A Historic Agreement Peace in the Middle East

News from the Middle East is usually cast in gloom and doom. What a delight that a positive image has emerged with the information that, with the help of the United States, a peace deal to normalize relations has been agreed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  The UAE is a kingdom comprising seven small entities called emirates, possessing oil and natural gas reserves. Its capital Dubai is an important economic center, the most populous city and the business hub of the area.

A three-way phone call on August 13, 2020 announced an Abrahamic accord, salam aleykum v’shalom aleynu, (peace unto you and peace unto us) between the two countries.  This accord, involving direct flights, exchange of embassies, and sets of bilateral agreements, will advance peace in the Middle East, though it leaves the Palestinian issue unresolved. It affirms the validity of the remark by Abba Eban, “History teaches us that men and women behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

This is the third agreement reached by Israel with an Arab country: peace was achieved with Egypt on March 26, 1979, after the Camp David Accords and with Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, and with Jordan on October 26, 1994 with adjustment of land and water disputes.  Otherwise, the Arab states, since 1948, have remained technically at war with Israel. President Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu joins Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin as an Israeli peacemaker.

The historic diplomatic breakthrough has two crucial elements: the UAE agrees to negotiate to a condition of full normalization and diplomatic relations with Israel, and to strengthen trade and technology, while Israel is committed to suspend any plans to “annex” the West Bank. Already, there is cooperation between the countries in the delivery of coronavirus test kits and collaboration between the two sides on technological matters. The countries face many common challenges and will mutually benefit from this historic achievement, which is intended to improve the region, spur economic growth, and introduce technological innovation.

The arrangement does not transform the Middle East, which remains a setting of tribalism, religious animosities,  and  sectarianism, but it is an important step for new opportunities in the area and particularly understanding of two factors: the benefits of collaboration and the danger of Iran that has ambitions to disrupt and control the region. There have already been months of recent economic and social collaboration between Israel with some Arab countries, particularly in coping with COVID-19 and other medical affairs, health care and medical innovation. At least one UAE dignitary was treated in the Sheba medical center near Tel Aviv, the largest hospital in the region, even before COVID-19 struck.

Much of the credit for the major diplomatic agreement goes to President Donald Trump. The Trump administration organized in February 2019 a Middle East security conference in Warsaw attended by most Arab countries. Trump argues that Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in his Vision for Peace proposals of January 2020. Those proposals, though aimed at achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, focused attention on Israel expanding ties with other Arabic countries. It remains to be seen whether this key foreign policy victory will give Trump, usually regarded as pro-Israeli, an electoral boost as he seeks reelection.  

Some factors are important in the context of the agreement. First, it is a diplomatic breakthrough and may advance peace in the Middle East but it is not a solution to the Palestinian issue. The U.S.-Israeli decision to concentrate on economic issues rather than on territorial borders was a crucial factor in obtaining agreement. This policy is the outcome of the belief that the Palestinian issue, despite lip service, is no longer the single most important issue for many Arab countries.

Secondly, the agreement is likely to enhance the role of the UAE as a regional power, a diplomatic leader in the Middle East. It has already been active; intervening in the civil war in Yemen and in the regional embargo against Qatar since 2017.

Thirdly, no doubt attitudes of moderate Arab and Muslim states have changed as a result of the activities of radical extremist Shiites and their proxy militias.  Most important is the perception of a threat from Iran, a country with  nuclear ambitions, and one that has been active in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Moderate countries fear and distrust Iran for both religious and military reasons.  That fear has been expressed by Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, as well as Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia.  The relative moderates all want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Iran naturally has condemned the UAE-Israel accord, arguing that Arab leaders were betraying the Palestinians. Using picturesque language, Iran asserts the accord is a dagger that was struck by UAE in the back of the Palestinian people and all Muslims. Ominously, the Iran Revolutionary Guard warned of “a dangerous future for the UAE for this shameful and evil action.”

It is probable that more Arab countries will follow the UAE example in opening public relations with Israel: the most likely are Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, and possibly Qatar and even Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has some friendly connections with Israel. In May 2020 it closed a symposium aimed at supporting a boycott of Israel. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem visited the country and met with the king in the modern capital, Manama. Bahrain cyclists took part in the bike ride in Israel in 2018. Oman, which has had secret links with Israel, hosted in 2018 a meeting between Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos bin Said, but the latter died earlier this year. Shimon Peres was there in 1996.

Morocco, once the home of a quarter of a million Jews but now has only 2,000 though it has a Jewish museum, has long had secret relationships including sharing of military intelligence and has been the venue  for meeting of Israeli officials and King Hassan II. In 2020, Morocco received three Israeli drones as part of an arms deal. Lebanon might have been interested in public relations if it were not for Hezb’allah, which has been getting stronger.  Though Israel has helped Saudi Arabia in dealing with the revolutionaries in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia was the leader of an Arab initiative in 2002 to recognize Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, it is unlikely that this “jewel in the crown” for Israel will at present reach any accord.

In the past, disaster followed for the peacemakers. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated on October 6, 1981 by a member of Islamic Jihad.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by an extreme Jewish nationalist on November 4, 1995 in Tel Aviv at a rally in support of the Oslo Accords.  Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi plotted to kill King Hussein of Jordan. Though Netanyahu still faces opposition from Israeli settlers disappointed by his decision to suspend annexation,  he is unlikely to experience a fate similar to his predecessors.  

Bibi has in fact benefitted in a number of ways.  His personal trial for corruption has been pushed back. He has avoided going through a fourth election in two years. He has been proved right on a crucial point. Critics in Israel and most foreign pundits have held that Arab states will not make peace with Israel before the Palestinian conflict is solved. In contrast, Bibi argues that Israel, with its strong economy, military, and technology, is best when negotiating from a position of strength not from territorial withdrawal from the West Bank. The logic is that if Israel is strong and powerful the Arabs will come.  

The accord is not a sham, as some political critics have suggested. It takes place as the Middle East is changing due to diminished oil revenue; growing animosity between Sunnis and Shiites; tension between majority populations and minorities; and lessening priority given to the Palestinian issue.

The accord should not become a U.S. partisan affair.  It is understandable that in the present electoral climate opponents do not want to applaud President Trump, but he deserves credit for this policy. Both political sides should welcome the opening on August 16, 2020 of direct telephone services and communication channels between Israel and the UAE.

Image Credit: Ksamahi