heard yesterday

Al Otaiba: Palestinians are the ‘elephant in the room’ in Abraham Accords conversation

The comments from the UAE ambassador came at an event celebrating two years of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates

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Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020.

At an event celebrating the two-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba referred to the Palestinians as “the elephant in the room,” and called on signatories to the Accords to do more to advance a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“All the stuff that we’re talking about is great,” Al Otaiba said at a virtual event on Thursday organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council think tank, “but we can’t avoid talking about the two-state solution. We really can’t.”

He was joined on the panel by Israeli Ambassador to the UAE Amir Hayek, Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Abdulla Bin Rashid Al Khalifa and Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current Atlantic Council distinguished fellow. Much of the conversation was spent applauding the regional changes that have come about in the past two years and discussing plans to build upon the Accords, which were brokered by the Trump administration and signed on Sept. 15, 2020. 

“We still haven’t mentioned the word Palestine,” Al Otaiba said about 40 minutes into the hour-long event. “One of the biggest criticisms of the Abraham Accords, when it came out, was [that] it doesn’t solve the two-state solution. I don’t think it was meant to solve — I think it was meant to buy space and time to create room for diplomacy to address the two-state solution. I still believe the two-state solution is the only game in town. I think we need to pursue it.”

“I think it’s really important,” Al Otaiba continued, “for us to continue advocating and pushing and encouraging that this is the only solution.”

Al Otaiba, who has been one of the biggest public boosters of the normalization agreement since it was signed in 2020, said earlier in the call that he “didn’t have much expectations, honestly, of the agreement. I thought it was just an agreement that we were negotiating in real time, and we wanted to avoid annexation,” he explained, referring to the UAE’s goal at the time of stopping the Israeli government’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank. “We wanted to kind of avoid what I thought was going to be a disaster for the region.”

One way to involve the Palestinians in the expanding regional architecture is to bring them into the N7, Al Otaiba said, referring to a conference organized last year by the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation, with participants from seven nations that had normalized ties (UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Israel).

Hayek suggested the Palestinians should only come to the table after Israelis and Palestinians improve their own ties. 

“There is no country in the world that would like peace with the Palestinians more than Israel. But still we need to build trust,” Hayek said, adding that trust-building measures might include helping the Palestinians achieve better health and safety outcomes, improving infrastructure in the West Bank and helping to improve the quality of life for Palestinians. “Then we can do other things with the Palestinians about bringing them to the table. You know, we are welcoming anyone to the table.”