Why the Abraham Accords Won’t Bring Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Fresh off his triumph in Iraq in 1991, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush sought to translate U.S. global predominance into a peace dividend, declaring “the time has come to put an end to Arab-Israeli conflict.” By Oct. 30 of that year, the United States and Soviet Union would convene dozens of global and regional parties in Madrid for the most ambitious regional peace conference in the history of Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Thirty years later, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as far from resolution as ever. Unfortunately, a key lesson still resonates: Regional diplomatic and economic engagement with Israel has not boosted Israeli-Palestinian peace. Regional cooperation—including Israel’s recent normalization agreements with Arab countries—has its own benefits, but it did not facilitate peace then, and there is little sign it will do so now.

The Madrid Conference embodied the idea that Israel’s regional acceptance would give it the confidence to make concessions for peace with its immediate neighbors, including the Palestinians. To coax participation from then-Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker invited Arab states from across the region.

In keeping with that approach, Madrid launched a multilateral peace process, establishing working groups on common regional concerns like water scarcity, the environment, economic development, regional security, and refugees. Several Arab states were reluctant to move too far ahead on the multilateral track in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian progress, but regional talks nonetheless broke taboos throughout the 1990s as Israeli delegations regularly met with their Arab counterparts in countries like Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Morocco.

It was Israel’s independent calculation that peace with the Palestinians was necessary for its long-term security. But in the end, the multilaterals did not push Israel forward on the Palestinian track. Rather, it was Israel’s independent calculation that peace with the Palestinians was necessary for its long-term security. It took a new Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to achieve the Oslo breakthrough in 1993. Breaking from Shamir, Rabin opted to meet directly with Palestinian leaders based on a land-for-peace formula, the basis of a two-state solution.

To be sure, solidarity with the Palestinians remains popular in many Arab countries.

Regional transformations, particularly after 2011, helped Netanyahu flip the script. The Palestinian issue was not the rallying cry it once was as the region descended into civil wars and citizens in many Arab countries turned their attention inward to the corruption and mismanagement of their own rulers. To be sure, solidarity with the Palestinians remains popular in many Arab countries. But the pull of that solidarity has weakened while Iran’s regional influence has provided further impetus for regional accommodations with Israel.

The United States’ focus also changed. The Trump administration strongly backed Netanyahu’s worldview, trumpeting the Abraham Accords as its own bilateral peace plan predictably fell apart. The Emiratis—at the forefront of the normalization drive—billed the accords as key to stopping Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. But the Palestinians never bought it. They viewed the agreements as a betrayal, a concession for which Israel gave nothing in return.

Indeed, the drivers of these regional agreements have nothing to do with the Palestinians. They are about business, trade, and tourism—and the sharing of intelligence and advanced technologies. The continuation of Israeli settlement activity deep in the West Bank, even after Netanyahu was replaced by a broad coalition government, removes any lingering pretense that normalization was about furthering peace with the Palestinians.

The Madrid Conference exemplified a genuine desire to use a regional forum to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a bet that never paid off. This resolve to solve the bilateral conflict has largely dissipated in Washington and in the region. Biden administration officials argue a regional track may yet promote progress on the Palestinian front, and experts have presented a number of suggestions for how to leverage the accords to further Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But the history of the past 30 years teaches us that attempts to link regional and bilateral peacemaking are not likely to work. They ask very little of Israel on the core issues at the heart of the conflict. There is scant evidence of Arab states using their ties with Israel as leverage to successfully obtain concessions on key issues like Palestinian claims in East Jerusalem or halting Israeli settlements—let alone territorial compromise. The current Israeli government is even signaling it will oppose the Biden administration’s desire to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to restore Palestinian relations, which was disrupted during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s years in office.

Perhaps the Saudis would demand more concessions from Israel in a peace deal given their long-standing positions on the Palestinian issue, and Israel would be eager to formalize ties with one of the most important Arab and Islamic countries in the region. Yet the converse is more likely; the Saudis may be satisfied with symbolic gestures like rhetorical reaffirmation supporting a two-state solution or improving daily Palestinian economic conditions if they saw normalization as a way to remove the modest chill with Washington following the Saudi government’s 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Arab engagement with Israel has become much more about being in good favor with the United States than about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nobody should expect the traditional Saudi position of a full resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to hold in an Israeli-Saudi peace deal. Arab engagement with Israel has become much more about being in good favor with the United States than about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unlike the Madrid Conference, which was premised on resolving the hardest final-status issues and achieving sustainable peace, today’s regional proposals involve limited steps to improve living conditions for Palestinians.

Economic prosperity for Palestinians is a good thing, to be sure. And normalization between Israel and Arab states can bring positive windfalls, especially if focused on finding solutions to common environmental and economic challenges that can benefit people in the region rather than on tools that can further repress them. But policymakers should not deceive themselves that normalization among states, most of whom were never at war, or “shrinking” the Palestinian conflict through economic development can replace solving the conflict between the two key antagonists: the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was never about economics. Until the core issues are resolved about how two peoples can live on the same land with dignity, security, and equality, diplomats are not dealing with the dispute’s essence. It is time to give up on the idea that regional deals can advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. As the world learned from the years after the Madrid Conference, only Israelis and Palestinians can do that.