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Policymakers, diplomats reflect on Abraham Accords three years later

“If I can see peace being made in the Middle East perhaps … we can have a similar peace accord in the U.S. congress,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).

Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba. Credit: Atlantic Council TV.
Emirati Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba. Credit: Atlantic Council TV.

The United Arab Emirates has so far signed 120 Memoranda of Understandings (MoUs) with Israel, and a million Israelis have visited the UAE on 150 weekly flights between the two nations since Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem normalized relations on Sept. 15, 2020.

That’s according to Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the United States, who spoke during a program about the regional impact and future of the Abraham Accords on Wednesday at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

The event, which ran about four hours, was part of the N7 Initiative, a partnership of the think tank Atlantic Council and the private, eponymous foundation of hedge-fund billionaire Jeffrey Talpins.

“The Abraham Accords launched a new era for the Middle East and beyond,” Oren Eisner, president of the foundation and of Talpins’ family office, said. “One that embodies a promise of a brighter future for all.”

‘Buy more space for diplomacy’

In June 2020, Al Otaiba wrote in an “unprecedented” Hebrew op-ed that Israel would significantly harm its warming ties with certain Arab countries if it continues to apply sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria.

On Wednesday, the Emirati diplomat said that the next steps for the Abraham Accords need to be regional integration and a focus on economic investment.

Shira Efron, senior director of policy research at the Israel Policy Forum who moderated the panel, asked Al Otaiba to what extent Israeli normalization with the Arab world could improve the Palestinian economy and if the success of the Abraham Accords could be leveraged to find a political solution with the Palestinians.

Al Otaiba said there is an opportunity for the Abraham Accords to benefit “many communities,” but the Palestinian issue cannot be solved from “a panel in Congress.”

“What the Abraham Accords did was just buy more space for diplomacy and for a two-state solution,” he said. “We cannot solve that. That has to come from the players in the region themselves.”

Efron asked later about Abu Dhabi signing the deal in exchange for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freezing annexation plans in Judea and Samaria. Al Otaiba said de facto annexation is happening “in a way that is not visible” and that could make it harder to broker a two-state solution.

“Our deal was based on a certain time period and that time period is almost done,” he said. “We have no ability to leverage decisions that are made outside of the period that the Abraham Accords was based on.”

Future countries that join the normalization agreement will have to decide whether to use that or another approach, according to Al Otaiba.

“There is very little that the UAE can do at this moment to shape what happens inside Israel,” he said.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.). Credit: Atlantic Council TV.

‘Historic legacy for all of us’

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle credited former President Donald Trump and his administration for their work on the Abraham Accords, which they said was one of the few things that have received bipartisan support in Washington.

“For me, as a young Jewish guy growing up in this country, if you had told me that there would be peace between any country in the region and Israel, I would have said you’re out of your mind,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ to all of you who believe. To the Trump administration for initiating what I think is going to be a historic, important legacy for all of us,” he said. “And now to this administration and to future ones. To world leaders. To all of us, who in ways big and small play a role. Heartfelt gratitude.”

“If I can see peace being made in the Middle East, perhaps along with my friend Joe Wilson, Brad Schneider and so many others, who believe in decency, respect and bipartisanship, we can have a similar peace accord in the U.S. Congress,” he added.

Rep. Dean Phillips. Credit: Atlantic Council TV.

Phillips was referring to Reps. Schneider (D-Ill.) and Wilson (R-S.C.), chair of the subcommittee on which Phillips is ranking member.

“I have one word: Amen,” said Wilson, who spoke after Phillips. “All you hear about are fights between Democrats and Republicans. We can’t agree on time and day. But you’re going to see that that’s not the case here today, and indeed, we work together.”

Wilson added that under Trump’s leadership, “this historic agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and later, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan represents the most significant step toward a stable and positive Arab-Israeli relationship in modern history.”

Army Lt. Gen. (ret.) Terry Wolff, senior director for the Middle East at the National Security Council, also praised the Trump administration for launching the accords.

“The Trump administration has laid the foundation, and the Biden administration has moved forward with the help of Congress to empower that effort,” he said.

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