Nides: The Biden administration is really moving the Abraham Accords forward

In the early days of the Biden administration, there seemed to be some reluctance to embrace the Abraham Accords in Washington.

Even though Biden administration officials acknowledged that Trump-brokered normalization deals — which Israel signed with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020 — resulted in positive developments for the region, they took few public steps to move the initiative forward, in early 2021. Some senior US officials intentionally referred to them only as “normalization agreements,” rather than using the term coined by the previous administration.

The US Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, was not among those officials. During his confirmation hearing in the Senate last September, Nides made a point of attesting to his support for the initiative, whatever its origins.

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“The Abraham Accords – yes, the Abraham Accords – are essential to the stability and prosperity of the region,” he said then.

About a year later, the Biden administration’s attitude toward the Abraham Accords appears to have aligned with that presented by Nides. While it has not yet succeeded in convincing other countries to join the initiative, it has worked to develop existing agreements and created new multilateral forums made up of members of the Abraham Accords as well as other American and Israeli allies.

In an interview given to Times of Israel, Nides detailed the administration’s approach to Trump’s initiative, signed two years ago. The US envoy stressed the importance of advancing the agreements, including Israel’s traditional Arab allies, namely Egypt and Jordan, and ensuring that the Palestinians can also benefit economically from the improvement of Israel’s position in the region.

Nides insisted that credit should be given to his predecessors for implementing the agreements, while explaining that the role of the current administration was to help institutionalize the initiative.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, then-US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, posing for a photo on the balcony of the Blue Room after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, September 15, 2020. (AP Credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon/File)

“With the previous administration, the Abraham Accords was a start-up,” Nides said. “Our job is to take them from a start-up to a real operation. »

To illustrate these efforts, the ambassador referred to the Negev Summit, organized by Israel with the help of the Biden administration last March, which brought together the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, the Arab Emirates States, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt at Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev. Senior diplomats used the meeting to launch six different working groups aimed at boosting regional cooperation in security, education, health, energy, tourism, food and water. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ensured that each working group also promoted initiatives in favor of the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority has yet to buy into the effort to include the Palestinians in the accords, arguing that the initiative is ultimately aimed at circumventing a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, the Trump administration boasted that the Abraham Accords deprived the Palestinians of their right to veto on the broader acceptance of Israel in the region.

Nides said he recognized the issue was « complicated » for the PA, but insisted the United States was committed to « getting the Palestinians on board. » [aux accords] in every possible way. We think it’s important that they get the best economic benefits from any deal…in the region”.

He recalled the administration’s recent $100 million donation to the East Jerusalem hospital network, which has, incidentally, been matched by several other Gulf countries – something that might not have been possible before the agreements.

Given all the successes in developing existing agreements, it is hard to ignore the momentum that seemed to have been given during the last months of the Trump administration, when every few weeks a new country launched new diplomatic ties. with the Jewish state — a momentum that dissipated once President Biden took office.

Following their talks at the Negev summit, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, left, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo in Sde Boker, Israel , March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool)

Part of this is likely related to the incentives former President Donald Trump was prepared to offer countries that agreed to normalize relations with Israel – from the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, to the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed region of Western Sahara. Biden administration officials have made known their unease at the moves, and have even clamped down on the sale of F-35s.

Former White House senior adviser Jared Kushner recently expressed ‘disappointment’ at the lack of new Abraham Accord signatories and said he had engaged in talks with six other potential members before to leave office, talks the Biden administration ostensibly could have continued.

Nides declined to respond to Kushner’s criticism and insisted that his colleagues in Washington were simultaneously engaged in « talks with many countries » regarding possible joining of the accords. »

“Indeed, we want to add other countries. We work with a range of countries… But these are long and complicated conversations, and we have a lot of things pending,” Nides said.

Unlike the Trump administration, President Joe Biden hasn’t named a point person solely to push this one file forward. Nides has in many ways become the main US dealmaker, although he has stressed that his role is to « deepen » existing deals, while « Washington’s goal is to go further » in the looking for new deals.

“In the meantime, you cannot lose sight of those who have already made peace with Israel,” Nides said. “That’s why we spend a lot of time on Egypt as well as Jordan. »

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Israeli Minister of Culture Chili Tropper face off in a friendly soccer match between an Abraham Accords team made up of players from Israel, from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco and a team of world football stars, in Dubai on March 29, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Although Jordan declined to attend the Negev Summit, Nides attributed the absence to scheduling difficulties, adding that he has « no doubt » that it will attend future Negev Summit gatherings.

Explaining the importance of nurturing existing agreements, the ambassador said that “people tend to chase after a new hare and forget everything that has already been done”.

One of the most sought-after normalization agreements is that between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And although Nides has admitted that such an agreement is still far from being sealed, the administration has managed to make real progress in this regard where its predecessors failed.

Coinciding with Biden’s trip to the region in July, the United States brokered a multilateral deal in which Egypt transferred two islands in the Red Sea formerly controlled by Israel to Saudi Arabia, which in turn agreed to allow Israeli flights to use its airspace, in addition to advancing a deal that will see direct flights between Tel Aviv and Mecca for Hajj pilgrims.

“Our hope is that we can achieve [un accord de normalisation]because Saudi Arabia being part of the Abraham Accords would continue to make the Middle East a safer and more prosperous region,” Nides said.

But what seems to excite Nides the most are the grassroots initiatives that have been launched to strengthen ties between Israel and its new Arab friends.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, right, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi listening to their national anthems during a welcoming ceremony for the latter at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport, ahead of talks at the eve of the Arab League summit, March 28, 2017. (AFP/Khalil Mazraawi)

“The people-to-people relationship is more important than the economy. When you feel good with people, when these countries feel good with each other, the economy automatically benefits,” said the ambassador.

Announcing other projects in this area, Nides indicated that his office was working on the organization of a video game tournament for children from the countries that signed the Abraham Accords, in addition to new sports and tourism initiatives that will be launched. shortly.

He did not seem impressed by the challenge of new countries joining the Abraham Accords, explaining that “it will happen by itself”.

« It’s about showing people how ‘cool’ this club is, and as a membership committee figure, we’re going to get to that. »

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