Washington, DC – Addressing the world at the United Nations General Assembly last month, United States President Joe Biden spoke of a “more sustainable, integrated Middle East” – one where Israel enjoys “greater normalisation and economic connection”.
That vision seemingly demoted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a distant concern.
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With a military occupation, tech-powered surveillance, walls and checkpoints in Palestinian territories like the West Bank and Gaza, a relatively stable status quo had been established — at least, on the surface.
This has allowed Israel and the US, its top ally, to largely ignore the plight of Palestinians and move on to other issues, experts say.
The Biden administration has been working with Israel on a broad range of subjects: a diplomatic deal with Saudi Arabia, a trade route linking India to Europe and concerns about Iran and its nuclear programme.
But the regional order was shaken on Saturday when the Palestinian group Hamas launched a highly coordinated attack against Israel from the besieged Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of people.
“This isn’t just a blind spot. This is fantasy land, the way the US has been approaching this idea of Arab-Israeli normalisation as if the Palestinian issue didn’t exist,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Many experts and leaders in the region have warned that the Palestinian issue must not be sidestepped. Renowned rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.
“No architecture for regional security and development can stand over the burning ashes of this conflict,” Jordan’s King Abdullah told the UN in September.
But the Biden administration has pushed on with decoupling its larger Middle East policies from Palestinians’ demands for a viable state of their own, advocates like Hassan said.
The US recently admitted Israel to its exclusive visa waiver program, a move critics have framed as a political perk for the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Normalisation with Saudi Arabia is another big prize sought by Israeli leaders that Biden and his aides were eyeing.
Few Arab states have recognised Israel since its inception in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure a series of agreements in 2020 — known as the Abraham Accords — that established formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
Sudan also agreed to normalise relations with Israel as part of Trump’s push. Biden has been trying to expand the list of countries willing to forge relations with Israel.
His administration has also prided itself on establishing regional partnerships. At the Negev Forum in July this year, for instance, the US helped foster dialogue between Israel and Arab countries like Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE.
Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have rejected the US-brokered deals as a “stab in the back”. Previously, the overwhelming majority of Arab states had conditioned forming ties with Israel on securing Palestinian rights as articulated in the Arab Peace Initiative.
However, Biden administration officials have argued that, by continuing Trump’s push for normalisation, Washington is strengthening security in the region.
Dan Shapiro, the senior adviser for regional integration at the US State Department, told Al Jazeera Arabic last week that the Biden administration is discussing Israel’s normalisation with countries beyond the Gulf region — in Africa and East Asia.
Shapiro, a former envoy to Israel whose current role was recently created, went on to hail the “dramatic increase in security cooperation” between Israel and its new Arab partners.
“The United States sees it as very much in our interest to be a partner to those countries as they build those coalitions, so that they work with us and that we work with them and together we make the Middle East stronger and safer and more prosperous,” he said.
While US officials have acknowledged that the push to forge formal relations between Israel and Arab countries is not a substitute for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Washington has done little to revive prospects of establishing a Palestinian state.
And the Biden administration, which provides $3.8bn in annual aid to Israel, has been reluctant to hold the Netanyahu government accountable for violence against Palestinians and expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, in defiance of US policy.
At the UN General Assembly session last month, Netanyahu dismissed the idea that peace with Palestinians should be a condition for normalising ties with its Arab neighbours.
“We must not give the Palestinians a veto over new peace treaties with Arab states,” he said.
Netanyahu also held up a map of the region showing the Palestinian territories and Syria’s Golan Heights as part of Israel — sparking fears among Palestinian rights advocates that their concerns were being erased amid talks of normalisation.
“I think what’s happened Saturday and what’s continuing to unfold is a clear reminder that the region cannot forget about the Palestinian situation that, left unresolved, will continue to stand in the way of a wider regional peace. And the US has to reckon with that now,” Hassan said.
Palestinians ‘will not disappear’
So far, it does not appear that the recent outbreak of violence has sparked a reassessment of US policy towards Israel.
On Tuesday, Biden portrayed Hamas’s attack as a “terrorist” assault aimed at killing Jewish people, with no mention of the Palestinian struggle. He also compared Hamas to ISIL (ISIS).
Hamas officials have cited Israeli violations, including raids by Israeli forces at Al-Aqsa Mosque, as the reason behind the attack.
“Like every nation in the world, Israel has the right to respond, indeed has a duty to respond to these vicious attacks,” Biden said on Tuesday, pledging to support Israel’s war efforts in Gaza.
But Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, a think tank, said the massive scale of hostilities shows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be overlooked in regional policies.
He said the situation is “telling the US, Israel and whoever else — particularly the long queue of Arab normalisers — that creating a new Middle East that serves mostly your economic purposes is tantamount to creating a new map for the Middle East without Palestine”.
“The Palestinian people will not acquiesce to that, will not disappear and will not accept the crumbs that fall off the table of such events,” Jahshan added.
As Biden calls for more support and weapons for Israel, Jahshan questioned what the long-term US strategy is.
“When do you stop? When do you look seriously at ending this conflict, at ending the occupation, at giving the Palestinian people a place under the sun — the right to determine their own future?”