Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Real Reason Lapid Went to Abu Dhabi

The selection shows an Israeli government eager to double down on ties with Arab countries rather than address the Palestinian issue at home.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Israel’s alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gives a press conference at the new Israeli consulate in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai, on June 30.
Israel’s alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid gives a press conference at the new Israeli consulate in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai, on June 30. Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images

If the Biden administration came to town thinking it could wash its hands of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it should have realized its mistake as soon as the first shots in the latest Israel-Hamas war were fired in May.

But by the look of things, though, both the administration and the new Israeli government still think such ablutions are a viable option. They probably aren’t. U.S. President Joe Biden and his team would be well advised to do what they can to reckon with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legacy and prevent another explosion.

The Trump administration always made it fairly clear that it was far less interested in a two-state solution than in facilitating ties between Israel and the Arab states—a veritable 22-state solution. The results were on display this week as new Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made his inaugural visit to the UAE to open an Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai. In a mere ten months since the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalizing ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, 200,000 Israelis have visited the Emirates. Bilateral trade has exceeded $354 million, with any number of business deals in the works.

If the Biden administration came to town thinking it could wash its hands of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, it should have realized its mistake as soon as the first shots in the latest Israel-Hamas war were fired in May.

But by the look of things, though, both the administration and the new Israeli government still think such ablutions are a viable option. They probably aren’t. U.S. President Joe Biden and his team would be well advised to do what they can to reckon with former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legacy and prevent another explosion.

The Trump administration always made it fairly clear that it was far less interested in a two-state solution than in facilitating ties between Israel and the Arab states—a veritable 22-state solution. The results were on display this week as new Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made his inaugural visit to the UAE to open an Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai. In a mere ten months since the signing of the Abraham Accords, normalizing ties between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, 200,000 Israelis have visited the Emirates. Bilateral trade has exceeded $354 million, with any number of business deals in the works.

As a presumptive prime minister (if the rotation holds) and avowed supporter of a two-state solution minus dividing Jerusalem, Lapid doesn’t not grasp the importance of the Palestinian issue. But given the makeup of the Israeli government—in which the right seems to dominate and the left acquiesces—he’s making a virtue out of necessity. An early visit to Ramallah, for example, would have been terrible politics and policy, especially if Lapid had nothing meaningful to say, or offer. Nor is Biden pressing Israel hard on the Palestinian issue. Rather, even though he knows the Abraham Accords are no substitute for a solution to the Palestinian issue, he has heaped praise on the one aspect of the peace process that’s working since taking office. In fact, there are reports that his team is even considering appointing a special envoy to manage the accords’ care and feeding.

If Lapid does meet with Mahmoud Abbas, he’ll find a much beleaguered and beaten down Palestinian leader. Now in the 16th year of a four-year term, the 85-year-old Abbas has seen his image and credibility battered and bruised. In a Palestinian poll ranking the performance of various actors in the May Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, Abbas finished last with 8 percent compared to Palestinian citizens of Israel (86 percent) and Hamas (75 percent).

It is a cruel irony that perhaps the most relevant Palestinian in the Middle East these days isn’t Mahmoud Abbas but Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List whose participation in the current Israeli government holds the key to its survival. He’s the one Palestinian Israeli pols need to cater to. And he’s not pressing for more attention on the issue; instead he’s more focused on deliverables for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

There’s no doubt that the new Israeli government—for the sake of its survival—will be unwilling or unable to engage in big, provocative moves such as annexation of the West Bank or massive settlement expansion there because of Lapid’s veto and the presence of two left-wing parties and Mansour Abbas, which the coalition can’t afford to lose. The new government may even try to undertake small ameliorative steps to aid the West Bank economy, or, as it did last week, distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.

But not engaging in bad behavior doesn’t mean the new government can or would be willing to act in ways that will benefit Palestinians. New Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is to the right of Netanyahu when it comes to the West Bank; and it is already possible to see that—in the postponing the full evacuation of an illegal outpost and approving 31 settlement zoning projects—that they are not interested in confronting settlers but in managing them. It will be fascinating to see if and when Bennett and his ministers decide to make first contact with Abbas; quietly might be best initially.

As for the Biden administration, it is facing lots of competing priorities, principally how to pass the president’s domestic agenda. Should the United States succeed in reaching an agreement with Iran to reenter the 2015 nuclear agreement, it will almost certainly take a hit at home from Republicans and even from a few mainstream Democrats. It does not need another explosion in Palestine to distract it or to be sandwiched between a Republican party eager to paint Democrats as anti-Israel on one hand and progressive Democrats determined to push Biden to restrain Israel on the other.

The problem of course is that Israel and the Palestinians have a proximity problem. And if Biden wants to avoid another blow-up—and there are no guarantees here—it will need to at least pretend that it is paying attention, doing what it can to help stabilize the situation in Gaza; empowering the PA and working to curb its human rights excesses; urging Israel to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem and avoid provocations there; and working with Israel and Palestinians to improve the economy and freedom of movement on the West Bank. It isn’t pretty or dramatic, and it definitely won’t even begin to address the underlying causes of conflict. But as my Bubbe used to say about her chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt—and you know what? Given the absence of viable alternatives, it just might help.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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