on the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and the achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194. In exchange for this, the Arab state members of the League promised to normalise relations between Israel and the Arab state members of the League.
The proposal was endorsed unanimously at the Beirut meeting of the League and re-endorsed, again unanimously, at a meeting of the League in Riyadh in March 2007. It has also been endorsed by the 57 Muslim states of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), including Iran.
Israel has never responded to this Arab Peace Initiative, despite the offer of peace and the normalisation of relations with the whole Islamic world contained within it. Israel was simply unwilling to pay the price, that is, ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the creation of a Palestinian state on that territory.
Normalisation without paying the price
Now, thanks to President Trump, Israel has hopes that it can have normalisation of relations with the Arab world without paying that price. Three Arab states – Bahrain, Morocco and UAE – have been persuaded by the US to normalise relations with Israel while its occupation of Palestinian land continues unabated. To pressure Morocco/UAE into ratting on the Palestinians, the Trump administration recognised Morocco’s long-standing claim to Western Sahara, having refused to do so in the past, and promised the UAE that it could buy F-35 fighters from the US.
The normalisation agreements between Israel and these Arab states have come to be known collectively as Abraham Accords. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel arising from the 1978 Camp David Agreement and Jordan made a treaty with Israel in 1994, in which it relinquished any claim to the West Bank, but neither have normalised relations to the degree envisaged in the Abraham Accords.
Biden backs Abraham Accords
The Biden administration has taken up this Trump initiative with enthusiasm. Listen to this from the Joint Declaration which Biden signed with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on 14 July 2022 on his visit to Israel:
“Israel thanks the United States for its ongoing and extensive support for deepening and broadening the historic Abraham Accords. The countries affirm that Israel’s peace and normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco constitute a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, all of which are important to the future of the Middle East region and to the cause of regional security, prosperity, and peace. …
“The United States welcomes these developments and is committed to continue playing an active role, including in the context of President Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia, in building a robust regional architecture; to deepen the ties between Israel and all of its regional partners; to advance Israel’s regional integration over time; and to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.”
Biden meets King and Crown Prince
Biden was scheduled to meet King Salman and the Crown Prince in Jeddah the next day and there was an expectation in Israel that this would be the occasion for an important announcement, perhaps that Saudi Arabia was ready to normalise relations with Israel. But no such announcement occurred.
Saudi Arabia did announce that it would allow overflights by Israeli civil aircraft, which will take hours off flight times from Israel to India and the Far East. In addition, direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia by aircraft carrying Muslim pilgrims would now be permitted.
Before he left Jeddah for Washington, Biden called the overflights decision “a big deal, not only symbolically but substantively”, adding that “this is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia” (Times of Israel, 17 July 2022).
In a similar vein, Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the “opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines” as “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia”, adding “this is only the first step”.
However, Saudi Arabia went out of its way to pour cold water on this, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan saying that the decision to open airspace to civilian overflights had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was “not in any way a precursor to any further steps” toward normalisation (Times of Israel, 16 July 2022).
A further indication that Saudi normalisation with Israel was not imminent came from Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir in a CNN interview. He made it clear that, while normalising ties with Israel as a “strategic option” for Saudi Arabia, a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians was a “requirement” for that to happen. Normalisation would come at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it, he said (Times of Israel, 16 July 2022).
Biden’s bigger objective?
Prior to Biden’s visit to the Middle East, speculation was rife in Israel that the US had much bigger objective than merely pressuring Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. What was being planned by the US, it was suggested, was a defensive alliance of some kind between Israel and Arab states against Iran. Israel boasted in advance that it was already co-operating with unspecified Arab states in bringing down Iranian drones and this was just the beginning.
There was a hint of development of this kind in the Joint Declaration signed by Biden and Lapid, which talked about “building a robust regional architecture” and “advanc[ing] Israel’s regional integration over time”. However, nothing emerged into the public domain after Biden’s visit to the Middle East to suggest that a development along the lines of a joint Arab/Israel defence arrangement against Iran was in the offing.
Nothing for Palestinians
As for Biden’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he revealed that on arrival in a few garbled words muttered at Ben Gurion airport:
“We’ll discuss my continued support – even though I know it’s not in the near-term – [for] a two-state solution. That remains, in my view, the best way to ensure the future of [an] equal measure of freedom, prosperity, and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
In other words, he’s going to do nothing.
27 July 2022