The Biden administration has not only continued Trump's policy in the Middle East, but is trying to expand it.

President Joe Biden has now been in the Oval Office for almost eight months. At this point, it is fair to argue that there has been much more continuity from Donald Trump’s foreign policy to the current administration’s approach to international issues than many observers may have previously predicted. The Abraham Accords are a case in point.  

The diplomatic deals between the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Israel were signed with much fanfare in Washington a year ago this week. Then, in October and December, Sudan and Morocco announced their formalisation of relations with Israel. 

Trump, his supporters, and even many of his political opponents in the US, hailed the Abraham Accords as major achievements. The bipartisan consensus in favour of the Abraham Accords has been no surprise to anyone who understands the US-Israel relationship. 

To be sure, any US administration would welcome any Arab state(s) formalising diplomatic relations with Israel. When Egypt and Jordan did so in 1979 and 1994, respectively, those breakthrough deals constituted major victories for Washington, which has spent decades seeking to convince Arab regimes to normalise relations with Israel irrespective of the status of the Palestinians. 

Any four Arab governments formalising diplomatic relations with Israel in a single year through US-brokered accords would be a huge historic milestone that any US president would seek to capitalise on, especially if during an election year.

Biden, as a presidential hopeful last year, expressed his resolute support for the diplomatic deals. As president, he and those serving his administration have stood by the Abraham Accords and backed them up. 

In the words of US Secretary Antony Blinken, the Abraham Accords represent “an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on.” 

The current leadership is still implementing the incentives that Trump’s administration gave Sudan and Morocco to join the Abraham Accords. In the case of Sudan, that relates to a $700 million aid package and reported plans for organising an official ceremony to sign the Israel-Sudan accord which has yet to be finalised. For Morocco, this is about continuing to recognise Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. 

Biden’s administration not only seeks to improve relations between Israel and the four Arab states which normalised relations with Tel Aviv last year. The White House also wants to expand the Abraham Accords. As Blinken explained, the US is currently “looking at countries that may want to join in.” 

On this front, there could be some differences between Trump and Biden’s tactics for pressuring more Arab/Muslim countries to normalise their relations with the Jewish state. 

Trump’s team strong-armed Sudan. Last year, the US leveraged the state sponsor of terrorism designation and related sanctions on Khartoum to force the Sudanese government to normalise relations with Israel from a position of weakness. 

Regarding Morocco, the Trump administration was highly transactional. With the US recognising Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara beginning in late 2020, Trump’s administration gave officials in Rabat something important that they had wanted from the US and international community ever since the start of the conflict, but never received.

Put simply, normalising relations with Israel was something that Morocco’s leadership believed was worth doing given that it was in exchange for Washington embracing a fully pro-Morocco stance on the conflict in Western Sahara, which Moroccans see as an existential issue.

It seems likely that Biden’s administration will try to bring more Arab/Muslim states into diplomatic accords with Israel albeit without the tactics and transactional nature of the Trump administration. But whether the White House has any success in expanding the Abraham Accords to include more countries remains to be seen. 

The Saudi Question

What Trump’s administration could not do, but very much wanted to achieve, was to convince Saudi Arabia to follow in the UAE and Bahrain’s footsteps and normalise diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. 

Given Saudi Arabia’s religious, geopolitical, and economic influence, a normalisation accord between Riyadh and Tel Aviv would constitute a major milestone in terms of Israel’s diplomatic integration into the Middle East. 

For Biden’s administration, the announcement of a “peace” deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be extremely welcome news.

Yet as experts have noted, Saudi Arabia was not ready to take this step under Trump and it is doubtful that Riyadh would do so during Biden’s presidency. 

Although Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) would probably like to see his country join the Abraham Accords, the opposition from many members of the Al Saud family and the Saudi citizenry at large will likely incentivise the crown prince to move cautiously when it comes to normalisation. 

That said, the Saudis and Israelis have moved closer together in their informal relationship, or tacit partnership. That relationship will probably continue growing, but it will likely grow gradually with partial steps toward normalisation.

While the Biden administration is determined to back up the Abraham Accords and possibly expand them, the White House could focus on advancing long-term Israeli security interests by convincing Israel to reach a fair and just deal with the Palestinians. This would do much more to foster lasting peace in the Middle East compared to diplomatic accords between Israel and Arab states that were never at war with the Israelis, or even confrontational with their country.  

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