Eye on the Accords

Lawmakers, administration officials, ambassadors discuss the future of the Abraham Accords

At an N7 Initiative conference, policymakers discussed the chances of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and ways to expand the existing Abraham Accords relationships

Lawmakers, administration officials and foreign dignitaries came together on Wednesday, ahead of the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords on Friday, to discuss the future of the normalization agreements and the prospects for their further expansion.

At a forum on Capitol Hill organized by the N7 Initiative, a partnership between the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation, members of Congress joined officials from the State Department and National Security Council, as well as ambassadors from Abraham Accords countries, to discuss topics including potential normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel and ways to deepen existing Abraham Accords partnerships.

Amb. Daniel Shapiro, the senior advisor for regional integration in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department who previously served as director of the N7 Initiative, spoke cautiously about the prospects for a trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel agreement, explaining that there is a “real opportunity” and that administration officials “are working hard on that, to see if the elements of a deal… can all come together.” 

“With dedicated focused effort over the months ahead, it definitely … has a chance,” Shapiro continued. “One can’t accurately predict what the percentage chances are.” He emphasized that such a deal would help the U.S. and Israel maintain their standing in the region.

Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff, the National Security Council senior director for the Middle East, offered a similar readout, explaining that there is a “pathway” to a deal with Saudi Arabia but “we’re at the discussion phase now, not really the negotiation phase.” 

There are no terms set for the deal yet, which would be “incredibly complicated,” and there is “a long journey” still to come, including in dialogue with lawmakers, he added. He declined to say what the end goal of the negotiations would be or when the administration aims to finalize it.

Shapiro was noncommittal about the timing of the next ministerial meeting of the Negev Forum, which he said “will take place at the right time. I hope that will be soon.” He said discussions are ongoing, and that Negev Forum working groups are preparing proposals that could be discussed at the ministerial meeting.

Some lawmakers appear to remain uncertain about an agreement with Saudi Arabia. Rep. Kathy Manning (D-NC), who is among the most vocal pro-Israel Democrats in the House, said that Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords would be “transformational” but also expressed caution.

“I don’t want to jump ahead of myself, we’d like to see what the components of the deal might be, make sure that they are not only in the interest of the region, but also in the U.S. interests,” she said. “But of course, we have to say that adding Saudi Arabia will make an enormous difference.”

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s mideast subcommittee, discussed his recent trip to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, a trip he once thought would have been impossible. Lawmakers met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud during the visit.

“What I discovered is the most fertile ground I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, the potential for peace and prosperity and security in a region that has been so devoid of it for so long,” Phillips said, and said it offered a reminder of the importance of face-to-face diplomacy. “Not only is [Israeli-Saudi peace] possible, it’s necessary… I’m thrilled by the possibility.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), who chairs the Middle East subcommittee and also participated in that trip, said he believes that a deal to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations “will occur.”

“I believe they’re ironing out details as we speak,” Wilson said. “Clearly, going to be so mutually advantageous for both countries in the region.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE) more broadly emphasized the need for continued U.S. engagement globally, a message that runs counter to the views of a growing number of House Republicans.

“I see an increasing isolationism in our own country,” Bacon said. “It doesn’t make it a better world. It’s a world that becomes more dangerous, more threatening. We thought that was going to work in 1937, 1938. It does not work.”

Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a co-chair of the Abraham Accords Caucus, also announced that he and his colleagues will soon introduce a companion bill to the Regional Integration and Normalization Act, Senate legislation that aims to strengthen the Abraham Accords through new programs, proposals for additional funding and an ambassador-level Abraham Accords envoy.

United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba repeatedly raised the prospect of a Middle East free-trade zone. 

“I’ve pitched this many, many times. I don’t know why we are not advocating for an Abrahamic free-trade zone between the Abrahamic countries,” Al Otaiba said. “That’s the type of project that we’d love to see in the future that will benefit anyone who signs on.”

Bacon agreed that a free-trade zone would be a “great step forward” that the U.S. “should help facilitate.”

Chris Backemeyer, the deputy assistant secretary for assistance coordination and regional and multilateral affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said economic integration and prosperity in the region are priorities for the administration.

Al Otaiba also said there are opportunities for the Accords to support the Palestinians, but that will require “leadership” and “vision.”

“What the Abraham Accords did was just buy more space for diplomacy and for a two-state solution,” he said. “We cannot solve that. That has to come from [the Israelis and Palestinians] themselves.”

As the House remains deadlocked over government funding with weeks to go until a government shutdown and both chambers mull stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions, Aaron Keyak, the deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, emphasized the importance of proper funding for U.S. diplomatic engagement.

“There’s nothing more important to U.S. leadership abroad and it’s important that we fully fund it for that to happen,” Keyak said. “And [continuing resolutions] just won’t cut it.”

Jewish Insider Washington Correspondent Gabby Deutch contributed reporting.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.