Israel, UAE ministers in US as Biden seeks to expand normalisation

Israeli's foreign affair minister Yair Lapid speaks at the White House in Washington on Oct 12, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The top diplomats from Israel and the United Arab Emirates are set to hold three-way talks in Washington on Wednesday (Oct 13) as President Joe Biden's administration embraces and looks to expand a normalisation drive.

Concerns about Iran - the spectre of which helped bring together Israel and Gulf states when they established relations last year as part of the Abraham Accords - are expected to be high on the agenda after Mr Biden's early diplomatic overtures to Teheran bore little immediate fruit.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet separately and together with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, following a similar virtual event last month.

Former president Donald Trump considered the so-called Abraham Accords to be a crowning achievement for his administration as the UAE, followed shortly afterwards by Bahrain and Morocco, became the first Arab states to normalise relations with Israel in decades.

Despite their myriad policy differences, the Biden team has given credit to the Trump administration over the Abraham Accords, dismissing criticism that normalisation ignores the plight of the Palestinians.

Mr Trump's approach was also seen as transactional as he agreed to sell state-of-the-art fighter-jets to the UAE and recognise Morocco's controversial claim over Western Sahara - moves that Mr Biden has not changed.

A senior State Department official said the Abraham Accords can "help to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East".

"It's not a substitute to a two-state solution. We hope that normalisation can be leveraged to advance progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

He said the three countries will announce working groups to expand cooperation on energy and water - a scarce resource in the Middle East - as well as religious coexistence.

Both Israel and the UAE have boasted of dividends since signing their accord in the presence of Mr Trump at the White House in September last year.

Israel has made progress in its long-term goal of ending its isolation in its near neighbourhood, while the UAE has voiced hope at US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in new economic activity over the next decade through trade.

The US official said the Biden administration was "actively working to expand" normalisation but declined to give specifics.

Sudan, under heavy arm-twisting from Mr Trump, said last year it would seek relations with Israel but has balked amid heavy pressure on the country's fragile new civilian-backed government.

Quiet disagreement on Iran

Mr Trump is not the only leader to exit since the Abraham Accords were signed. Israel's veteran former right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost power despite the signature international win.

Mr Lapid, a centrist who crafted a coalition to unseat the divisive Mr Netanyahu, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have kept many of the former government's international priorities - including a pressure drive on Iran, whose nuclear programme has been hindered by a slew of sabotage attacks widely blamed on Israel.

Calling for peaceful solutions, Mr Biden has sought to rejoin a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran that was bitterly opposed by Israel and trashed by Mr Trump, leading Teheran to revive contested nuclear work that it had wound down.

Indirect US-Iran talks made no breakthrough before the election of a new hardline government in Teheran, which has yet to return to the negotiations in Vienna.

(From left) Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and Mr Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan wave after the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on Sept 15, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

In a meeting on Tuesday with Mr Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Mr Lapid called for "the need for an alternative plan to the nuclear agreement", according to the Israeli embassy.

But the new government has been mindful to keep disagreements more civil after Israel faced a heavy backlash from Mr Biden's Democratic Party when MR Netanyahu openly campaigned against former president Barack Obama's diplomacy.

"It does seem like there is this mutual recognition, between the US and our partners in the region, foremost among them Israel, that we are much better off tackling this problem together and keeping our disagreements behind closed doors," said Mr Michael Singh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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