September 11, 2022
Center for American Security
America First in the Middle East: The Middle East Peace Project at AFPI
September 11, 2022
- The America First Policy Institute’s Middle East Peace Project builds on the Trump Administration’s approach to the Middle East, particularly the Abraham Accords.
- By addressing today’s new threats to peace, both in the Middle East and at home, this Project takes a holistic view of policymaking as tied to the state of education and public discourse in America.
- Through this approach, the Project sustains not only the innovative policies of the Trump Administration towards the Middle East, but also a domestic environment that fosters an appreciation of the unique role American leadership plays in making peace possible.
Among the signature foreign policy achievements of the Trump Administration was the first peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors in a quarter of a century. The Abraham Accords of late 2020 represented not only a political agreement signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Republic of Sudan, and the Kingdom of Morocco, but also a normalization between the people of those nations—perhaps the first of its scale and scope in the region’s modern history. This normalization continues to evolve and takes the form of public displays of Judaism in Arab society, bilateral free trade agreements, and cutting-edge scientific partnerships between the peoples of these nations.
The America First Policy Institute’s (AFPI) Center for American Security is launching its Middle East Peace Project both to preserve this important legacy and to continue to educate others about its mission amid the new circumstances of today and tomorrow.
The historic nature of the breakthrough accomplished by the Abraham Accords cannot be overstated. It was made possible by strong leadership from the United States. The agreement marked an explicit break with decades of Washington thinking on the Middle East coupled with an explicit commitment— in words and in actions—to stand with America’s friends and against its adversaries. Pursuing both principles has restored our allies’ trust in America to stand by them, thereby creating the foundation for our Middle East partners to trust one another.
The world in 2020 when the Abraham Accords were signed was a different one than it is in 2022. Although the agreement continues to flourish among signatory nations, the Biden Administration has abandoned the Trump Administration’s approach to the Middle East (even avoiding mention of the agreement during much of the administration’s first year). On day one, it began unraveling the Trump Administration’s policies for political reasons. At the same time, the Biden Administration resumed a conciliatory diplomatic approach with Iran to get it into a nuclear deal, and restored funding to the Palestinian Authority (thereby removing the accountability that came with a halt to U.S. funds).
As a result of this approach, America’s adversaries have been emboldened, while America’s friends have become neglected. The Biden Administration’s policies risk further jeopardizing the American vision that made peace and prosperity in the Middle East possible, as well as the security and integrity of America itself.
After describing the traditional Washington approach to the Middle East, this paper will then describe how the Trump Administration’s innovative approach created opportunities for normalizing relations between Israel and its neighbors. It will then explain the current situation that exists under the Biden Administration. In particular, this report will describe how the Biden Administration has reverted to the prior approach as it accommodates a more radical Left that pushes woke policies that demonize Israel. The Trump Administration’s historic accomplishments and the pernicious circumstances of 2022 make the mission of AFPI’s Middle East Peace Project both incredibly timely and desperately needed.
Understanding America First
The America First foreign policy approach is defined by several key principlesAmerica First Policy Institute, 2022. Among these are “[S]tanding firmly with America’s close ally, Israel.” But this principle must begin with a domestic focus: “America Independent and Strong.” Integral to America’s strength and constructive engagement in the world is America’s ability to understand the world and itself, which means eradicating woke teaching and policies that promote hatred of America and Israel.
In the context of Middle East policy, this starts with advocating for American values in America’s communities, campuses, and classrooms, and fighting back against the corrosive Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, “anti-racist” pedagogy, and woke Liberated Ethnic Studies curricular models that demonize Israel and mischaracterize the Middle East’s history. It is also vital to promote interfaith collaboration and dialogue and to advance commercial ties between American states and Israeli communities. Not only is standing with Israel the right policy, but it is also an existential American priority for the protection of America’s children and future.
By unequivocally restoring and advancing America First policies, America can preserve the Trump Administration’s approach towards the Middle East. These policies include promoting unconditional support for Israel, sustaining strong ties with our Gulf allies and acknowledging their great societal strides and deradicalization, and advancing their potential in underpinning global energy security through greater economic integration. In parallel, America should be similarly unwavering in standing up to the Iranian government, holding the Palestinian government and responsible multilateral institutions accountable for rewarding and amplifying our adversaries, and pushing back against the agendas of Communist China and Russia in the Middle East.
Disrupting a Flawed Washington Approach
At a conference in 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said “[t]here will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality” (Times of Israel, 2016). Kerry’s statement represented more than half a century of Washington policy towards the Middle East and his remarks resurfaced when the Abraham Accords agreement was signed.
Despite longstanding bipartisan support for Israel, American policymakers have traditionally been uneasy about any steps that might in any way anger Palestinian leadership. For example, the legislation that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was passed in 1995, but every administration before the Trump Administration had waived it for fear of inciting Palestinian unrest (Public Law 104-45—November 8, 1995; White House, 2017). President Trump was the first president since 1995 to buck the trend—and was immediately and roundly criticized for provoking Palestinian violence (Tobin, 2018).
The fear of provoking a Palestinian government that looked the other way during Palestinian terrorist attacks and even provided funding to terrorists’ families encapsulates the very fallacy at the core of what became known as the “peace process” approach. This approach was introduced by the Clinton Administration, which elevated Palestinian leadership for the first time. The true nature of the Palestinian government’s intentions came to the fore after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 between Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat. The Oslo Peace Accords required that Israel withdraw from territories in the West Bank and Gaza. This agreement brought international recognition, including a Nobel Peace Prize, to Arafat (Timeline, 2004), who had been involved in terrorist attacks that claimed Israeli lives since at least the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The Oslo Accords established the parameters of America’s engagement with Israel for nearly two decades. A shorthand for the Accords was “land for peace” — Israel would exchange territory for promises of peace by Palestinian leadership. However, the expectations from Palestinian leadership went beyond territory to include three other elements; 1) immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood, 2) the resolution of the status of Jerusalem, and 3) the “Right of Return,” which would allow not only for those Arabs who left Israel in 1948 to return, but also for their descendants to migrate there as well.
From Israel’s perspective, meeting all three of these demands was untenable because doing so would mean jeopardizing Israel’s security, sovereignty and Jewish identity. Amid “peace” agreements with Palestinian leadership, Palestinian terrorists launched waves of violent attacks that claimed hundreds of Israeli lives. These included attacks during the Second Intifada of 2001. Palestinian leadership was further in disarray following Arafat’s death in 2005, and elections that brought Hamas—a terrorist organization backed by Iran—into power in Gaza, and the ineffective Mahmoud Abbas into power in the West Bank. With these interlocutors, coupled with another Iran proxy, Hezbollah, aiming rockets at Israel from Lebanon, peace did not seem either practical or probable.
Yet, this was a reality that Washington and the United Nations refused to acknowledge. Both held out hope after hope that an accommodation could be reached with adversaries bent not only on Israel’s destruction, but also on America’s (Hamas Charter, 2009). The United Nations Human Rights Council, whose members include human rights abusers like China and Russia, consistently offered a platform for adversaries to attack Israel. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), meanwhile, not only provided funding for Palestinian textbooks that encourage violence towards Israel (and do not feature Israel on its maps), but even provided material support to Hamas by allowing it to house rockets in UNRWA facilities (Pollowitz, 2014).
During the last five years of the Obama-Biden Administration, America’s adversaries in the region became emboldened when many of the region’s governments (headed by the same individual or family for decades) collapsed nearly overnight. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) established a “state” the size of Pennsylvania, and had a presence in the Sinai Peninsula, in the Gulf, and in parts of Africa. Al-Qaeda also established a prominent base of operations in Syria and Yemen. Amid all of this, the Obama-Biden Administration entered a disastrous nuclear deal with the government of Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), without the consent of Congress, and as Iran was doing everything it could to destabilize the region. This deal unfroze billions of dollars of Iranian assets while Iran repeatedly evaded international monitors and violated the terms of the agreement to halt development of its nuclear program.
The Diplomatic Breakthrough of the Trump Administration
In a roundabout way, the calamitous circumstances that the Obama-Biden administration created in the Middle East had the effect of bringing Israel and its more geographically distant neighbors in the region, the Gulf monarchies, to a similar realization. They saw that despite their differences, they share a common enemy in Iran and in radical Islamist extremism. The Gulf monarchies were going through their own transitions as leadership began to shift hands to a new generation of leaders. These leaders were more attuned to modern sensibilities and demonstrated a willingness to shed the region’s ideological baggage while finding new ways to bring their countries into the 21st century.
Although informal below-the-radar communication between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had already been underway, the Trump Administration’s dramatic shift in vision and policy towards the region introduced a new level of trust from its friends. America’s allies developed a new confidence in both the ability of the United States to advance shared aims and in the potential of doing so with greater regional collaboration (Julian, 2006). This paved the way for unprecedented coordination on shared priorities, and ultimately the historic achievement that became the Abraham Accords agreement.
For the first time, the United States government took an unabashed and unapologetically categorical approach by recognizing and fully supporting its friends in the region and systematically standing up to its adversaries. President Trump’s very first official overseas visit was to Saudi Arabia, where he addressed the heads of many of the world’s Muslim-majority nations. That speech opened with an echo of his first address to the American people as President,
In my inaugural address to the American People, I pledged to strengthen America’s oldest friendships, and to build new partnerships in pursuit of peace. I also promised that America will not seek to impose our way of life on others, but to outstretch our hands in the spirit of cooperation and trust (The White House, 2017.
Although stymied by internal opposition, the Trump Administration quickly and boldly undid the damaging Obama-era policies and reversed decades of U.S. policy towards the Middle East. After initially waiving the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 like his three predecessors had done, President Trump announced in December 2017 that he would implement it and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On May 14, 2018, the date of Israel’s Independence Day, senior Trump Administration officials held a ceremony officially opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. In March 2019, President Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – a strategically-vital mountainous region bordering Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan that Israel captured during the Six Day War in 1967 but whose control Syria had disputed since then.
Alongside these clear moves in defense of Israel’s security and sovereignty, the Trump Administration relentlessly stood up to America’s—and our friends’—adversaries in the region. In May 2018, President Trump withdrew from the Obama-Biden’s deeply flawed nuclear deal with Iran. In its place, the Trump Administration instituted a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions aimed at addressing not only its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but also its malign activities—including being the world’s lead state sponsor of terrorism.
In March 2018, President Trump signed the Taylor Force Act into law (Cortellessa, 2018). The legislation, named after a veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq Wars who was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel, called for conditioning U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority on the latter’s commitment to stop rewarding terrorism. Specifically, the Palestinian Authority’s Martyr’s Fund, dubbed the “pay to slay” program, offers government stipends to families of Palestinian terrorists. During the following summer, the Trump Administration cut funding to the Palestinian Authority and cut funding from UNRWA for providing material support to terrorism. In June 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body that has provided a platform for Iran and other violators of human rights to criticize Israel (O’Reilly, 2018). In early 2019, with the success of America’s military and its partners in the Defeat-ISIS Coalition, President Trump declared that ISIS’s territorial stronghold had been completed destroyed (Faulders, 2019).
In 2020, many of the Trump Administration’s policies on the Middle East began to reach fruition. In January, President Trump, standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unveiled the “Peace to Prosperity” Plan, with both an economic and political roadmap towards achieving lasting peace for both Israeli and Palestinian people (Peace to Prosperity, 2020). This plan reflected the security needs of Israel, while promoting needed economic opportunities for the Palestinian people in a manner that restored accountability to its leadership.
Earlier that month, after Iran-backed militias killed an American contractor in Iraq (and after months of saber rattling by the Iranian regime), President Trump authorized the strike that killed Iran’s terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani—an individual who ran Iran’s network of militias throughout the region and whom prior American presidents refused to pursue (Gilsinan, 2020). And in late February 2020, the Trump Administration entered into an agreement with the Taliban, establishing the first step towards an orderly and conditions-based withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan after nearly two decades in the country.
Israel and America’s Gulf allies noticed not only meaningful words, but also actions. The Trump Administration cared about stopping common adversaries just as much as it was serious about a meaningful and lasting peace in the Middle East that reflected the needs of the people of the region rather than obsolescent Washington thinking.
On September 15, 2020, the Trump Administration made history by brokering the first agreement between Israel and its neighbors in a quarter of a century as the governments of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords agreement. The Kingdom of Morocco, Kosovo, and Sudan soon joined the three signatory nations, as well as Egypt and Jordan—legacy nations—to normalize relations with Israel and its people (Boyd, 2020).
The Middle East in the Context of a New America
The Biden Administration entered with a knee-jerk rejection of nearly all Trump Administration policies, and the Middle East portfolio was no exception. With most of the same Middle East team in place from the Obama-Biden Administration, the administration had a clear opportunity to restart the work they had begun. Its top priority was halting the “maximum pressure” campaign and conciliatory engagement with Iran to get them into a nuclear deal.
For much of the last 20 months, the Biden Administration resisted any mention of the Abraham Accords and awkwardly marked the first anniversary of the signing of the agreement (Ferziger, 2021). While a candidate, President Biden promised to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE returned the favor by reportedly refusing to answer the phone when President Biden sought their assistance during the early days of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (Spungin, 2022).
It took President Biden 18 months to make his first visit to the Middle East as president, a three-day stop in Saudi Arabia and Israel. This trip had the clear, if unstated, aim of securing an increase in oil production from OPEC to offset the surge in gas prices. Leaving empty-handed, his visit became memorable for its uncomfortable moments: his fist bump with the Saudi Crown Prince, his public shaming of the Saudi foreign minister, and his public divergence from Israel’s leadership on how best to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At the same time, the Biden Administration undermined efforts to hold the Palestinian Authority accountable by restoring U.S. funding to it. Despite repeated requests by Israeli counterparts to the contrary, the Biden Administration consistently pushed to open a Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. Ultimately, in July 2022, it opened an “Office of Palestinian Affairs” at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem – the furthest it was able to go in elevating the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, during the last 20 months, Palestinian terrorist groups waged the most severe rocket campaign against Israel since 2014 and incited a wave of terrorist acts across cities in Israel in the spring of 2022 (Ben Zion, 2021; Kuperwasser, 2022).
As the Biden Administration stumbles through its approach to the Middle East, its progressive acolytes on America’s campuses and in America’s communities have enabled a new version of anti-Israel rhetoric and anti-Semitism to emerge. Woke curricula and policies have now taken root in classrooms at both the university and K-12 levels.
Woke educators have undermined American security interests by implementing curricula that abide by the conceptual framework of “intersectionality.” This model contends that all modes of conflict can be reduced to interconnected, replicable forms of social division as well as interconnected and overlapping forms of discrimination that results in perpetual systematic oppression. Critical to intersectionality is the premise that oppression engenders all power imbalances worldwide. Put differently, the more power a country possesses, the more of the “oppressor” they are, and the less power one possesses, the more of the “victim” they are (Taylor, 2019).
Applied to the Middle East, this model has produced disastrous consequences. American students are frequently taught that Israel, being more technologically and militarily capable than its Palestinian neighbors, is engaged in “oppression” and “apartheid.” These ideas are being taught even though Israel is a free and democratic society teeming with ethnic and religious diversity, and despite the fact that Israel’s advanced technologies, such as the Iron Dome, safeguard the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Indeed, Israel’s Arab citizens are among the freest in the region.
This “might makes wrong” mentality has also had the effect of promoting antisemitism in American classrooms. The false sense that Israel is engaging in apartheid against Palestinians, and the intersectional argument that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is indistinguishable from other global persecutions against minority populations, are regularly used as pretexts to portray Jews as racists, settler colonialists (despite the Jewish people’s indigeneity to Israel), and Nazis (Tobin, 2022). Even in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, progressives rushed to breed further tensions against American Jews through a concept known as “Deadly Exchange,” which falsely implicated Israel in the deadly tactics used by Derek Chauvin and other rogue American police officers (Hollander, 2020).
These sentiments are no longer confined to the ivory tower. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, “anti-racist” pedagogy, and reimagined ethnic studies curricula are now potent vehicles for Jew-hatred to infiltrate schools, large corporations, and mainstream discourse (Greene, 2021). From their heavy-handed promotion of anti-Zionism and antisemitism in the country’s eminent institutions, America’s most prominent progressives, from the Ivy League professorate to the thought leaders of social justice initiatives, have formed the backdrop of rising antisemitism throughout America. The year 2021 was reported to be the most antisemitic year nationwide in the last decade (The State of Antisemitism in 2021, 2022), and between January and February 2022, New York City, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, saw antisemitic incidence jump by 400% (Henry, 2022). Meanwhile, a record number of anti-BDS resolutions were introduced and passed at American universities in 2021 (BDS Resolutions and Statements, 2022). This unsettling reality has silenced, alienated, and endangered American Jews, many of whom are now more apprehensive about identifying with their heritage. At the same time, woke educators moralize about the need to foster inclusive spaces for Americans of all stripes.
Through it all, the establishment has struggled to address the gravity of these issues. Jewish advocacy organizations formed at the onset or in the aftermath of twentieth-century antisemitism have proven incapable of combatting today’s rising tide of antisemitism or, in some cases, have themselves been found to advance woke priorities (Grossman, 2022). Traditional media outlets continuously promote anti-Israel hostilities while framing antisemitism as solely a far-right phenomenon—debilitating good-faith efforts to fight back against it.
So long as American children are taught to disregard the Middle East’s history, shun Israel, and antagonize the Jewish people, America will lose sight of who its allies are and will thus be far less capable of standing with them in their time of need.
Given how interconnected Middle East stability and peace is to America’s own security and prosperity, it is all too evident how misunderstanding the region —the need for America’s constructive engagement there, and the need to stand with friends and stand against adversaries—impacts America’s engagement beyond the region and our Nation’s own security and prosperity.
The Middle East Peace Project
The Middle East Peace Project is informed by the following tenets:
- America stands with its friends. Our friends in the region, especially the State of Israel, depend on unwavering support from the United States. Not only does the United States share a special bond with Israel, but Israel serves as a model ally and example of burden-sharing. The $3 billion the United States annually spends on Israel’s defense is an investment for the United States that pays dividends through innovative technology, research, and advanced military tactics. These resources play a key role in deterring Iran and other terrorists and directly nurture stability, freedom, and prosperity in the region.
- Deterring adversaries in the Middle East makes Americans safer. Not only is the Iranian government the single greatest threat to peace and stability in the region, but stopping it is integral to keeping Americans safe, both at home and around the world. Before 9/11, Iran was the source of the largest terrorist attack against Americans (the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut). Today, Iran remains the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, and its nuclear ambitions significantly endanger all nations around the world. As a result, it is imperative to restore “maximum pressure” on Iran and ensure our allies have the resources they need to defend themselves from its threats. Deterring Iran does not mean using military force (unless necessary), but rather means marshalling all elements of national power, taking a holistic view of the threats Iran poses, and addressing all of them consistently. These threats include its nuclear ambitions, sponsorship of terrorism, and human rights abuses.
- American dollars should not help terrorists or their sponsors. America should never be sending its citizens’ taxpayer dollars to sponsors of terrorism. This is why it is vital to sustain the Taylor Force Act, which President Trump signed into law. This measure and others will help prevent American taxpayer funds from going towards the Iranian government, the Palestinian Authority, and other groups that funnel dollars into terrorist groups.
- It is America’s responsibility to identify new opportunities for collaboration among friends. Peace and prosperity in the Middle East depend on building new opportunities for the exchange of ideas, deepening of commercial ties, and aligning objectives with those of the United States. This collaborative approach abandons the failed thinking of the past and charts new pathways for previously adversarial nations to become allies.
- A culture of patriotism at home informs American exceptionalism abroad. The preponderance of the anti-Israel BDS movement in academia and the corporate world, as well as the increasing promotion of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), “anti-racism,” and Liberated Ethnic Studies curricula, produce a warped view that undermines both the America-Israel partnership and the American-Jewish experience. To project confidence abroad, we must first tackle these misleading characterizations of American society that vilify American Jews and Zionists as “oppressors.” By weeding out these corrosive ideologies from our institutions, we will renew patriotism at home and promote American exceptionalism in the Middle East.
Based on these assumptions, the Middle East Peace Project commits to the following priorities:
- Creating Opportunities for Collaboration Among Friends. Through the Abraham Accords, Israel and its neighbors developed genuine collaboration for the first time, which led to measurable improvements in the strength of their economies and societies. Going forward, we need to continue facilitate the opportunities to build on the medical, energy, commercial, and cultural collaborations already underway between Israel and its neighbors.
- Standing with America’s Friends and Against its Adversaries. The Abraham Accords was founded on the basis of trust among its signatories, and their trust in the United States to always stand by them. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration stood up to its adversaries. This included the “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian government and the landmark killing of terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani. Going forward, as our allies continue to face threats from Iran and its proxies, the United States must educate other nations about effective policies for containing Iran and stopping its malign activities throughout the region and the world.
- Showing Support Through Actions, Not Just Words. The Trump Administration did not pay lip service in voicing support for Israel, but instead demonstrated a true commitment by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and by cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian government because of its support for terrorism. Going forward, the United States must retain these same policies and prevent any premature elevation of the Palestinian government without accountability for their support to terrorism.
- Embracing New Perspectives to Resolving Longstanding Problems. The Trump Administration achieved peace because it abandoned the longstanding Washington “peace process” approach.
- Promoting American Exceptionalism in Our Schools. Open, vigorous debate is a hallmark of the American educational system. The free exchange of ideas among America’s youth is key to the development of our country’s future generations of leaders and thinkers. Nevertheless, school curricula nationwide must be distilled from an unapologetic love of country and respect for its peoples, including the American-Jewish community. The Trump Administration recognized this and sought to defend American students from the bewildering, malevolent ideologies perpetuated by woke administrators and rogue academics. The promotion of a positive American vision in our classrooms would restore courage and political efficacy among the American public and is therefore vital to elevating America’s reputation within the Middle East.
- Combatting Ideologies That Endanger America’s Global Standing. The rise of woke ideology in America’s schools and cultural institutions directly undermines our allies and imperils America’s priorities in the Middle East. This sentiment was demonstrated through President Trump’s executive actions surrounding antisemitism, which underscored the importance of using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a basis for quelling antisemitism at universities and other government-funded institutions. It is crucial to combat the wave of leftist indoctrination that has swept over our schools, corporations, and government and instilled a regressive outlook on the Middle East, Israel, and American Jewry. The values that shape our children’s educations and civil discourse must be in concert with our priorities abroad.