Tuesday’s ceremony on the White House lawn formalizing the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, along with an agreement for Israel and Bahrain to do the same, marks the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The agreements do not create a new Middle East, as some have maintained, but cement that what had arrived haltingly and in fits and starts is here to stay. The Arab-Israeli conflict was already over in practice, and the Abraham Accord put a significant stamp on a process that had been underway for years. This does not lessen that it is something to be celebrated, and it should be clear to everyone without blinders on why Israelis are rightly happy. The Abraham Accord also brings with it another significant consequence, one that is perhaps unintended, in that the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict will put the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unavoidable way.
The Abraham Accord is a positive development for Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, and nobody should pretend otherwise. Like nearly everything in foreign policy, it will bring some downsides along with it, but that doesn’t alter the cost-benefit analysis. It is a true Jared Kushner accomplishment, and credit should be given where credit is due. While Kushner and the Trump team’s vision for an “ultimate deal” when they took office was clearly intended to be one between Israelis and Palestinians, the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without any reciprocal gesture toward the Palestinians and – crucially – the Palestinian reaction in the aftermath very obviously shifted their focus. Their vision ultimately became one of isolating and bypassing the Palestinians in order to craft agreements between Israel and Arab states and demonstrate to the Palestinians that they would not be able to exercise a veto over Israel’s place in the region writ large. Whether you agree with this approach or not – and previous administrations did not – the Trump administration succeeded in carrying it out.
While the way to the agreement was paved by the UAE publicly setting forth that normalization could not coexist with annexation, the text of the agreement itself demonstrates how well the Trump administration managed to divorce the Palestinian issue from the wider regional context. The agreement does not explicitly mention the Arab Peace Initiative or the 1967 lines, does not mention annexation, does not mention two states, does not mention past UN agreements, does not mention the Palestinians themselves, and the only reference to the conflict is an open-ended commitment to “realize a negotiated solution to” it “that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of both people, and to advance comprehensive Middle East peace, stability and prosperity.” For anyone looking to demonstrate to the Palestinians just how little they matter in this new reality, you could not come up with a clearer statement of just that.
That Israel and Arab states have been moving closer together for years due to a confluence of shared interests and a desire to benefit economically, militarily, and technologically does not mean that Kushner’s success was accidental. He was able to come up with the right set of incentives for the UAE to formalize what had been informal, and was also able to make the case that any concerns about breaking the Arab Peace Initiative approach – no normalization before an agreement with the Palestinians – would not carry any real consequences for states willing to do so. For all of the years of talk about secret relations underneath the table, things are now out in the open, and that is indeed a big deal.
But just as it is hollow to argue that the Israel-UAE deal does not matter, it is also hollow to argue that it is the only thing that matters. In the past few weeks, there has been a strange phenomenon of simultaneously embarking on a new path while turning back the clock. In the decades after Israel’s founding, its battles for survival and struggle for acceptance were collectively known as the Arab-Israeli conflict, which accurately reflected the primary threats and challenges that Israel faced. Following repeated Israeli military victories against Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and others, and the subsequent acknowledgement of Israeli military superiority and permanence in the region, the Arab-Israeli conflict transformed into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict remains, yet many this week want to pretend that we are back in Arab-Israeli conflict territory. Acting as if peace between Israel and Gulf states, and only peace between Israel and Gulf states, was the terminal goal all along is absurd. It does not detract from the actual accomplishment to describe it accurately and put it in the wider context, or to point out that this is an important and consequential deal but not the ultimate one that President Trump initially sought.
The fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is what remains means that there will be a true return to it in a more crystallized and concentrated way. For some, that will make it even easier to ignore, because left on its own and severed from the prospect of it being the gateway to normal relations with other states, it will seem even less important and relevant. For others, it will mean even greater awareness, as it will be easier to see all of the ways in which it is different from past Israeli conflicts and how it is not going to disappear one day on its own. Whether or not one wants to minimize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s importance, it is far harder in the wake of the Israel-UAE accord – one that does not explicitly recognize Israel as a Jewish state but does explicitly recognize Jews’ place in the region and rebuts the charge that Israeli Jews are colonialist interlopers – to maintain the posture that “they will always hate Jews and never accept Israel” and thus no deal can ever be struck. And if you argue that there is something qualitatively different about the Palestinians, it is also harder to simultaneously insist that they are not a distinct nationality and that they should be satisfied going to one of twenty two other Arab countries.
Most saliently, leaving the Arab-Israeli conflict behind while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains will create an ever starker contrast between a situation where Israeli actions and control do not have a direct impact on the parties across the table – such as the Emiratis and the Bahrainis – and the glaring situation with the Palestinians, where they do. This is also a Trump administration accomplishment, albeit an unintended one. When Arab states that were not directly impacted by Israeli actions in the West Bank would not engage with Israel, it was easy to criticize and point out the unfair standard involved and lump everyone together. With the Palestinians standing alone in every way, not only in how they relate to Israel but in how Israel relates to them, it is going to be ever clearer why and how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the same as the Arab-Israeli conflict, why and how it cannot be reduced to economic or security interests, and why and how the Palestinians are not going to be overcome by U.S. inducements or the promise of access to Israeli benefits quite so easily.