October 2021

The New Normal

Arab-Israeli Normalization and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Explore the Executive SummaryView the Recommendations One-PagerDownload the Full Study

About the Study

The normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords, which Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the White House lawn on September 15, 2020, marked a historic shift in Israel-Arab state relations and heralded an era of new cooperation and dialogue between Israel and other countries in the region. However, it also upended the conventional wisdom that normalization with the Arab world would only come after an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, a formula intended to incentivize Israel to form a compromise with the Palestinians. With Sudan and Morocco having subsequently begun their own normalization processes with Israel and additional Arab states possibly intending to do so soon, how does this impact the Israeli-Palestinian sphere? Could a more interconnected region benefit Israelis and Palestinians and foster an environment more suitable for peace? This study analyzes to what extent, if at all, the recent series of Israel-Arab state normalization could help advance a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and offers policy recommendations on how to leverage the normalization agreements to create tangible changes on the ground that could help preserve the two-state window until more fortuitous political circumstances arise.

Recommendations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Alternate Prime Minister of Israel and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem. Photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem
Capitalize on Israeli Desire to Expand the Process Rather Than Arrest It

It is clear that Israel wishes to expand the circle of normalization rather than have the Abraham Accords represent a singular moment in time. Potential future normalizers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have indicated that they would need to see more progress on the Palestinian front in order to join the UAE and Bahrain. The United States should consult with these countries to help facilitate Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians in pursuit of normalization. The U.S. can offer limited, nonmilitary incentives to potential future normalizers to help induce cooperation.

Understand Saudi Arabia as the Big Prize

The U.S. should understand that any discussion of normalization inevitably turns to Saudi Arabia as the most influential actor among Arab states and as the country that would represent the largest success for Israel were it to normalize relations. Saudi Arabia is also the state that is historically most sensitive to the need for progress on Palestinian issues as they concern relations with Israel. Any hypothetical Israeli concessions could be more far-ranging in an effort to achieve Israeli-Saudi normalization than they would be with any other Arab state. These can include a demolition moratorium and improved access to building permits in Area C and East Jerusalem, consistent with an already approved yet still unimplemented Israeli government decision.

His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Photo credit: MEAphotogallery
Palestinians collect their belongings from under the rubble of a residential tower. Photo credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan
Focus on Gaza

Of the existing normalizers, the UAE is the only government capable of acting as a donor state to stabilize the situation in Gaza. However, the Emiratis are averse to being in a position of funding the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The UAE may be convinced to engage in Gaza under four conditions: first, it would be part of a coalition but not a sole contributor. Second, it would not lead the initiative but rather follow Egypt. Third, its involvement would come at the behest of the United States, which would explicitly ask for its help (in other words, it would not volunteer for the job). Finally, Abu Dhabi does not see itself as a “wallet,” an underwriter of the status quo. It would be willing to lend a hand to Gaza as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Strip. This, in turn, emphasizes the need for a U.S.-led holistic strategy.

Encourage Greater Involvement for Egypt and Jordan

While the focus has been on the new normalizing states, Egypt and Jordan have had relations with Israel for decades. The attention being paid to the  UAE—and the obvious economic and reputational benefits for the UAE as a result of normalization—may spur Egypt and Jordan to be more involved. The Abraham Accords could be used to induce Egypt and Jordan, who do not want to be left out of the circle, to play a larger role in addressing Israeli security concerns while working to create better conditions for the Palestinians.

President of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session. Photo credit: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard
President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Photo credit: © European Union 2016 - European Parliament
Urge Palestinian Involvement in Abraham Accords Initiatives

The normalization agreements have already produced deals on trade, scientific and environmental cooperation, and tourism. While these agreements can be confined to Israel and the Abraham Accords states, they should include the Palestinians wherever possible. The $3 billion Abraham Fund, set following the Accords to fund a variety of joint Israeli-Emirati projects with the hope that other countries would join later, excluded the Palestinians by design. While the fund was by some accounts “dead on arrival” and since then suspended by the Biden administration, it could still be a model for a real multilateral investment framework in regional projects that involve the Palestinians and benefit the private sector in the West Bank and Gaza.

Let Abraham Accords States Take Credit for Breakthroughs

Giving normalizing states credit for breakthroughs on the Israeli-Palestinian front will increase their willingness to be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere and make Israeli concessions more politically palatable to the Israeli public. This is the dynamic that played out with regard to annexation, and it is replicable across the board. The popularity of normalization with the Israeli public far outstripped the popularity of West Bank annexation, and once the UAE clearly stated in no uncertain terms that the former could not advance unless plans for the latter were suspended, it created an incentive structure for Israeli decision-makers that pointed in only one direction. It also created space for normalization for the UAE by giving the Emirati government the credibility to claim that it had stood up for Palestinian rights as a condition of normalization. Using the popularity of normalization with the Israeli public can work in this sphere on other issues beyond annexation.

Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Former President Donald J. Trump, and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani sign the Abraham Accords. Photo credit: Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

Special Israel Policy Briefing

Israel Policy Pod

Study Authors