OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Center of gravity has shifted under the Palestinians’ feet

It has taken 72 years and the Iranian threat, but the icy-cold chill of the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East has begun to thaw.

Palestinians in Gaza City protest against the newly released U.S. Middle East peace plan on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Ali Ahmed/Flash90.
Palestinians in Gaza City protest against the newly released U.S. Middle East peace plan on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Ali Ahmed/Flash90.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

The deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates radically shook the ground in the Middle East and begrudgingly awakened the stale, tired, conventional wisdom of the policy establishment. For far too long, the Palestinian Authority has seen itself as the center of gravity and the final arbitrator of independent Arab governments who have wanted to open up to the public their “under the table,” warm relations with the Jewish state but have been held back by the stubborn, maximalist demands of the Palestinian Authority.

This has given far too much power over the years to the Palestinians to reject overtures of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and has stood in the way of a great deal of progress that this region could have benefited from by partaking in what Israel has to offer.

Far too many in the Washington political establishment and the European Union have bought into the mistaken notion that the Palestinian issue is the lynchpin upon which peace between Israel and their Arab neighbors rests. This is surprising considering our long history of involvement in various wars in the Middle East, as well as our education about the myriad, tribal, internecine conflicts in the region.

Even prior to Israel’s birth in 1948, the Arab League rejected any presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. After the Six-Day War in June 1967, when Israel was victorious in its defensive war on all sides, it had attempted to trade the land it conquered for peace. It brought that notion to a meeting with the Arab League in Khartoum, Sudan, several months later in August, and its response was the famous “Three No’s”: “No peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have consistently proven that they have not negotiated in good faith.

I was in the audience of a Washington think tank on July 25, 2000—the day the Camp David talks between U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat broke up. Elyakim Rubenstein, who had been the Attorney General of the State of Israel, came to address the group. His words were: “There are people crying on the way to Ronald Reagan Airport right now because they felt if we just offered Arafat everything that he wanted, he simply could not refuse it. I can tell you that what we offered was as far as any responsible government could possibly go. In fact, some would argue that we were not being responsible. What we offered was: shared sovereignty over Jerusalem, with the Palestinian control of the Harem al Sharif (the “Temple Mount”), and Israel of the Western Wall; a land mass equal to 95 percent of the West Bank, plus Gaza, (which was still in Israel’s hands); and a ‘right of return’ for thousands of Palestinian refugees, with a monetary package to compensate for those Palestinians that did not want to return. Arafat did not say yes, and he did not say no. He simply walked away from the table.”

His response came a few months later in the form of a renewed intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israeli civilians lost their lives.

The tragedy is that Arafat’s obstinacy muddied the water for any future Palestinian and Israeli interlocutor.

President Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir, My Life, that he had said to Arafat as he was about to leave office, “I am a failure, and you have made me one.”

The Israeli sentiment had been further cemented due to the 2005 Gaza disengagement, when Israel uprooted every single Israeli civilian from the area. Prior to the withdrawal, Jewish businessmen had bought the greenhouses so that the nascent Palestinian state would have some sort of economic infrastructure, and Jewish rabbis had said that Israel should leave the synagogues because, as they argued, “We all pray to the same God.” The minute the blue-and-white Israeli flag was lowered and the last Israeli soldier turned the key in the fence, those greenhouses and synagogues—and every remaining remnant of a Jewish presence in Gaza—was destroyed in a frenzied atmosphere of chaos and antipathy.

Every subsequent American negotiator has shared in this frustration when it came to dealing with the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas and his team refused to even meet with the Trump administration’s team of Middle East envoys, and until now, the world has continued to fawn at their feet, rewarding decades of Palestinian intransigence and violence.

My Muslim and Arab dissident friends tell me that the deep-seated preoccupation with the Palestinian cause that has united the Arab world until this day is being examined internally as an obsession that has held its own people back in their development as individuals and as nations. This obsession was best described by Egyptian Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser when he called Arab children “bullets in the war machine.”

Now that they realize that the center of gravity has finally shifted from beneath their feet, Palestinian officials are having a difficult time finding their equilibrium. Like spoiled children crying out for their parents’ attention, they are increasingly engaging in temper tantrums in the form of violence and terrorism. There has been a spate of incendiary balloons launched from Gaza over the border to Israel, where they have ignited thousands of acres into flames. And as I write this, news broke out that a border police officer and a 58-year-old woman were stabbed in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, more and more Sunni and Gulf states have awoken to the reality that the biggest existential threat to regional stability and security, as well as that of their own regimes, lies with Iran. They will hopefully understand that it’s time to unite and form a “wall of fire” against the Shi’ite state’s murderous designs throughout the region.

It has taken 72 years and the Iranian threat, but the icy-cold chill of the presence of a modern Jewish state in the Middle East has gradually begun to thaw; first, with Egypt in 1979, then with Jordan in 1994, and now today with the UAE.

Israel is here to stay. What it has to offer is a veritable treasure trove of 21st-century science and technology in medicine (particularly during this time of COVID-19), water, agriculture, and the fields of intelligence and cyberspace, essential tools in the way that wars are now being conducted.

Although peace with Egypt and Jordan has been a cold one, where they have not educated their people towards tolerance and recognition, and their textbooks have remained notoriously anti-Semitic, it has endured. Let us hope that relations between Israel and the UAE will be warmer; where Muslim children will be encouraged to develop their own potential; where children of both nations will develop trusting relationships with one another; where the government will actually the encourage direct people-to-people contact between the two countries; and that the children will be educated for a peace that will endure for generations. And that it will be the first of many more treaties between Israel and its Sunni neighbors to come.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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