Pro-Israel lobby Aipac pushes to expand Abraham Accords

US group scores first major victories on Capitol Hill this year

Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US president Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan are seen during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House, September 15, 2020. AP Photo
Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former US president Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan are seen during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House, September 15, 2020. AP Photo

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has secured two of its major lobbying priorities on Capitol Hill, including legislation pushing the Biden administration to expand the Abraham Accords.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 18 senators introduced the Israel Relations Normalisation Act of 2021, which would require the Biden administration to try to extend the Abraham Accords to countries that have not yet established ties with the close US ally.

“The Abraham Accords between Israel and like-minded nations have the potential to fundamentally change the Middle East for the better,” James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, said after introducing the bill.

“Former opponents and rivals have come together to address shared challenges, and I am proud to co-sponsor this legislation that reaffirms the United States’ commitment to strengthen and expand these historic agreements.”

Aipac cancelled its annual summit, typically held in March, this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thousands of Aipac activists typically descend on Capitol Hill after the summit to push Congress to enact the group’s agenda.

But this month the group’s volunteers lobbied senators, representatives and congressional staffers online.

The Israel Relations Normalisation Act is one of five major items on Aipac’s agenda this year.

Mr Risch’s office said the bill would require the State Department, Defence Department and the US Agency for International Development to co-ordinate on a strategy convincing more countries to normalise relations with Israel.

The bill would require the State Department to submit a strategy to Congress that includes “a detailed description” of how the US government would use its diplomatic influence to convince other countries to forge ties with Israel.

The Israel Relations Normalisation Act, Aipac also succeeded in convincing senators to take a tough line on Iran as the Biden administration struggles to revive the nuclear deal.

The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco normalised relations with Israel during the administration of president Donald Trump.

After signing the Abraham Accords last year, the UAE struck a $23 billion arms deal with the US that included 50 F-35 fighter jets.

Washington also removed Sudan from its state sponsor of terror list, unlocking $81 million in humanitarian assistance, and the Trump administration recognised Morocco’s claim over disputed parts of the Sahara.

While the UAE arms deal remains under review, Sudan remains off the terror list and President Joe Biden has not yet reversed the Trump administration’s position on the disputed Sahara region.

Beyond the Israel Relations Normalisation Act, Aipac also succeeded in convincing senators to take a tough line on Iran as the Biden administration struggles to revive the nuclear deal.

Mr Risch joined Lindsey Graham, foreign relations committee chairman Bob Menendez and 40 other senators in a letter to Mr Biden last week urging him to take a tough line on Iran through his administration’s nuclear diplomacy.

“While we may have differing views on [the nuclear deal] and the overall approach of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, we must confront the reality that Iran has accelerated its nuclear activity in alarming ways, including increasing its centrifuge research and production and enriching uranium up to 20 per cent,” the senators wrote.

“We believe it is critical you consult with our European allies, Israel and Gulf security partners on a path forward with Iran.

"The recent Abraham Accords provide hope that our partners and allies can work together to further regional co-operation.”

The Aipac-backed letter also calls on Mr Biden to “use the full force of our diplomatic and economic tools in concert with our allies and the United Nations Security Council” to also address Iran’s ballistic missile programme.

Mr Biden has vowed to lift the Trump-era sanctions on Iran if Tehran returns to compliance with its end of the bargain.

But he has promised to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for regional proxies in a follow-on agreement after reviving the nuclear deal.

Mr Biden is also coming under pressure from the more dovish wing of the Democratic party.

Jewish Insider reported on Friday that Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, two Democratic senators, are circulating a letter calling for a “compliance for compliance” approach to serve “as a starting point to reset US relations with Iran” – less stringent criteria than those outlined in the Aipac letter.

Reuters also quoted a US official on Friday stating Washington could lift sanctions before Iran returns to full compliance, as long as both sides agree “on what steps are going to be taken mutually".

But Aipac has plenty of room to secure other victories on Capitol Hill.

The lobby group is also pushing members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter backing aid for Israel and opposing growing efforts to make the country's military aid depend on human rights concerns.

Aipac is also backing legislation to sanction foreign countries and people who back Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement, and another bill to encourage the US and Israel to collaborate on treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Updated: March 30, 2021 12:33 AM

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