The UAE/Bahrain–Israel Deal: A Time for Celebration and Critical Self-Reflection

From left: Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed gather on the balcony of the White House as they prepare to participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
This achievement and the paths that led to it defy the conventional wisdom that prevailed for at least 30 years.

Peace between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain is an occasion for both celebration and self-reflection. Most immediately, it promises a new strategic framework for contesting regional threats to American interests, as well as those of America’s allies — threats stemming from the aggressive designs of Iran and Turkey. But it is also an occasion for critical reflection by many American policy makers, analysts, and commentators, not to mention their foreign counterparts. The reason: This achievement and the paths that led to it defy the conventional wisdom that prevailed for at least 30 years.

That wisdom decreed that the lack of peace in the Middle East as a whole was due to the Israeli–Arab conflict, and that the surest — and only — way to reach a broader peace was through pressuring or cajoling the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders into compromising their aims.

This was to be accomplished by a so-called “peace process” launched in 1993 through the Oslo Accords. This view informed the many phases of the “peace process” through several American administrations. Over 25 years, whole careers in government and think tanks were built in this fashion. Adherence to its orthodoxy won praise for statesmanship and good judgment.

The conventional view was stated with particular energy and force at the very highest level in December 2016 by then-secretary of state John Kerry. He declared, “There will be no advanced and separate peace [for Israel] with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is the hard reality.” Kerry warned, “I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them, and we can work some things with the Arab world, and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no.”

Kerry’s four “noes” bore an unfortunate resemblance to the infamous “three noes,” pronounced at an Arab League summit in Khartoum, in the summer of 1967: “no peace with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no to negotiations with Israel.” But the recent events have produced at least four “yeses” — two unqualified affirmatives from the UAE and Bahrain; two tacit approvals from Saudi Arabia and Oman. Kerry’s “hard reality” has proven an illusion.

There was always a minority view that disputed the conventional wisdom. This minority contended that the Middle East was awash in local and regional rivalries, and that viewing these disputes primarily through the lens of the Arab–Israeli conflict was absurd and harmful. This minority view was first stated in the early 1990s by Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the Likud opposition, today Israel’s prime minister. He declared that Israel’s way to “a glorious future” was “not tearing down our walls of defense . . . but to fortify [the state] economically and socially.” This was to be partially accomplished by the cultivation of “sophisticated industries,” including the “new industry of knowledge” and an economic “liberalization.” The creation of a strong Israel would eventually secure Israel, a prominent theme in A Place Among the Nations, the title of Netanyahu’s book of that era. Peace would come through strength.

This view gathered force over the ensuing years as the Oslo Accords brought not peace but increased violence. The minority view attributed these failures to the lack of a genuine Palestinian “partner for peace.” Its evidence: the rejection by Yasser Arafat of the generous peace plan formulated by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and Arafat’s prompt instigation of the Second Intifada which killed and wounded thousands of Israelis, most of them civilians; the similar rejection by Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas of another still more generous peace plan in 2008; and the Palestinians’ prolonged disdain for an Israeli settlement freeze which was demanded by President Obama in his failed attempt to relaunch negotiations in 2010. Then, too, there were the Gaza Wars, which have erupted periodically since Israel unilaterally withdrew in 2005 and left a de facto Palestinian state ruled by Hamas, a movement openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

The minority viewed European and American indulgence of Palestinian intransigence as contributing to these failures by feeding Palestinian leaders’ hopes that, despite their intrinsically weak position, Palestinian suffering would leverage world opinion into forcing upon Israel ever greater concessions. The minority decried Palestinian leaders’ declared aim: forcing Israeli acceptance of millions of so-called “Palestinian refugees” within its borders, a result which would have meant, and was intended to mean, the end of Israel as an independent state.

Through these years, Palestinian supporters contended that failure to support their expansive claims would ruin not just Israeli, but American relations with angry, oil-rich Arab nations and the broader Islamic world. Israel’s leaders, in particular Netanyahu, eventually undertook to test that premise. Israel could win peace with some Arab states, Netanyahu argued, through a policy, of “peace for peace.” This was the policy Kerry ridiculed in his final days in office, but Netanyahu proved right and Kerry wrong.

It is perhaps understandable, if lamentable, that the erroneous conventional wisdom prevailed for so long. It was creditable to feel some concern for Palestinian suffering, and generous, as well as easier, to accept Palestinian leaders’ professions of good faith. Certainly, unanticipated events, dramatic and vast, occurred in the Middle East over the last 25 years: the war with al-Qaeda; the Iraq War; the so-called Arab Spring and the conflicts it spawned; Iran’s increasingly violent interventions across the reigion; latterly, the aggressive ambitions of President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Some Arab leaders have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the effects of prolonged Palestinian rejectionism. Cumulatively, these events created new conditions favorable to the deal recently struck, as President Trump’s winter 2020 peace plan and some others more recently have now observed.

Still, conventional views have been remarkably slow in taking changed conditions into account, both with regard to Israel and the broader Middle East. The crucial question now is whether the policy community that embraced the conventional wisdom — and even earlier this year saw no prospects for an Israeli–Arab breakthrough — can face up to its errors and recalibrate its approach.

It is of course too soon to reach a definitive answer, but the results so far are hardly promising; they are at best ambiguous. The editors of the New York Times grant that something was accomplished: “The Middle East Deal is good but not that good.” Why? “The agreements made only a perfunctory nod to what ‘Middle East peace’ has long referred to: peace between Palestinians and Israelis.” A prominent New York Times columnist opines that the whole new situation is a “mirage.” Regrettably, these views have been echoed by prominent politicians such as Nancy Pelosi on the grounds that the Palestinian issue remains paramount. Martin Indyk, one-time special envoy to Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, allows that normalization is a historic development, “but it doesn’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which was what they and Obama were trying to achieve. In that respect they failed just like the rest of us.”

Well, not quite. Oslo’s failures persisted over 25 years. The current American plan successfully enhanced peaceful relations between Israel and moderate Arab states as both an end in itself and as a possible precursor to progress with Palestinians. Peace between Israel and its neighbors is the more important regional concern, not just for American interests but for these Arab states as well. And by undermining Arab support for Palestinian leaders’ excessive claims, the recent deals add pressure for a reasonable compromise leading to a solution.

As the scholar Hussein Ibish has observed, these deals could induce greater sobriety on the part of the Palestinians. The Arab parties to the recent deals express just such a hope. Western dissenters dismiss or ignore the prospect of such progress. Perhaps, some may say, the Arab states’ sentiments reflect a cynical abandonment of rejectionist Palestinian demands. But, if so, this itself shows how badly the dissenters have misread what is important to the region.

The clearest task of American policy going forward is to build upon the recent agreements with a view to the interests of America and our regional allies. This includes first and foremost expanding peace between Israel and the regional states that seek evolutionary, not revolutionary progress in the face of revisionist Islamist threats — most notably our great and mutual regional foe, Iran. These threats, potentially augmented by Russian and Chinese hands, could shift the fate of a regional critical to the democracies worldwide. Growing cooperation between Arab states and Israel can be an important counter to such threats.

As we proceed, we can urge and support accommodationist movement from heretofore rejectionist Palestinian leaders. But we cannot force them into a reasonable compromise that they continue, sadly, to disdain. Responsible states of the region have decided that they have greater geostrategic concerns, concerns which we share. Parts of our policy community need to catch up.


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