Today’s announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates have agreed to establish full diplomatic relations is a milestone for peace in the Middle East. The U.A.E. is the most powerful of America’s allies in the Persian Gulf, after Saudi Arabia. And it does nothing significant on the diplomatic front without closely coordinating with the Saudis. That means that a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia could be next, and coming soon.
To put it in perspective, let’s dial the clock back to the Six-Day War of 1967. After Israel simultaneously shattered the armies of half a dozen Arab states massing on its borders, the Arab League met in Sudan to adopt “The Three No’s”: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. That war left Israel in possession of most of what we now call the “occupied territories” (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) in addition to the whole of the Sinai peninsula.
The half century since then has been filled with war and turmoil, and the vast majority of Arab states have stuck doggedly to the Three No’s of Khartoum. But there have been a few major milestones for peace — each of them quite similar to today’s.
The first came with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s brilliant diplomacy in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which further strengthened Israel’s hand and made the U.S. the Middle East’s preeminent power. Their diplomacy laid the groundwork for the Camp David Accords of 1978, which brought full diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel — and the return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt.
No coalition of Arab states can hope to defeat Israel without Egypt. Making peace between those two countries thereby ended forever the era of major state-on-state wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Turmoil continued, of course, but a single week of fighting between major armies can kill many times the total number of people who have died in all the Palestinian intifadas and terror campaigns since the 1980s.
The next major milestone for peace was the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan in 1994. That, too, was largely the result of American diplomacy cashing in on another war (the Persian Gulf War) that dramatically strengthened both Israel’s position and that of the United States. Its security concerns satisfied, Israel again made lasting concessions for peace, this time with a neighbor whose population is majority Palestinian Arabs. For a time, it even seemed that an end to Israel’s occupation of the territories seized in 1967 might be at hand, and the Oslo “peace process” began.
The peace process did not fare well, chiefly because Israel made the mistake of bringing the unreformed terrorist Yasser Arafat back from exile to negotiate on the Palestinian side. It came to a complete halt during the Obama administration because Obama totally misunderstood what makes the U.S. so indispensable to the peace process. Tempted to think that his own sense of justice was the missing link, Obama tried to be an impartial arbiter. But the Arabs and Israelis couldn’t care less what Obama thought was fair. That’s not why they talk to the United States.
Anyone — you or I, for example — could play the role of impartial arbiter. What the U.S. can do that no other entity in the world can do is to underwrite the security risks of a peace deal for Israel. Israel will make far greater concessions for peace with the U.S. standing strongly behind it than without. That’s what makes the U.S. a valuable mediator to both the Israelis and the Arabs.
Today’s announcement demonstrates all of this. Where Obama cozied up to Iran and cooled towards Israel, President Trump has unabashedly supported Israel while confronting Iran. This peace agreement has come, not in spite of the U.S. moving its embassy to Jerusalem and killing Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, but precisely because of those moves. Israelis and more than a few Arabs have breathed an enormous sigh of relief at America’s renewed strength.
Consider the key concession Israel has made here: It has agreed to suspend its plan to summarily annex a significant fraction of the West Bank. If you look at the U.S.-sponsored peace plan from earlier this year, you will see that, in the case of a two-state solution, Israel would still maintain control of the border between the West Bank and Jordan. In other words, Palestinians in the West Bank would be surrounded by Israeli security forces, as they almost entirely are in Gaza.
The reason this is necessary is that, by turning Gaza into a platform for missile terrorism after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, the Palestinians have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would be suicide — unless it can control all of the West Bank’s borders. If you look carefully at the annexation plans that have been floated, they would leave Israel in permanent possession of virtually all of the West Bank’s frontiers with Jordan. Any crossings — the West Bank’s outlet to the world – would be under Israeli control.
There is another scenario, however. There is a possible future — though it may seem impossible to us today — in which Arabs stop hating Jews and lose interest in destroying Israel. In that future, Israel would have no more to fear from a free border between the West Bank and Jordan, or between Gaza and Egypt, then Sweden has to fear from its border with Finland. In that future, Palestinian Arabs live free and prosperous in and out of Israel. In that future, Iran has become democratic, or the threat from the mullahs has been diminished to the point where they can no longer support terror groups on Israel’s borders. In that future, Hamas and Hezbollah are isolated and wither.
In that future, Israel has full diplomatic relations with all of its neighbors, and no need to annex territory or control anybody’s borders or even continue its “occupation” of Palestinian areas. President Trump took a major step toward that future today. It is triumph for peace in the Middle East, and it will pay dividends for decades to come.