The US State Department insists that it’s a nonissue. Critics say it’s vindictive and marketing malpractice.
An awkward exchange between the department’s spokesman and a journalist and a pair of internal department emails call into question whether State is trying to minimize the impact of arguably the most transformational foreign policy achievement of former President Donald Trump by reducing the usage of the phrase “Abraham Accords.”
“It is disappointing that the Biden administration appears unwilling to call the historic agreements reached between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan by their proper name – the Abraham Accords. The scope and potential of these agreements, brought about by President Trump, Jared Kushner and others, including the courageous leaders of all of the countries involved, is tremendous,” Jason Greenblatt, the former White House envoy to the Middle East who played a significant role in helping create the foundation and lay the groundwork for the Abraham Accords, told The Media Line.
The Abraham Accords were a series of US-brokered peace, cooperation and diplomatic and normalization agreements between America, Israel and, respectively, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Sudan and Morocco later signed additional normalization agreements with Israel.
“I hope that the Biden administration will put significant effort into further advancing the Abraham Accords for the benefit of the entire region. The region is ready for tremendous, positive change, and the Abraham Accords is a major step forward for the region, especially our important allies and friends in the region,” said Greenblatt.
In April, Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matthew Lee noticed State Department spokesman Ned Price repeatedly referring to the Abraham Accords – the common vernacular for the series of declarations – simply as “normalization agreements.” Lee repeatedly asked Price what he called the agreements before eventually getting Price to say them by name, and that State wasn’t averse to using the term, but added that the department called them “normalization agreements.”
Over the weekend, the Washington Free Beacon reported that a review of a pair of internal State Department emails detailed to employees that the agreements will no longer be referred to as the Abraham Accords but only as “normalization agreements.” No specific reason was detailed in those emails. The report also claimed that the Abraham Accords moniker was being scrubbed from State Department talking points, documents, statements, and official communications.
“The Biden administration’s attempt to diminish and marginalize the Abraham Accords by referring to them as ‘normalization deals’ is both unfortunate and insidious,” former Deputy National Security Adviser for Middle East and North African Affairs Victoria Coates said.
“The term ‘normalization’ is even worse – as they are well aware, the term carries a regional stigma, particularly with the Palestinians, of being a sellout. The Abraham Accords are so much more and should be given the same bipartisan support as the peace treaties between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt reached by Democrat administrations,” she said.
In response to an inquiry from The Media Line, a State Department spokesperson replied only that, “We refer to the agreements as the Abraham Accords.”
A State Department official who refused to be identified insisted to The Media Line that there was no internal effort to minimize the usage of the Abraham Accords terminology, and when the department refers to “normalization agreements,” it is simply describing the documents for what they are.
“This is a nonstory to fit a certain narrative. We’re not trying to diminish anything,” the official, sounding exasperated, told The Media Line.
The official did not deny the existence of the emails referred to in the Free Beacon report, only saying that the official had not seen them.
“There are a series of normalization agreements. That’s what they are – normalization agreements. Collectively, they are referred to as the Abraham Accords. We use both. Every time we refer to the Iran nuclear accord as the ‘nuclear accord’ instead of the ‘JCPOA’ [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed under former President Barack Obama], why don’t you make a big deal of it?” the official replied.
Of course, Abraham Accords is arguably a bit catchier than JCPOA, and critics of the Biden administration insist that the reluctance to regularly use Abraham Accords, let alone make a conscious effort to minimize use of the term, is an attempt to belittle Trump’s diplomatic achievement.
Not so, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in testimony related to foreign policy strategy before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday. Blinken said he hadn’t heard about State officials being told not to say “Abraham Accords.”
“It’s certainly not coming from me. I’m happy to refer to them as the Abraham Accords. I think they were an important achievement, one that not only do we support but we’d like to build on,” Blinken said.
Critics aren’t seeing that enthusiasm, though. On the contrary, they say when it comes to China, Russia, Iran and the Middle East, the administration of US President Joe Biden is determined to scratch every policy of their predecessors.
“Primarily it has to do with disowning anything from the Trump administration. I think there’s some sort of philosophical argument that whatever the Trump administration did must be wrong, so they have to do the reverse,” Len Khodorkovsky, former deputy assistant secretary of state for digital strategy and chief marketing officer for economic diplomacy, told The Media Line.
A State Department official speaking only on background told the Free Beacon that, “This administration is not focused on what these agreements are called, but what they mean.”
But Khodorkovsky says that beyond the policy implications, ditching the Abraham Accords moniker is simply bad branding.
“They’ve inherited a global brand. They’ve inherited something recognizable, not just by the parties that signed those agreements, but by the entire globe. When it comes to Middle East peace, you say Abraham Accords and everybody knows what that means. So, if you have a global brand, to throw that in the garbage makes no sense from a marketing perspective,” said Khodorkovsky.
Of course, Trump himself put a great emphasis on marketing and branding based on his business history and his vision of himself as a master marketer. Bringing that kind of thinking into a more traditionally diplomatic-focused entity like the Biden State Department was going to be a hard sell.
“Did we attempt at marketing the Abraham Accords specifically? I think there was a general recognition of the value of branding in the previous administration and Abraham Accords is just one of those things,” said Khodorkovsky.
“I’ll give you another example: the Clean Network, which was our global effort to secure 5G communications around the world. So, I think we did pay attention to those things and we recognized from a marketing perspective that there is value in creating something that everybody could recognize around the world because it has usefulness. That’s why corporations use it. And not paying attention to branding and marketing is not just the Biden administration’s blind spot, but it’s a blind spot for government in general. The US government has the best product, but the worst marketing. Yes, the Trump administration paid attention to the marketing component of our policy. And it would behoove the Biden administration and every American administration to pay attention to that because it brings value to the policy that they’re trying to achieve,” said Khodorkovsky.
The likelihood that a State Department focused on old-time diplomacy is suddenly going to become concerned with patented slogans, though, is about the same as … Israel one day normalizing relations with the Arab world.