Can Trump’s COVID-19 illness derail the Israeli-Arab normalization train?
A billboard depicting US President Donald Trump and his wife Melania with the American flag and the words, "God Bless You" is seen along a highway in Tel Aviv, Israel October 4, 2020.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Even without COVID-19, the timeline for additional deals was tight, but now that timeline has been further shortened.
In 1919, former US president Woodrow Wilson was stricken by the influenza pandemic while participating in Paris’s Versailles Treaty talks, which set out the terms of Germany’s World War I surrender.There are those who speculate that Wilson’s harsh position on Germany was the direct result of his illness, and thus the pandemic inadvertently set the course for the rise of the Nazis.It is an example of how a synthesis of the health of a nation and its leaders with global affairs can create the perfect storm. US President Donald Trump’s bout with COVID-19 similarly comes while his administration is negotiating further Israeli-Arab normalization deals, on the back of two that were formalized on September 15 as part of the Abraham Accords.
When he sat with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on that historic day, Trump promised additional deals. “We are very far down the road with about five additional countries,” he said.Expectation has been so heightened in the last weeks, that it has almost seemed like an additional startling announcement with regard to a new Middle East could be made at any moment. Just last week, the Trump administration scored another success, with the Lebanese-Israeli agreement to hold the first direct talks in 30 years over their maritime dispute.So among the many questions that have arisen since Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, is what its impact, if any, would be on these deals, both the ones that were signed and the ones that would be signed?Timing here is significant. COVID-19 aside, the largest factor that has influenced the schedule of the Abraham Accords is the November 3 election. Trump contracted COVID-19 after his pre-November 3 goals had already been achieved.Part of Trump’s first election campaign and reelection campaign has been the portrayal of the president as a skilled dealmaker. His administration’s ability to broker not one, but two deals, plays into that characterization. Trump has touted the Abraham Accords in his campaign stump speeches, noting that no other president has achieved twin deals between Israel and its neighbors. That is on top of the fact, that outside of the Abraham Accords, Israel only has two existing deals with its neighbors, the 1979 Egyptian accord and the 1994 Jordanian one. The accords, with their biblical focus on uniting the children of Abraham, have also been designed to boost electoral support among Evangelicals, to ensure they vote. Trump has already been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements. The Bahrain and UAE deals have been launched and have bipartisan support, and thus already have the power to sway voters.TRUMP’S ILLNESS itself, therefore, would on the surface of it not appear to make an impact. Similarly, other deals already in the works are under the auspices of a team that remains functional despite Trump’s illness, and would likely continue to function. Just on Friday, while Washington reeled from the news of Trump’s illness, Sudanese leader Mohamed Hamdan Danglo spoke of ties with Israel on the same day he met with US special envoy Donald Booth. Sudan is high on the list of states likely to normalize ties with Israel.Even without COVID, the timeline for additional deals was tight. There are only 31 days until the election. Trump would already have had less time to devote any personal touch needed for those deals as the campaign entered its final weeks.The virus has shortened that already tight timeline, possibly eliminating it, should the illness take a serious turn. But it did so in a period that was already challenging from the perspective of dealmaking. The overall drama of how future deals, as well as how the Bahrain and UAE deals unfold, therefore, remains primarily hostage to the outcome of the November elections in two ways. A brief illness and a Trump electoral win would keep the deals intact and allow for future deals. Or Trump’s illness could sway the election in a clear way for Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden. Now that the taboo on Arab normalization deals with Israel has been broken, Biden in that scenario would likely stand to reap the benefits of Trump’s work and advance it.The biggest risk to the deals is not who is in power in the US, but the growing specter of US electoral chaos. It’s a scenario Israelis know well, having gone from December 2018 to May 2020 without a government. Even now, Netanyahu’s hold on power is thin.Trump’s illness comes as fear has grown in the US about a prolonged contention battle with regard to the results of the elections, particularly given the issues already raised over mail-in ballots and Trump’s refusal to affirm a smooth transition of power. It’s a danger that is particularly acute should the voting results show only a small gap between Trump and Biden. That kind of chaos was already likely to jeopardize both the existing Israeli-Arab deals and future ones. Trump’s illness, whether brief or serious, only adds additional layers to the expected upheaval and makes its impact seem more certain. THE ABILITY of a US president to operate effectively on the foreign stage or, indeed, any stage, really, is dependent on the clear legal recognition of his power. The moment that legality is in doubt, so is any deal or decision, or any future deals, including Israeli-Arab ones.Much like how Israeli political chaos stymied Trump’s peace plans, now US political chaos could play that same role. The danger is not just a delay in the conclusion of any existing deals, but with newly signed ones as well. Bahrain and the UAE have agreed to normalize ties with Israel, but in doing so, they have briefly agreed to disagree on issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a fairly wide gap between Netanyahu and the leaders of Bahrain and the UAE when it comes to the conflict. Israel holds that it can retain all the settlements while both countries have been clear they expect a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Israeli building in the settlements is at an eight-year low due to COVID-19. There have been no approvals of settlement-related projects. The Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria, which advances such work, is next set to meet on October 14.Separately, there has been no large violent outbreak either with Gaza or in the West Bank that would test the alliance of the Arab states to their peace deals with Israel.In short, in this brief time, there has been little to challenge the dreamlike talk of peace between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain.But the situation cannot stay static. In the normative course of events, the White House would play a vital role in assuaging the troubled waters when crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strikes.The US can only be effective if there is someone clearly in charge at the White House to act as referee. That would be impossible in a situation of electoral chaos. One bad round of violence, one large settlement project, one successful de facto annexation drive, and a perfect storm could derail the entire normalization momentum.