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Go Big or Go Home

Discussion of an Israel-Saudi normalization deal has been in the air for months. But when Thomas Friedman wrote last Thursday that President Joe Biden had sent a pair of top national security aides to Saudi Arabia to explore a deal that would necessarily involve measures designed to preserve the possibility of a two-state outcome, it shifted the conversation in an important way. Following the Abraham Accords and the breakdown of the assumption that normalization would only proceed along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative—a paradigm that called for creating a Palestinian state first, with normalization coming second—the pendulum shifted far in the other direction. The new widespread assumption was that Israel-Saudi normalization would not have to involve a Palestinian component at all, and if it did, it would not have to be more than some token gestures.

Despite Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s declaration on Monday that the Palestinian issue is not a barrier to normalization between Jerusalem and Riyadh, Friedman’s column indicates that the Palestinian issue will be a part of any American conditions that Biden places on the table in order to help broker an agreement. While the Israel Policy Forum has been pushing for such an approach, both in the context of a Saudi deal and in the context of normalization more widely, there is now a new tailwind behind the idea that completely delinking Israel-Saudi normalization from Israeli-Palestinian issues will be a non-starter.

The outstanding question, however, is what that nebulous Palestinian component will be. When the UAE normalized ties with Israel, it extracted a promise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to proceed with annexing or applying sovereignty to the West Bank for a finite period of time, reported to be four years. Given how quickly the annexation train was moving at the time, preventing an impending disaster was a welcome element, even if it did nothing to actually improve the situation. Friedman listed four elements that he would like to see Washington and Riyadh demand from the Israeli government: making the no-annexation pledge permanent, promising not to establish new settlements or expand the footprint of existing ones, forswearing retroactive legalization of illegal outposts, and transferring some parts of Area C to Areas A and B. The first three elements replicate the UAE model of stopping the damage to two states without reversing it, while the last would represent movement in a positive direction. But it is not nearly enough.

While talk of annexation of the Jordan Valley, or Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim, represented an elevated threat in 2019 and 2020, today’s Israeli government has moved in leaps and bounds beyond that. From approving more new settlement units in half a year than any previous Israeli government had approved in any full year; to retroactively legalizing nine illegal outposts; to repealing the 2005 disengagement law in the northern West Bank; to eliminating four of the defense minister’s five opportunities to halt the settlement planning and approval process; to creating a new settlements administration controlled by East Bank enthusiast Bezalel Smotrich; to threatening to begin demolishing Palestinian structures in Areas A and B, where Israel ceded control over administrative matters by signed agreement nearly three decades ago; the current Netanyahu government is moving so quickly to alter every single arrangement in the West Bank and destroy all prospects for two states that it is nearly impossible to appreciate the full scope of its activities.

With this track record, vague promises not to make things worse are nearly worthless and at best would be a temporary speed bump. The Israeli government’s plans, conceived of and carried out most prominently by Smotrich, must be put down unambiguously and decisively if Biden is serious about a two-state agenda. Mirroring Smotrich’s own words in his 2017 “Decisive Plan,” the U.S. needs to put something on the table that will make it clear that momentum toward two states is irreversible, that support for two states is here to stay, and that the extreme Israeli right’s dream of Israeli annexation of the West Bank with no path to statehood, citizenship, or rights for Palestinians is no longer viable.

The best chance in decades to do this is now, with the potential advent of a normalization deal that Israel and Saudi Arabia are both eager to conclude and that cannot be done without the U.S. And given its decades-long interest in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and its consistent support for two states as a measure that will make the Middle East more stable and demonstrate American leadership, the U.S. should insist that the measures taken by Israel towards the Palestinians move them significantly closer to sovereignty and genuine control of their own territory. Transfers of small portions of Area C are not enough, and neither are economic measures that improve the Palestinian economy under occupation. If normalization is going to happen short of two states—and by all accounts, it will—it needs to make two states appear inevitable in its wake, as opposed to the current environment in which two states appear more like an unobtainable chimera.

A place to start might be an unlikely one for Biden, which is the Trump plan. While not a viable plan for a two-state permanent-status agreement, it contained a significant territorial element for Palestinians. It also has the advantage of having been endorsed by Netanyahu and by Republicans. The Trump plan’s territorial arrangements would have to be adjusted and obviously could not include the part that granted Israel an upfront concession of immediate annexation of 30% of the West Bank. It would also have to incorporate an agreement on limiting Israeli construction in the third of the West Bank that would still be under complete Israeli control. But it (or the historic Allon Plan to which many compared it) could inspire an interim measure transferring control of territory on the way to two states that the U.S. can push for to give the Palestinians genuine sovereignty. This is the type of meaningful step that Biden should be incorporating into his current thinking.

Half-measures and nibbling around the edges in an effort to halt Israel’s headlong rush into destroying the possibility of a two-state separation will accomplish little in the long term. The U.S. has enormous leverage right now in light of the demands that Saudi Arabia is making of the White House and in light of Israelis’ desire to normalize with Saudi Arabia as the key to unlocking the rest of the region and other Sunni Muslim-majority states. Biden should use that leverage in a way that will cement his foreign policy legacy beyond brokering a normalization agreement that, while beneficial on its own, would still leave Israel’s last remaining territorial conflict to fester unless it is broadened beyond its own narrow terms.

This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.