Media reports on March 18 revealed that the United Arab Emirates has suspended its plans for an Abraham Accords summit in Abu Dhabi with Israel, the United States, and other Arab signatories to the historic peace agreements brokered by the Donald Trump administration. Supposedly, the Emiratis are angry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for using the UAE’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed as a “prop in his election campaign.”
In fact, as the theme of “election interference” should make clear (the UAE doesn’t have elections), and as has been substantiated by Israeli reporting, the source of the upset isn’t in Abu Dhabi but in Washington. In other words, the Biden administration is interfering in Israel’s upcoming election by strong-arming the Emiratis into publicly distancing themselves from Bibi.
Next week Israel will hold its fourth election in a little more than two years, so in effect Netanyahu has been campaigning for more than 24 months—including in August when he and MBZ signed the agreement. Should the Emiratis have shunned the deal since Netanyahu, like any Israeli prime minister, would invariably present his accomplishment to voters? What about sending an ambassador to Israel, as it did at the beginning of March? What about investing $10 billion, as MBZ told Netanyahu he would? So how does a photo op with the prime minister glad-handing the crown prince of Abu Dhabi on his home turf cross the line?
Plainly, the Obama-Biden team doesn’t care about interfering in Israeli elections or else Barack Obama’s State Department wouldn’t have funneled money to an NGO that campaigned against Netanyahu in 2015. Nor do Arab royals sitting atop petro-kingdoms have much theoretical or practical reason to worry about appearing to back one candidate against another. Smaller powers like the UAE make alliances not with factions but with states—and all parties in Israel support the Abraham Accords. Israel’s strategic class, its political, military, and intelligence echelons, as well as Israeli voters consider relations with Gulf Cooperation Council members a strategic boon. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances short of war under which an Israeli prime minister would think it politically wise to abandon a normalization agreement with any Arab state, never mind a major oil producer.
No, “election interference” is a staple of American political discourse. More particularly it is the rhetoric through which the Democratic Party now pushes information operations, like the Russiagate conspiracy theory holding that Russia interfered with the 2016 vote to put Trump in the White House. News of the canceled visit by the Israeli prime minister was eagerly pushed in the press and on social media by Obama’s Israel point man Dan Shapiro through his proprietary Israel wing of the echo chamber.
But there’s a bigger play here than interfering in Israeli politics by denying Bibi a preelection photo op with Israel’s peace partners in the Gulf. Their larger goal is to weaken or dismantle the Abraham Accords, which by assembling a treaty structure that binds Israel together with the Gulf states structurally interferes with the administration’s stated goal of realigning the United States with Iran—and therefore against Israel and the Gulf—by reentering Obama’s nuclear deal.
But isn’t peace in the Middle East the collective dream of the Beltway policy establishment, left and right? Trump, love or hate him, got Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan as well as the UAE to normalize relations with Israel, the first peace agreements with the Jewish state since Jordan signed in 1994—and Biden said he wanted to build on the Abraham Accords. But as it turns out, “peace” has a very particular meaning for American policymakers. For the Middle East hands in the Biden administration, what matters most is completing the project many of these Obama alumni helped initiate while serving under Biden’s former boss—realignment with Iran.
Trump didn’t just withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which undergirded Obama’s realignment strategy, he also designed a strategic architecture to counter Iranian influence—the Abraham Accords. To bind Israel and the Arab Gulf states, the Trump White House had to bracket the issue that previously kept these traditional American allies apart—the Palestinians. That alone earned Trump the wrath of Washington’s wise men.
For decades the professional peace processors warned that there could be no stability in the Middle East unless there was a comprehensive settlement to the Palestinian issue. By giving the Palestinians unbridled veto power, the Beltway establishment also ensured their job security. As long as the Palestinians said no, the peace processors were still in business. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner wondered why the wise men held them in contempt for making peace. What they didn’t understand was that making peace meant the wise men were fired.
The alliance between Israel and the Gulf states is an impediment to the dream of a reempowered, nuclear-armed Iran backed by the United States, which was Obama’s main foreign policy aim—and an affront to peace processors convinced of their own never-ending importance. The Biden administration apparently aims to sink the accords by penalizing Israel and its peace partners for getting too close, and returning the Palestinians to center stage—in order to prepare the ground for reentering the Iran deal.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).