ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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'We welcome efforts to find consensus' on judicial overhaul

Biden administration planning new post aimed at expanding Abraham Accords

Top US diplomat Blinken tells AIPAC that integrating Israel in region a ‘cornerstone’ of policy, pans Israel for steps undermining Palestinians’ dignity, settlement expansion

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the 2023 American Israel public affairs committee policy summit in Washington, DC, on June 5, 2023. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks at the 2023 American Israel public affairs committee policy summit in Washington, DC, on June 5, 2023. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)

The Biden administration will soon establish a new position aimed at expanding the Abraham Accords, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday, while also promising that Washington would continue to push back against settlement building or other activities that could endanger a two-state solution.

The idea for a point person tasked with shepherding normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors has reportedly been in the works for the past several months. The announcement comes as the Biden administration has begun to prioritize brokering a diplomatic agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But Monday’s remarks from Blinken at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington was the first time that a US official revealed the initiative publicly.

“Israel’s further integration in the region contributes to a more stable, a more secure and more prosperous region. Blinken said. “That’s why President Biden has made it a cornerstone of his Middle East policy.”

“We will soon create a new position to further our diplomacy and engagement with governments and private sector, nongovernmental organizations, all working toward a more peaceful and a more connected region,” he added.

The secretary of state did not elaborate further on the nature of the new position, but a US official confirmed to The Times of Israel last month that former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro’s name has been floated for the post.

Blinken’s appearance came a day before he was slated to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he said he would raise Israel normalization during his meetings with government officials.

“The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“We believe we can and must play an integral role in advancing it,” Blinken continued before acknowledging that “there are no illusions that this can be done quickly or easily.”

Saudi Arabia is seeking several large concessions from the US in exchange for normalization. Riyadh has also made clear to the Biden administration that any agreement with Israel will have to include a significant gesture for the Palestinians, a senior US official told The Times of Israel in May.

The Abraham Accords were initially unveiled by Donald Trump’s administration in 2020, with the Biden administration heartily taking up the initiative. Washington has worked over the past year to further integrate Israel in the region, forming the Negev Forum and I2U2 to boost cooperation across the Middle East and beyond, coaxing Saudi Arabia and Oman to open their skies to Israeli airliners, and brokering a maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon.

But responsibility for that effort has been scattered across different offices, with the White House’s Brett McGurk, Biden’s energy envoy Amos Hoschstein, and Yael Lempert from the State Department among those playing integral roles. Pressure has intensified in Congress for a more public demonstration of the administration’s commitment, specifically the appointment of an envoy whose remit is expanding the Abraham Accords. As well, Lempert is slated to serve as US ambassador to Jordan and will have her plate full with other issues.

Notably, the decision to tap a point person for advancing the Abraham Accords comes following a decision by Biden not to appoint a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as previous presidents have done.

The administration maintains that the conditions are not currently ripe for the launching of a high-stakes peace initiative.

‘Undermining daily dignity’ of Palestinians

Effectively prioritizing the expansion of the Abraham Accords over securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal could expose the Biden administration to criticism that it is following in the path of Trump, who sought to use the Abraham Accords to bypass the Palestinian issue entirely.

However, the secretary in his Monday remarks reiterated the Biden administration’s position that “normalization efforts are not a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians,” and that they should be leveraged to improve Palestinian livelihood and advance a two-state solution.

He admitted that prospects for peace remain dim, but said the administration was working to de-escalate, by coaxing the parties to cease steps that inflame tensions.

The US will continue to reject “any actions taken by any party that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution,” he said.

“That includes acts of terrorism, [the PA’s] payments to terrorists in prison, violence against civilians and incitement to violence,” Blinken said, also calling out the firing of rockets at Israel by Gaza terror groups.

He then turned to what the US perceives to be Israel’s infractions — “settlement expansion clearly presents an obstacle to the horizon of hope that we seek.”

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers question motorists at the ‘Tunnels’ checkpoint, near Jerusalem, October 12, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash9)

“Likewise, any move toward annexation of the West Bank — de facto or de jure — disruption of the historic status quo at the holy sites, the continuing demolitions of homes and the evictions of families that have lived in those homes for generations damages prospects for two states.

While Israel insists it shelved its effort to annex large parts of the West Bank in exchange for normalizing ties with the United Arab Emirates in 2020, it has long been accused of de facto annexation of the West Bank by backing moves to further entrench the presence of settlers beyond the Green Line.

Israel also maintains that it is committed to upholding the status quo at the flashpoint Temple Mount under which Muslims are allowed to pray and non-Muslims can only visit. Critics say this policy has been eroded in recent years as Israeli authorities turn a blind eye to Jewish prayer on the compound.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, left, visits the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, May 21, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

Blinken pointed to recent regional meetings in Jordan and Egypt where Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to temporarily halt “unilateral measures.” The parties were supposed to meet a third time in Egypt but the nailing down of a date has dragged on for over a month.

He called on the parties to uphold the commitments they made to one another at the recent regional meetings in order to “begin the real diplomatic work necessary to resolve this conflict.”

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