Some observers seem to assume that the recent agreement to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates means the end of efforts to achieve a reasonable, two-state outcome to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Some Israelis may hope that improving relations with Arab states would obviate the need for further negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yet the Palestinians are not going anywhere, and the reality is that Israel cannot retain its core character as both a Jewish and democratic state if it ignores the Palestinian issue. Fortunately, those who still seek a two-state solution have no cause for despair. The Emirati-Israeli breakthrough could be a much-needed bridge to overcoming the current impasse. Skillful diplomacy could use normalization as a base for renewed momentum toward two states.
History and common sense both show that Arab states that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel play a more active role in supporting Palestinian aspirations than those who do not. Arab states that have normalized relations, namely Egypt and Jordan, have mostly used their peace agreements with Israel to help facilitate Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and discourage both parties from taking unwise steps.
Egypt and Israel have worked closely together quietly to keep a truce between Israel and Gaza going for the past year and a half. Jordan has, in the past, partnered with the United States to shape Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic discussions. Most recently, a warning by Jordan’s King Abdullah II against Israel annexing portions of the West Bank played an important role in taking that option off the table. Israel had something to lose with Jordan and did not want to incur the risk.
The UAE-Israel deal provides the opportunity for the UAE to play a similar role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace. This already began with the deal itself, which the UAE conditioned on annexation not taking place with the support of the Trump administration. (Joe Biden has already expressed his opposition to annexation, meaning the idea would be off the table for the next four years regardless of the result of the presidential election.)
Burying annexation keeps the prospects for two states alive and, in the shorter term, is essential for restoring the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that has been a key stabilizing force in the West Bank for more than a decade.
Additional Arab states that speak directly to Israel may be better positioned to influence its leaders and people than those that boycott. Conversely, there is little evidence that blocking ties between the Arab world and Israel would succeed in obtaining Israeli concessions.
Moreover, Arab states with resources, such as the UAE, could provide important incentives to the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, this would mean dramatically scaled-up economic assistance to stabilize the institutions that can, as negotiations progress, become the building blocks of a future Palestinian state. The UAE has given generously to the Palestinians in the past and, the current spat aside, can quickly resume and increase assistance.
Supportive Arab states could also influence Palestinian leaders to adopt more realistic positions on certain final-status issues, such as acknowledging that Palestinian refugees cannot return to Israel according to pre-1967 borders and that Israel should be recognized as a Jewish state. They could also persuade Palestinians to definitively reject the use of violence.
A U.S. administration that reestablishes support for a realistic two-state outcome can try to marshal the UAE breakthrough to supplement its own diplomatic efforts. Two states are not achievable in the short term due a variety of factors, ranging from differences between the leaders on both sides to divisions within both Palestinian and Israeli societies. Looming Palestinian succession is another complicating factor.
The key is to use the breakthrough to expand the circle of peace. This means taking significant gradual steps on the ground to convince both Palestinians and Israelis that the other side is serious, while describing an end state that delivers true (demilitarized) statehood for Palestinians alongside security for Israel.
That will require shelving many aspects of the Trump plan. In its current form, it denies the Palestinians a viable state with even a modicum of sovereignty. It also harms Israeli security by drawing circuitous new boundaries, increasing the likelihood of friction, and failing to disentangle Israeli and Palestinian communities, creating a one-state reality that endangers Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.
Working toward two states is good for a robust U.S.-Israel relationship as well. The relationship has deepened over the decades based on common regional interests and shared democratic values. Common interests bind governments, but shared values bind peoples. Helping Palestinians advance toward and ultimately achieve their right to statehood would boost Israel’s credibility among its American critics.
American support and Israel’s economic dynamism have enabled Arab states to realize that Israel — as a senior Emirati official put it — is “an opportunity, not an enemy.” As Israel becomes more accepted in the region, Arab states, Israel and the Palestinians, with strong U.S. leadership, can work together to resolve one of the unresolved problems of the Middle East.
David Makovsky, the Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as a senior adviser focusing on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the State Department during the Obama administration. Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration.