WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, Congress launched the bicameral, bipartisan Abraham Accords Caucus to support normalization between Israel and Arab states. Backed by pro-Israel groups, this new political development can be interpreted as a way for the Israel lobby to regain its power over a U.S. Congress that is increasingly critical of Israel.
Described as a “cheerleading squad” in the Jewish Insider by its co-chair, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), the caucus’s stated goals include expanding the Abraham Accords agreements and fostering regional peace. The group’s other co-chairs are Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), David Trone (D-MD), Ann Wagner (R-MO), and Brad Schneider (D-IL).
The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) speculated that one of the caucus’ top priorities may be passing the Israel Relations Normalization Act, a bill requiring the United States Department of State to promote normalization between Israel and Arab countries. The IMEU also outlined why the new caucus is particularly controversial, highlighting how the group could be used to crack down on criticism of the Israeli government.
IMEU said in its policy analysis:
In addition to the problematic nature of reifying Trump-administration deals with authoritarian regimes, this legislation is controversial for additional reasons, among which are: A statement of policy “to oppose efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel.” In other legislative initiatives, this vague phraseology has been used as coded language to propose the suppression and even criminalization of freedom of expression to criticize Israeli policies.
The idea that the Abraham Accords need a “cheerleading squad” is particularly fitting in this political climate in which traditional bipartisan support is waning, Zaha Hassan, a policy analyst at Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, explained to MintPress News, adding:
The folks that started the Abraham Accords Caucus decided to pursue this because they see that the U.S. administration isn’t being active enough in expanding and deepening the Abraham Accords.”
As Congress votes this week on expanding #AbrahamAccords & putting it on steriods, this thread is critical context for understanding why #Israel Relations #Normalization Act is more about entrenching Israel's illegal settlements than abt peacebuilding & #Palestinian prosperity. https://t.co/7e8z5oPk4L
— Zaha Hassan زها حسن (@zahahassan) January 24, 2022
Hassan noted that the timing of the caucus’s debut is important to note as well, as politicians — specifically Democratic members of Congress — and the public have started questioning or even condemning Israel’s actions. She explained:
We have organizations like Human Rights Watch and various Israeli legal and human rights organizations talking about an apartheid situation in Israel-Palestine.
And just at that moment when we’re having that conversation, there’s all this uptick in activity around talking about peace, prosperity, regional economic integration, and expanding the Abraham Accords, and that’s now become the focus of attention.”
With a failed peace process and congressional members calling for greater accountability for Israel, Hassan said the conversation around Palestine-Israel is shifting, and that’s where the new caucus steps in to act as a diversionary tactic:
It’s trying to find a new direction for the conversation to go in, recognizing the peace process can no longer be used as an excuse.
The idea is that since there isn’t a possibility in Israel or among Palestinians for a peace agreement, we should focus instead on bettering the economic situation of Palestinians and the region writ large.”
The announcement of the Abraham Accords Caucus was met with a flurry of enthusiasm in the press and among politicians, as noted by the founder and president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Lara Friedman, in the organization’s Legislative Round-Up, where she wrote:
The announcement of the new caucus was accompanied by praise and welcome from the Biden Administration, from the Bahraini government (among others), and a burst of giddy articles/op-eds/editorials promoting the Abraham Accords and/or the caucus, and pressing the Biden Administration to do more to expand normalization.
Friedman emphasized in her analysis the clear congressional hypocrisy when it came to this ecstatic round of approval for the new caucus:
This bipartisan congressional enthusiasm for expanding Arab normalization with Israel stands in stark contrast to decades of Congress’ demonstrated apathy, timidity, antipathy, and outright obstructionism with respect to anything related to trying to secure normal rights for Palestinians.
She suggested that these various gestures of support were simply tactics to encourage the Biden administration — whose response to the Abraham Accords has been tepid — to warm up to the Accords.
Friedman said in her report:
This sudden burst of enthusiasm/support/pressure around the Abraham Accords all appears aimed at pressuring the Biden Administration not only to more strongly support the Accords but to follow in the footsteps of the Trump Administration in using U.S. sweeteners to achieve normalization deals — sweeteners that under Trump meant that the accords were paid for via U.S. arms deals and by the U.S. changing policy on a critical geopolitical/legal question (i.e., recognizing Morocco’s claims to the Western Sahara).
Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ unraveling
In less than two years, former President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace agreement is in shambles. The deal with the United Arab Emirates — the first country to normalize relations with Israel as part of the Accords — is at an impasse. The UAE decided to buy aircraft from France instead of purchasing American F-35 jet fighters, which purportedly was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, the Abraham Accords were a key legislative agenda item for the American Israel Public Relations Committee (AIPAC). With the F-35 sale now off the table, the Accords are proving to be a failure.
The Accords and its new caucus claim their objective is to foster regional stability, including achieving a peaceful solution for Palestine and Israel. From Hassan’s perspective, however, normalization with Israel is actually about normalizing and cementing Israeli settlements.
“Some of the first follow-on agreements [between Israel and the UAE] involved settler enterprises,” Hassan said, mentioning the established trade partnerships between businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements and the UAE, and how delegations of settler councils visited the Gulf state following normalization. “So Israel’s incentive with the Abraham Accords is to really solidify its control over the West Bank.”
Backed by the Israel lobby
While the caucus boasted of its bipartisan representation, the groups backing it are anything but politically divided. FMEP’s Friedman wrote:
A serious investment of time and effort (and possibly funding) has clearly gone into establishing the caucus and getting its establishment/objectives maximum attention, …managing to pull together a caucus that is bipartisan and bicameral, and that enjoys support from an array of mainly center/right-wing pro-Israel groups (both Jewish and Christian), as well as one mainstream think tank.
According to a congressional press release, the caucus is supported by:
- The Atlantic Council
- The Abraham Accords Peace Institute
- The Anti-Defamation League
- The American Jewish Committee
- Hadassah — The Women’s Zionist Organization of America
- The US-Israel Education Association
- The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
- The Israel Policy Forum
- Christians United for Israel (CUFI) Action
- The Jewish Federations of North America
- B’nai B’rith International
The money sources behind the group’s establishment and promotional materials are largely unknown. MintPress News reached out to the aforementioned organizations to determine if their organizational support translated to financial backing, but those requests haven’t been answered.
However, being supported by a majority of pro-Israel groups suggests the caucus’s goals may not be as peace-oriented as its PR suggests. Al-Shabaka’s Hassan explained:
The ones leading the caucus’ establishment aren’t necessarily the most actively supportive of a two-state solution. So it’s difficult to imagine this group is going to be prioritizing that as a part of their support for the Abraham Accords.”
Folks in this Abraham Accords Caucus are less interested in an Israeli-Palestinian political solution than in recognizing Israeli sovereignty. If you have organizations like CUFI backing this caucus, you get the idea of what kind of place Palestinian sovereignty or statehood is going to play in the work of the caucus.”
Feature photo | Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., listens during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 8, 2021. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | Pool via AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News