Foreign Minister FOMO

Washington rolled out the red carpet this week for a pair of visiting foreign ministers, Israel’s Yair Lapid and the UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed.
October 14, 2021
Photo by Matty Stern, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with then-Israeli Opposition Leader and now-Foreign Minister, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021.

(Israel Policy Forum) — Washington rolled out the red carpet this week for a pair of visiting foreign ministers, Israel’s Yair Lapid and the UAE’s Abdullah bin Zayed, with part of the objective being to highlight the success of the Abraham Accords and the ensuing regional benefits of normalization. New trilateral working groups with the U.S. on religious coexistence and water and energy were announced, and the overall vibe was one of progress and a region attempting to move beyond old barriers. The high-profile series of meetings was precisely the type of public approval that American allies and partners seek in engaging with the U.S., and it highlighted the continuing indispensability of the U.S. in the Middle East irrespective of the signs and concerns that successive administrations have been pulling back.

The praise, attention, and benefits being showered on Abraham Accords countries do not go unnoticed by others. During the Trump administration, the primary underlying logic of normalization was that it afforded states the opportunity to establish better relations with the U.S. in fostering the idea that the road to Washington runs through Jerusalem, though President Trump took things many steps further—as was his wont—by lavishing arms deals, recognition of disputed sovereignty, and terrorism sponsorship delisting on Abraham Accords states as well. The point of making a big deal of three-way meetings between Lapid, bin Zayed, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken is to demonstrate to potential future normalizers what could be in store for them as well.

For all of the focus on who may come next, the more intensive focus should be on who came before. While the UAE is still basking in the glow of having established formal diplomatic ties with Israel one year ago, Egypt and Jordan preceded the Abraham Accords’ signatories by decades. While the UAE and Bahrain, unlike Egypt and Jordan, cannot really lay claim to having signed peace treaties with Israel as they were not in a functional state of war, Egypt and Jordan, unlike the UAE and Bahrain, cannot really claim to having normalized relations with Israel. The cold peace that is effectively one between militaries and not societies has held in both cases without interruption or the specter of serious danger, but the fact that energy, agriculture, and resource deals are often kept quiet or played down is a testament to the way in which peace and normalization can be mutually exclusive.

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Egypt and Jordan are displaying understandable signs of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). The economic benefits to the UAE from having open and warm relations with Israel are evident, whether it be the flocks of Israeli tourists spending their cash in Dubai or the nearly $700 million in trade between the two countries this past year. Egypt and Jordan had an overwhelming head start in the opportunity to access the larger Israeli economy but have never approached taking full advantage of it, and the economic difficulties both countries are facing make that decision appear ever more short-sighted. Many pointed to the recent announcement of scheduled direct Egypt Air flights between Cairo and Tel Aviv as a commentary on the new Israeli government, but it has more to do with normalization than it does with the transition from Bibi Netanyahu to Naftali Bennett. Egypt also wants to avoid the harsh criticism it is taking from different corners in Washington, and seeing bin Zayed feted by the Biden administration despite U.S. concerns over the Emirati role in the Yemeni civil war and UAE-China relations provides Egypt with a potential pathway forward that involves truly normalizing relations with Israel.

Aside from the benefits that will accrue to the U.S. from more American regional partners cooperating in an open manner, and the benefits that will accrue to Israel if its relations with Egypt and Jordan progress beyond security and come to resemble the relationship with the UAE, there is another important reason to focus on Egyptian and Jordanian normalization as much as, if not more than, chasing the next round of potential Abraham Accords signatories. As Shira Efron, Evan Gottesman, and I note in the report on normalization and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we released this week, one of the built-in advantages to greater engagement between Israel and its old Arab treaty partners is that, unlike other normalizing states, Egypt and Jordan have a deep interest in Israeli-Palestinian issues and do not have to be prodded to keep them top of mind. While the UAE, Bahrain, and others want to keep their relations with Israel walled off from anything having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Egypt and Jordan do not have that luxury. Due to proximity and historical involvement, Cairo and Amman are acutely sensitive to shifts in Israeli and Palestinian policy and want to be more rather than less involved in figuring out how to get to a sustainable solution. The more engaged with Israel that they are, the more they will remind both Israel and the Palestinians that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not going away and that they are available to help bridge some of the differences, come up with solutions, and play a role in making the situation better on the ground and moving toward a viable two-state outcome.

This would be a good thing for all involved. The Biden administration wants to see progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and despite the talk of leveraging normalization to make this happen, doing so has so far proved elusive. Israel wants real people-to-people ties with Egypt and Jordan, and Egypt and Jordan want to enjoy the benefits of normalization and to be treated in Washington with the prestige that they see unfolding for the UAE this week. The Palestinians’ hostility to normalization stems from them being deliberately left behind, and greater intercession by Arab states on their behalf in looking out for their interests will be welcomed. This dance can only be orchestrated by the U.S., and there is a good opportunity for the Biden administration to use regional FOMO to begin connecting normalization to Israeli-Palestinian progress, starting with the two states that normalized ties with Israel without ever really normalizing ties with Israel.

Michael Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s policy director, based in Washington, DC. To contact Michael, please email him at mkoplow@ipforum.org.

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