The Trump Administration’s New “Peace in the Middle East”: What does that Mean for Palestine?

On September 15, 2020, the Trump White House brokered the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, recognizing the normalization of relations between the three Middle Eastern states.[1] From the Trump administration’s perspective, this peace agreement bolsters President Trump’s image as a peacemaker and reaffirms the United States’ promise to, “help the Government of Israel preserve its qualitative military edge amid rapid and uncertain regional political transformation” shortly before a presidential election.[2] The Accords mark the first time in 25 years that Arab states have formally recognized Israel.[3] While the agreement is historic, some doubt that it will significantly alter the way Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain interact with one another.[4] Rather, the larger implication is that other Arab countries might normalize relations with Israel too, pushing the Palestinian conflict to the backburner for the first time and reframing conflict in the region.[5]

It is impossible to take the Abraham Accords’ potential impact out of context. Israel’s establishment in 1948 displaced hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians. The mass displacement created a refugee crisis in the region that has festered over time as Israel claimed more and more territory for itself. In 1967 Israel successfully expanded into Gaza and the West Bank, which are presently the two Palestinian territories.[6] Gaza is an impoverished 25-mile-long strip of land along the Mediterranean that Israel has blockaded since 2005.[7] Israel currently controls the West Bank, situated along the western border of Jordan, through military occupation; although, it is nominally governed by the Palestinian Authority.[8] Over the years, Israel has constructed settlements in the West Bank, taking land from Palestinian people.[9] The international community, through the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, and International Court of Justice, have acknowledged time and time again that these settlements are illegal under international law.[10] Specifically, they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention which provides: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”[11]

Historically, the majority-Arab states surrounding Israel have been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but this new normalization of relations with Gulf states seems to indicate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will no longer be the defining factor in relations between Israel and its Gulf neighbors.[12] While the UAE did make Israel freezing its planned annexation of additional West Bank territory a condition of participation in the new agreement, Palestinians see this merely as a short ceasefire in a much larger conflict.[13] Aside from this lone stipulation, the agreements simply call for “‘a just, comprehensive and enduring resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict,’” which is hardly anything new.[14]

When Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s immediate neighbors to the south and east, recognized Israel over 25 years ago, it was largely out of a desire to end armed conflict along their borders.[15] The new Abraham Accords represent something different.[16] Bahrain and the UAE, Gulf States, were motivated by something other than a need for immediate peace.[17] Secretary of State Mike Pompeo located this impetus in their animus towards Iran, stating, “[We] flipped the script and recognized that the central challenge in the Middle East wasn’t the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but rather the challenge that is presented by the Islamic Republic of Iran and their anti-Semitic terrorist campaign all around the world.”[18] Bahrain and the UAE’s own enmity towards Iran appears to have moved Bahrain and the UAE to openly manifest their priorities: joining Israel in opposition to Iran is more pressing than the Israel-Palestinian conflict.[19]

Palestinians fear that other countries will soon follow Bahrain and the UAE’s lead.[20] Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has called this the “outside-in approach”: entreat the Gulf States to come to terms with Israel, and then address the Palestinian situation, rather than addressing Palestinians first.[21] The agreement is significant because it demonstrates, “‘Palestinians cannot freeze the region and prevent open cooperation with Israel.’” Commentators note that it is unlikely Bahrain acted without Saudi Arabia’s blessing, begging the question: could Saudi Arabia be the next to recognize Israel?[22] The Palestinian Authority has recognized the grave implications of the Abraham Accords, asking the U.N. to hold a peace conference in early 2021 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[23]

The Abraham Accords, in addition to recognizing Israel, mark a shift in the stance of Arab States towards Palestine. Bahrain and the UAE have signaled that forming a block in opposition to Iran might take priority over an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Ultimately, if this new outside-in approach is successful, and more Arab countries normalize relations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority will likely be forced to the negotiation table with fewer supporters and less leverage than ever before.

  1. The Abraham Accords, United States State Department, https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ (last visited Sept. 27, 2020).
  2. Bret Stephens, A Rare Middle East Triumph, New York Times (Sept. 14, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/opinion/bahrain-israel-trump.html?searchResultPosition=12; 22 U.S.C.S. § 8602 (LexisNexis, Public Law 116-158, approved August 14, 2020).
  3. Rick Gladstone, Options Dwindling, Palestinian Leader Calls for U.N. Peace Conference, New York Times (Sept. 25, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/world/middleeast/UN-mideast-palestinians-israel.html.
  4. Michael Crowley, Israel, U.A.E. and Bahrain Sign Accords, With an Eager Trump Playing Host, New York Times (Sept. 15, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/us/politics/trump-israel-peace-emirates-bahrain.html?searchResultPosition=13.
  5. Isabel Kershner & Adam Rasgon, For Palestinians, Israel-U.A.E. Deal Swaps One Nightmare for Another, New York Times (Aug. 18, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/world/middleeast/palestinians-israel-uae-annexation-peace.html.
  6. Kali Robinson, What Is U.S. Policy on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, The Council on Foreign Relations (Sept. 15, 2020), https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-us-policy-israeli-palestinian-conflict?gclid=CjwKCAjw8MD7BRArEiwAGZsrBd3zIEoGYEXJvl7QP5YbnAejieHp3cNwxl3H74z_3XjVZ-xOriSutBoCbGMQAvD_BwE.
  7. Ciara Nugent, The Gaza Strip Is Only 25 Miles Long. Here’s How It Became the Center of Decades of Conflict, TIME (May 30, 2018 9:15 AM ET) https://time.com/5276048/gaza-conflict-history/.
  8. Robinson, supra note 6; Tom Bateman, Israel annexation: New border plans leave Palestinians in despair, BBC (June 24, 2020), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53139808.
  9. Id.
  10. Isabel Kershner, Are West Bank Settlements Illegal? Who Decides?, New York Times (Nov. 18, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/world/middleeast/israel-west-bank-settlements.html.
  11. Id.; Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War art. 4, Aug. 12, 1949, 75 U.N.T.S 287.
  12. See David M. Halbfinger and Ronen Bergman, Shifting Dynamics of the Mideast Pushed Israel and U.A.E. Together, New York Times (Aug. 15, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/world/middleeast/israel-uae-netanyahu-arabs.html?searchResultPosition=9.
  13. Crowley, supra note 4.
  14. Id.
  15. Halbfinger & Bergman, supra note 14.
  16. See id.
  17. Kershner & Rasgon, supra note 5; Crowley, supra note 4.
  18. Secretary Michael R. Pompeo With Felice Friedson of The Media Line: Interview, U.S. Department of State (Sept. 21, 2020), https://www.state.gov/secretary-michael-r-pompeo-with-felice-friedson-of-the-media-line/.
  19. See Crowley, supra note 4.
  20. Halbfinger & Bergman, supra note 14.
  21. Kershner & Rasgon, supra note 5.
  22. Crowley, supra note 4.
  23. Gladstone, supra note 3.