In an interview a week before his victory in Israel’s general election, Benjamin Netanyahu stated his intention to achieve peace with Saudi Arabia if he returned to the prime minister’s office. “I think there’s a chance I will achieve it, because I think Saudi Arabia … know[s] that I’m absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu added.
The administration’s response to Netanyahu’s declared priority of seeking a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia took a page out of a familiar playbook: use the Palestinians to throw Israel on the defensive, this time in the form of an impending FBI investigation into the accidental death of reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. The fact that the U.S. had participated in Israel’s own investigation of the incident, and approved its conclusions, meant nothing—as did the absence of any clear grounding for such an investigation in U.S. law. The investigation was a “values feint”—highlighting how Israeli policies under Netanyahu supposedly clash with U.S. values, in order to make it harder for Israel to achieve its goals in other areas.
The Biden administration’s policy is not driven by personal dislike for Netanyahu, as reporters and columnists never tire of asserting, or by any demonstrable interest in the welfare of Palestinians, but by the fact that its regional priorities are starkly at odds with Israel’s. A couple of days after Netanyahu’s interview, U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein pranced into Beirut to receive the Lebanese signature on his maritime border deal, in which the White House forced Israel to concede to all of Hezbollah’s demands. Standing next to Hochstein at a press briefing was Elias Bou Saab, one of the Hezbollah cutouts in the “Lebanese government” who serve as interlocutors with the U.S. “I have heard about the Abraham Accord,” Bou Saab opined. “Today there is a new era. It could be the Amos Hochstein accord.”
Even in his clownishness, the Lebanese functionary correctly telegraphed the Biden administration’s desire to replace the Abraham Accords with a different framework, representing a new set of priorities. Netanyahu’s vision, expressed in terms of a regional alignment facing the Iranian threat, is one the administration is actively working to bury.
The Biden administration’s discomfort with the Abraham Accords has been nothing short of comical, including a near-pathological aversion to using the term “Abraham Accords”—substituting instead the phrase “normalization agreements.” The peak expression of that attitude came last year in a bizarre exchange between a State Department reporter and spokesman Ned Price, in which Price repeatedly refused to utter the words “Abraham Accords,” replying each time to the reporter’s use of the term with the phrase “normalization agreements,” like a zombified cult member or one half of a diplomatic version of Laurel and Hardy.
The reason for the administration’s hostility to the Abraham Accords goes beyond jealousy or the desire to deny credit to a hated predecessor. There are significant matters of substance and strategy at stake. The Abraham Accords framework is fundamentally opposed to the Obama-Biden vision for the region. Whereas the Abraham Accords framework draws a bright line separating the U.S.-allied camp from Iran and its camp, the Obama-Biden vision turns the very concept of friend and foe on its head, elevating Iran and downgrading allies under the pretext of creating “equilibrium” or “balance.” The problem the White House faces is that the accords are popular: The biblical name alone resonates with the American public.
In the wake of Ned Price’s unintentionally comic attempt to disappear the term “Abraham Accords,” the Biden administration made a tactical adjustment to its presentation, if not to its policy. Drawing on the practice perfected during its incarnation as the Obama administration, team Biden has manipulated language associated with or adjacent to the Abraham Accords to torque it toward its own alternative policy framework, thereby emptying the accords of their meaning—while keeping the popular name.
The administration continued this shift by reemphasizing the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a change in policy emphasis that it accompanied with a shift in language. “While we support normalization between Israel and countries in the Arab world,” Price explained, “it’s also not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and that’s very important.”
See how the shell game works? “Peace” is reserved for agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. The Abraham Accords are therefore not “real” peace agreements, but “normalization” agreements—which are meaningful only insofar as they lead back to the Palestinians, thereby reaffirming Obama’s UNSCR 2334 parameters as the only meaningful avenue for U.S. regional policy.
Behind this lexical shift, of course, is something more than the desire to put Palestinians at the center of the region once more. An Israeli-Gulf agreement that might also include Saudi Arabia isn’t a “peace agreement” because, whatever the economic and cultural benefits of closer relations might be, it is also an alliance of regional states against Iran. The administration’s linguistic reshuffling is therefore needed to introduce its Iran-centric worldview into the vocabulary used for the Abraham Accords, imbuing it with new meaning that fits the administration’s alternative vision for the region, which is centered around an American alliance with Iran.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement on the second anniversary of the Abraham Accords provides an example of how the Abraham Accords are being rewritten and reframed to fit a new regional agenda driven by the United States and not by any of the parties to the accords. Blinken’s statement made sure to append the term “normalization agreements,” thereby changing “the Abraham Accords” into “the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements.”
More importantly, Blinken inserted the term “regional integration” in explaining the policy approach that the administration is promoting through the accords. A casual listener is thereby encouraged to imagine that “regional integration” means strengthening Israeli-Arab relations within the Abraham Accords framework, while the administration is in fact rewriting that framework to fit team Obama-Biden’s focus on strengthening U.S. relations with Iran.
That disguising this policy switcheroo is indeed the function of “regional integration” is evident from an op-ed under President Biden’s name that was published in The Washington Post a couple of months before Blinken’s statement. The occasion for the op-ed was Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in July, following a visit to Israel. The piece used that association as camouflage to promote the “regional integration” alternative framework, which was unmistakably about pressing U.S. allies to prop up—“integrate”—Iran and its regional holdings. Hence, when offering an example of such “integration,” the op-ed did not discuss advancing a Saudi-Israeli agreement. Rather, it pointed to the role one of Tehran’s regional equities—Iraq—played in furthering Saudi dialogue ... with Iran.
A month after Blinken’s statement, the administration announced it had successfully brokered the maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon. When making the announcement, a senior White House official explained to reporters how the deal should be understood as a manifestation of the Biden administration’s vision of “a more stable, prosperous, integrated region.” The examples the official offered involved other Iranian puppet states: Yemen and Iraq. Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the “regional integration” agenda.
The Lebanon maritime deal, which the Biden team puffed up as “historic,” consisted of a package of Israeli concessions to Iran’s foremost regional equity, Hezbollah. The administration’s messaging infrastructure, in both D.C. and Israel, promptly classified the deal as more meaningful than the Abraham Accords—since it was an agreement with an Iranian asset, which is what the Obama-Biden framework defines as “peace.” The Obama-Biden echo chamber amplified the “depressurizing/deescalating” message to magnify the importance of the maritime deal as one that actually “prevents conflict,” as opposed to the Abraham Accords, which were “out of conflict zone” agreements—a riff on their initial derision of the Abraham Accords as not being “real” peace agreements, since those Arab states were never at war with Israel.
Taken together with the Biden administration’s sustained information campaign against the Saudis over “values” as well as energy policy, the offer America is making its two leading regional allies is clear: Forget the anti-Iran Abraham Accords framework. The path to team Obama-Biden’s approval is through “regional integration” with Iran.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.