InterviewSenator: PA premier 'open' to Abraham Accords investments

Democratic senator says Abraham Accords can expand even if settlements do too

In ToI interview fresh off trip to the region, Kirsten Gillibrand also proposes offering F-35s to Abraham Accords countries that invest in aid for the Palestinians

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

The opening roundtable at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker on March 28, 2022; A general view of the West Bank settlement of Efrat on March 10, 2022. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Maya Alleruzzo)
The opening roundtable at the Negev Summit in Sde Boker on March 28, 2022; A general view of the West Bank settlement of Efrat on March 10, 2022. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Maya Alleruzzo)

WASHINGTON — US Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Monday that expanding the Abraham Accords need not be contingent on Israel limiting settlement expansion in the West Bank.

“I think you can have these negotiations about the Abraham Accords regardless of any local political issue,” Gillibrand told The Times of Israel when asked whether discussions about the Abraham Accords can move forward if there’s simultaneous Israeli construction beyond the Green Line.

The stance expressed by the longtime congresswoman from New York in an interview days after returning from a congressional trip to all four Abraham Accords countries — Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — appeared to be at odds with the Biden administration’s approach to the issue.

The administration has expressed unequivocal opposition to settlement building. It has also advocated for leveraging the Abraham Accords to boost Palestinian livelihood and to improve prospects for a two-state solution — a framework largely understood to be antithetical to further Israeli expansion in the West Bank, which the Palestinians see as the bulk of their future state.

Gillibrand did not endorse settlement construction but she appeared far less concerned that such steps will increase under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline government, which was established based on commitments to expand Israeli presence in the West Bank.

“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has a strong hold on his government,” she said.

FILE – Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, speaks at Onondaga Community College on Oct. 27, 2022, in Syracuse, New York (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Gillibrand was joined on her trip to the region by six other senators who are part of Congress’s Abraham Accords Caucus, which seeks to build on the normalization agreements from Capitol Hill. The bipartisan delegation made headlines after one of its co-leaders, Democrat Jacky Rosen, reached out to the Foreign Ministry before the trip asking not to meet with far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich or with anyone from their Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties. Ben Gvir and Smotrich have a long history of antagonistic comments toward Arab Israelis, Palestinians and the LGBTQ community.

The junior New York senator said she had learned about Rosen’s request in the media but said the trip was not designed for such meetings anyway, as the lawmakers largely met with heads of state.

Gillibrand clarified that she has her “own concerns about statements and actions by the ultra far-right parts of his coalition. But again, the prime minister assured us that it was his views, not theirs, that [are] relevant… and I took him at his word.”

One of the Democratic Party’s most pro-Israel lawmakers, Gillibrand expressed particular optimism about the possibilities to build on the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalization agreements Israel signed with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco after her visits to the four countries.

“I felt [that] the leaders in Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE all wanted to strengthen, broaden and deepen the Abraham Accords,” she said. “They want more economic investment with Israel as well as a regional security plan with the United States and Israel” in order to combat Iran.

A US congressional delegation visits Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Kirsten Gillibrand/Twitter)

She said she hoped that additional countries would join the accords, naming Kuwait as one possibility. While a US ally, the small developing country adamantly ruled out following in the path of the UAE and Bahrain despite speculation that it could join.

Gillibrand said that the US should urge Abraham Accords countries to invest in humanitarian projects for the Palestinians “in exchange for F-35s and other technology that they are desperate for that helps them create a regional missile defense [system] against Iran.”

The Trump administration agreed to sell the UAE 50 F-35 fighter jets in a side deal widely seen to have been critical for pushing its normalization agreement with Israel past the finish line. The Biden administration has criticized the sale, expressing concerns that it puts Jerusalem’s military edge over other countries in the region at risk. It has not canceled the sale altogether, but negotiations have yet to reach a breakthrough.

The idea of selling such weapons to Saudi Arabia, which has become a prime target for Abraham Accords advocates, is even less popular in the US, particularly in the Democratic Party, due to Riyadh’s human rights record and energy policies.

But Gillibrand, who sits on the Senate’s Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, indicated that the idea was possible. She clarified that terms would have to be negotiated and that the US would have to ensure that its military technology is not shared with China, which has been building its influence in the region.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh meets with a congressional delegation in Ramallah on January 19, 2023. (Palestinian PMO/Instagram)

“In the context of a broader regional peace agreement [though], I think all these things can be discussed,” the senator said.

The congressional delegation also traveled to the West Bank where they met with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

Gillibrand said the PA premier was “very open” to the Abraham Accords as well.

Asked to clarify, given Ramallah’s refusal to engage with the initiative thus far, Gillibrand stood by the assertion.

“I [asked him], ‘If the UAE wanted to invest a billion dollars in water infrastructure in the Palestinian territories, would that be something you’d be open to as part of the Abraham Accords? He said, ‘I’d be very open to that,'” the senator recalled.

The Times of Israel reached out to Shtayyeh and his office for comment but did not immediately receive a response.

“[Shtayyeh] wants stability, and as this young generation is growing, he wants to create a future of hope for them — all legitimate goals for any national leader… There’s room to create that with this existing Netanyahu government under the auspices of an Abraham Accords-type agreement,” she declared.

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