Aryeh Lightstone, author of Let My People Know and former senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador to Israel under the previous U.S. administration, spoke to an October 16 Middle East Forum Webinar (video). The following is a summary of his comments:
The Abraham Accords brokered under the Trump administration ushered in normalization agreements between Israel and five Arab or Muslim majority countries: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kosovo, Sudan, and Morocco, with more countries poised to follow. Unfortunately, the Biden administration altered course in the Middle East, thereby creating a power vacuum in two significant ways.
First, Washington's eagerness to reenter the JCPOA emboldened Iran and its terror proxies in the region. Second, the administration failed to follow through with the Abraham Accord commitments, which would have drawn those countries closer to the U.S. This was evident in Washington's slow response to the 2022 drone attack on the UAE and delayed reaction to varied attacks launched against Saudi Arabia. As a result, the countries in the region concluded that the U.S. lacks a coherent foreign policy. Over the past three years, the region has changed from "a place [where] the trajectory was peace and prosperity" to "confusion, chaos, and much worse."
The Saudis and Israelis erred by publicly entering into normalization agreement negotiations, as they drew the attention of regional bad actors intent on sabotaging those talks. The Biden administration's insistence on making the Palestinian Arabs a "focal point" endangered the agreement's success. Washington also removed the word "Abraham" from the Accords, negating a "fundamental principle" of the agreement. Instead, the renamed Negev Forum "forced" the Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians to take part in ways that removed their ability to choose, thereby fomenting "unrest, indecisiveness, and chaos."
With the Biden administration's urging, Israel's previous government signed a maritime agreement with Lebanon last year that further weakened Israel and damaged its regional reputation for projecting strength. The agreement was regarded as a "bad deal" by its critics because it signaled weakness, which can be fatal in the Middle East, where "you only succeed when you are strong."
Thus, the stage was set for Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization, to follow through on its stated goal of murdering Jews in the most depraved way. Hamas's atrocities in its rampage in southern Israel just over a week ago, and which they brazenly filmed and publicized, were barbaric acts against Jews not seen since the Nazis. "Almost all of the thoughts of the region as they were established three years ago changed," and Israel declared war.
Israel's political fissures have been replaced with a "new Israel" joined in a united mission to eradicate the terror entity next door in Gaza. The Jewish state has lived for decades with relentless terror that claimed the lives of its citizens, while rockets – many intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system – targeted its cities and towns. To date, these terrorist acts pale in comparison to the evil ravages perpetrated by Hamas. In the aftermath, a few Arab Muslim countries issued statements criticizing Hamas's "barbaric terrorism" — a welcome change from previous declarations by Muslim countries that, as a bloc, reflexively condemned Israel.
Notwithstanding the past three years, President Biden's empathetic speech supporting Israel's right to defend itself, as well as his sending aircraft carriers to the region, befits the leader of the free world. Egypt, on the other hand, which shares a southern border with the Gaza Strip, shirked its obligation to Gazans by denying them a humanitarian corridor at the Rafah Crossing. Palestinians heeded Israel's warning to vacate Hamas's northern strongholds in Gaza. If the U.S. fails to impress the urgency upon Egypt and move it to act, al-Sisi and the Arab world will bear full responsibility for the outcome.
Despite the "failed experiment" of Palestinian self-governance in Gaza, not one Arab country in the Middle East is willing to take in "their brethren Palestinians." It is now up to the U.S. to "coalesce" regional allies and lead the Arab Muslim world to "do the right thing," specifically by enlisting the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan in a joint effort to enable the departure of Palestinians from Gaza.
Iran's proxy Hezbollah, entrenched along Israel's northern border with Lebanon, is threatening to open a second front by launching its 150,000 rockets, including precision guided missiles provided by Iran, against the Jewish state if Gaza is attacked. A war with Hezbollah is unlikely, because Israel's "deterrence is that Lebanon will be wiped off the face of the map."
Once Israel's offensive is fully under way, the U.S. will need to withstand European pressure and give Israel the freedom to execute its mission. Although Qatar is a non-NATO ally that hosts a U.S. military base, it also openly hosts the Hamas leadership. In his call for "day of rage" demonstrations across the West last week, Doha-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh perpetrated a crime by inciting violence. The administration will have to decide how to treat Qatar which, in addition, tested America's will by publicizing a meeting between Iran's foreign minister and Haniyeh.
Israel has undergone a paradigm shift in that it will no longer tolerate such a high level of risk-taking. A future question is whether the U.S. will nurture the Abraham Accords or revert to its usual "untenable" two-state solution. In a region where survival is dependent on clarity about "who . . . and what you are," a new Israel that refuses to "cower" will be an asset for the Abraham Accords and will be recognized as a "regional military superpower."
The existential shock to Israel's system has focused its population to act with one mind, intent on defending itself. With the eruption of pro-Hamas rallies across American campuses, Jewish Americans face an unprecedented rise in antisemitism and escalating threats. Iran, "the perpetrator of all these problems," directs its proxies against the West and is now placing Israel literally "at the front lines of the war . . . against the free world." Fence-sitters are going to have to choose sides. "This is not a war of Israel and its neighbors. This is a war of civilization. It's between good and evil."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.