The Abraham Accords and New Israeli-Palestinian Violence

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JERUSALEM - MAY 10:  Israeli police use tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse Palestinians who were on guard Al-Aqsa Mosque to prevent raids by extremist Jews, in East Jerusalem on May 10, 2021. (Photo by Eyad Tawil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Israeli police descend steps near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on May 10. Tensions sparked over the weekend within the Al-Aqsa complex, when Israeli police officers violently confronted

As President Donald Trump sought to tout the benefits of new agreements that normalised Arab countries’ relations with Israel, the first tangible example he provided was that they would guarantee Muslims’ access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – the third holiest site in Islam that he described as “a special place for them” and one that also holds deep religious significance for Jews and Christians.

Speaking in the Oval Office, surrounded by his top officials for all Middle East policies, Trump made a passing reference to “some very exciting things” that would help the Palestinian people a few minutes later. When pressed by a reporter about Israeli efforts to build new settlements for Jewish families in Palestinian territories at the time, he said, “We’re talking to Israel about that right now, actually.”

Nine months later, these two components of Trump’s efforts to sell the world on the merits of the so-called Abraham Accords – entry to a sacred holy spot and improved Palestinian conditions – have unravelled. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel has maintained an offensive strategy of evicting Palestinians and annexing territories. And the tensions caused by this search reached a boiling point over the weekend in the Al-Aqsa compound, where Israeli police officers physically assaulted Palestinian teenagers. That kicked off escalating rounds of violence between the Israeli Defense Forces and local fighters, including from the Islamic militant group Hamas, that have continued this week at levels unseen since 2014, when they escalated to all-out war.

A Palestinian man looks at the destruction of a building hit by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Gaza braced for more Israeli airstrikes and communal violence raged across Israel after weeks of protests and violence in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The US-brokered Abraham Accords have failed to deliver on their pledge of “in bringing peace to the Middle East,” as then-national security advisor Robert O’Brien said in the Oval Office at Trump’s request, effectively muzzling signatory countries from delivering anything other than token critique of the conflict. Analysts believe that the accords involving the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have undercut conventional Palestinian backers while strengthening Israel, which has capitalised in recent months on a strategy that continues to persist under the Biden administration of not putting pressure on the Jewish state.

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“It adds to a general sense of triumphalism in Israel, the sense of impunity: ‘People kept telling us we had to resolve the Palestinian issue. And now, clearly, we don’t,'” says Khaled Elgindy, director of the Palestinian-Israel Affairs Program at the Middle East Institute.

The current violence has become marked by rounds of devastating rocket attacks launched from Gaza against Israeli civilian populations, with the Netanyahu government retaliating with increasingly destructive air raids on Palestinian positions and deadly attacks on the group’s leaders. The death toll has soared into the dozens, with hundreds of injuries. Mobs of ultra-Orthodox Jews have clashed with Arabs in contested territories in incidents described by some, including Netanyahu himself, as “lynchings.”

The visceral scenes have put added pressure on the countries that have signed Abraham Accords with Israel, particularly the United Arab Emirates – the first country to do so – and Bahrain, driving a further wedge between the autocratic governments that agreed to the accords and their people, who increasingly voice support for their fellow Arabs engaged in the violent clashes.

Those familiar with regional security concerns say leaders in the region – particularly signatories to the Abraham Accords – now face new concerns that Israel’s actions will increase popular support for Hamas, which is partially backed by Iran, as Israeli airstrikes kill more civilians, including children.

“It opens up countries like the UAE and Bahrain to being characterized as ‘sell-outs’ for not standing up to Israel,” says Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at private intelligence firm The Soufan Group. “The optics are terrible. It can’t be a good look in any Arab country to be seen as supporting Netanyahu’s agenda right now.”

And he adds the situation will likely have immediate implications for some of the most potent security threats in the region.

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“It also makes the UAE look weak and Iran look strong for standing up to Israel and for continued support to Hamas and other militant groups,” Clarke says.

As for the promises from the Trump administration, Clarke points to the most recent violence as evidence it did not succeed in some of its goals, particularly as the Biden administration continues to work toward a continuation of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan or Action, or JCPOA.

“Iran is not weakened by the Abraham Accords, is likely to get a new deal with the U.S. on the JCPOA, and is being lauded by the Arab world for its defense of Palestinians,” Clarke says.

So far, the Biden administration has largely taken a hands-off approach to the current violence in and around Israel, at least publicly. Spokespeople for the departments of State and Defense have offered few details of any behind-the-scenes efforts by American diplomats or military officials – if those overtures exist at all – deferring instead to platitudes about longstanding U.S. policy of supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

Biden himself used that exact phrase to describe his call with Netanyahu on Wednesday. Perhaps the only U.S. effort to intervene are reports that its delegation to the U.N. has pushed back against the organization issuing statements publicly that condemn Israel’s actions.

Analysts say that rhetoric last year explaining the Abraham Accords as a potential outlet for new peace agreements for Palestinians now appears to have never represented serious efforts, particularly following the Trump administration’s full-throated defense of Israel and now under Biden, whose vocal support for Israel as a senator, vice president and now commander in chief has spanned decades.

“I don’t see anything that is dissuading Israel from acting in a certain way. To the contrary, the fact they have these agreements sends the message that the Arab States don’t care about Palestinians anymore, and they’re certainly not going to make a fuss,” Elgindy says.

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And Arabs in the region see few signs that American promises of new opportunities for peace have any foundation in the realities they witness.

“It’s still an issue that resonates – not just because of the history of the Palestinian cause but also because of issues like Jerusalem,” Elgindy says. “The sight of Israeli forces raiding Al-Aqsa Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan was, I think, shocking to a lot of people.”

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