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Expansion of Abraham Accords should not be tied to illegal settlements, US senator says

Democratic lawmaker suggests 'desperate' Gulf states could be enticed to normalise ties with Israel for US arms
US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during a rally for Democratic candidates at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, on 6 November 2022 (AFP)

Expanding the Abraham Accords should not be contingent on illegal Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank, US Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Monday.

“I think you can have these negotiations about the Abraham Accords regardless of any local political issue,” the lawmaker told the Times of Israel.

UAE, Bahrain and Morocco established official ties with Israel as part of the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.

Although many analysts say the Palestinian issue was not a central driver for normalisation, the UAE still billed the establishment of ties with Israel in the context of the conflict with Palestine.

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In 2021, Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, said: “The reason it (the Abraham Accords) happened, the way it happened, at the time it happened was to prevent annexation.”

Considered illegal under international law, Israeli settlement building in the West Bank is seen by many as a slow death-knell for Palestinian aspirations to one day achieve an independent state in the territory. 

The Biden administration has said it is “unequivocally" opposed to an expansion of Israeli settlements on the grounds that they undermine the prospects of a two-state solution.

Gillibrand’s position also puts her at odds with Saudi Arabia, often heralded as the main prize in Israel’s attempts to achieve normalisation with its Arab neighbours.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the kingdom will not normalise relations with Israel until Palestinians are granted statehood.

“True normalisation and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope. Through giving the Palestinians dignity, and that requires giving the Palestinians a state,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

A short video of the comments, in which the minister speaks English, was later shared on the Saudi foreign ministry’s official Twitter account.

Gillibrand said she believed Kuwait could also join the Abraham Accords next. Kuwait has publicly opposed normalising ties with Israel, and its national assembly has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation to ban corporations with ties to Israel from operating in Kuwait. 

Gulf 'desperate' for F-35s

Gillibrand, who sits on the Senate’s Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, suggested she was open to boosting arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to advance the Abraham Accords.

The senator said Gulf states “were desperate” for “F-35s and other technology” that could help them create a regional missile defense against Iran”.

Last year, US military officials held a meeting with counterparts from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel to discuss a plan for joint missile defence amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Some Middle Eastern states, including the UAE, which has embraced public ties with Israel, pushed back on entering into a defensive alliance.

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The Biden administration blocked a plan introduced by the Trump White House to sell the UAE 50 F-35 fighter jets, citing concerns about Abu Dhabi’s ties to China.

Gillibrand suggested she could support F-35 arms sales, including to Saudi Arabia, but clarified the US would need to guarantee defence technology didn’t fall into China’s hands.

“In the context of a broader regional peace agreement [though], I think all these things can be discussed,” she said.

Analysts say that lingering animosity between Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Biden may present another roadblock in Riyadh’s willingness to officially establish ties with Israel, as such a move would give Biden a major geopolitical win.

Gillibrand also appeared to downplay concerns about the far-right makeup of Israel’s new government.

“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has a strong hold on his government,” she said.

While she has her “own concerns about statements and actions by the ultra far-right parts of his coalition”, Gillibrand said, “the prime minister assured us that it was his views, not theirs, that [are] relevant… and I took him at his word”.

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