Since the announcement of the Abraham Accords last summer, the series of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states has dominated conversations about the Middle East. Much of that conversation has been about whether the agreements have fundamentally reshaped regional architecture, and much of it has been about the extent to which President Biden and the new administration are going to build upon the Abraham Accords and try to expand them. Oddly relegated to the sidelines has been concrete ways in which the Abraham Accords can be utilized in the current moment to create tangible successes, which is not as captivating as debates about whether they will alter the direction of the region but is more immediately salient.
Yet there is an opportunity to demonstrate the tangible benefit of the Abraham Accords that loops in the Palestinians as well and may create better buy-in for normalization across the board, and that is in the area of COVID vaccines. The debate over Israel, the Palestinians, and vaccines has been a polarizing one that mostly focuses on responsibilities and obligations. One side asserts that Israel does not have a legal obligation to provide vaccines to Palestinians in Areas A and B, who are under the administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, since the Oslo Accords places the responsibility for healthcare, including vaccines, in the West Bank and Gaza on the Palestinians. The other side argues that Israel does have a legal obligation to provide vaccines because the Fourth Geneva Convention assigns the responsibility for vaccines to the occupying military power, which is Israel.
I have no idea which side of this argument is the correct one, and I also don’t particularly care because it is the wrong conversation to be having. People can – and will! – fight until the end of time about rights and obligations, but the better focus is on outcomes and consequences. Even if you are insistent that Israel has no legal, moral, or ethical obligation to provide vaccines to Palestinians, it is pretty clear that it is in Israel’s interest to do so because of what will result if it doesn’t. Pandemics do not respect border fences or security barriers, and virus mutations do not distinguish between different sides of a conflict over national sovereignty. Even if Israel is able to vaccinate its citizens, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, and Palestinians who live under full Israeli control in Area C, it will not achieve herd immunity from the virus if the overwhelming majority of the millions of adult Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not vaccinated. The over one hundred thousand Palestinian workers who enter Israel or West Bank settlements daily and who will be vaccinated does not take care of the problem; there is still plenty of interaction between Israelis and Palestinians driving on the same West Bank roads and shopping at some of the same places, and particularly between East Jerusalem Palestinians and West Bankers. It will be an endless nightmare of virus mutation after virus mutation that will make the now commonplace restrictions a permanent feature for years to come. And while there is almost no interaction between Israelis and Gaza Palestinians, there is no Israeli interest in seeing Gaza laid to waste by a pandemic that will not only be a humanitarian catastrophe but a security nightmare as well.
There are two problems that need to be overcome for Israel to provide Palestinians with an adequate number of vaccines, assuming that enough supply can be procured. On the Israeli side, Israel does not want to make any concessions to the Palestinians that can later be used to argue that Israel has acknowledged or assumed responsibility for something that Israel does not believe it is actually responsible for. No Israeli government will agree to supply the Palestinians in either the West Bank or Gaza with vaccines if it will then be used to assert a precedent or acknowledgment of an ironclad obligation down the line. And even if Israel were to provide vaccines, the situation is not as cut and dry as Israel’s detractors have asserted. On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority initially objected to accepting any vaccines from Israel and remains reluctant to be seen as cooperating with the Israeli government, and has been using the limited supply of vaccines in wholly unsurprising non-transparent and cronyist ways.
This is where the Abraham Accords come in. While the normalization agreements with Israel represent a shift in the cost-benefit analysis for some Arab states of weighing tangible interests achieved through normalization against the political considerations of adhering to the traditional ideological constraints imposed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are limits to how far this shift has gone. This can be seen both in the cautious actions of normalizing states–Morocco’s refusal to have a public signing ceremony and for King Mohamed VI to be involved, or the cancellation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s scheduled and announced visit to Abu Dhabi following Egypt’s declaration that no Netanyahu visit to Cairo would be forthcoming until he publicly affirmed his support for two states–and in the fact that more agreements have not yet materialized despite endless optimistic hints dropped by Trump administration officials that they were imminent. There is clearly still a reputational issue that Abraham Accords signatories must deal with in the context of accusations that they have abandoned the Palestinians.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco are in a perfect situation to help the Palestinians, demonstrate that normalizing relations with Israel is not only about their own narrow interests, and help Israel with its own reputational issues, all while overcoming the primary constraints on the Israeli and Palestinian sides to resolving the vaccination situation on their own. If states that have diplomatic relations with Israel agree to serve as middlemen, Israel can use them as a passthrough to provide the vaccines that will go to Palestinians (assuming that the Israeli cabinet approves the distribution), and Palestinians can accept them directly from non-Israeli actors. Israel does not have to concede any absolute legal obligation to provide healthcare in the West Bank, while the Palestinians can maintain the legal fiction that they are not bending to Israel when it comes to vaccines. It goes toward solving the actual problem of how to vaccinate Palestinians, removes the harsh spotlight on Israel with regard to the vaccine issue, and allows normalizing Arab states to take credit for breaking the logjam while demonstrating how their relationships with Israel can in fact benefit the Palestinians in real ways.
This model already exists in a different context. Qatar delivers tens of millions of dollars each month to Gaza, where the money is ostensibly used to benefit needy families but also helps to bolster Hamas rule. Israel actively abets the Qatari money to enter Gaza and be distributed, understanding that it is in everyone’s interest for these payments to continue, while Palestinians in Gaza benefit and the Qataris get the reputational benefit of alleviating the humanitarian situation. It is a win all around, and a similar model should be contemplated for vaccine distribution.
The U.S. should also be involved in kickstarting this process. The Abraham Accords were delivered with heavy American involvement, and were sealed on the back of American commitments. The Biden administration has spoken of its support for the normalization agreements and its desire to strengthen and expand them, and this would be a great way to start.
Great suggestion. The Biden Administration will do nothing here. They just okayed the release of frozen Iranian funds in Iraq and South Korea. The administration’s main focus in the region is getting back to the JCPOA.
I would be unsurprised if Saudi Arabia signs a normalization and mutual defense agreement w/ Israel, without US coordination. The Abraham Accords harkened in new possibilities.
Unfortunately, President Biden and his administration seem to be stuck in 2015 foreign policy reality distortion bubble. And the Mullahs are seeing green lights.
Absolutely right. It’s a perfect opportunity, indeed!