(August 18, 2020 / JNS) We should celebrate. A historic peace deal to normalize the relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has been reached. This achievement would not have happened without U.S. facilitation, and it opens the Middle East to a new chapter. The plan will include reciprocal embassies, economic investments, trade, direct flights and permission for UAE citizens to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are polarizing leaders, but with this accord they have united two enemy states along common interests. While not singular, it is momentous. It is thus unfortunate that it is being derided by some who are unwilling to appreciate the value and potential virtuous cycle this accord may lead to.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) tweeted, “We won’t be fooled by another Trump/Netanyahu deal.” IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish American activist group opposing the Israeli presence on the West Bank, said “there is nothing to celebrate about Trump & Netanyahu’s latest sleight of hand, which once again, seeks to distract from their failures in leadership as they face an ongoing pandemic, economic crisis, civil unrest, & plummeting support from the public.” And Jamal Zahalka, a Knesset member who is a part of the Joint Arab List, tweeted that this agreement is a bad one made by dangerous people. One would also expect that organizations such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, whose main goal is achieving peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, would embrace this peace accord as the first step in this direction. But alas, they denounced this agreement as “is nothing more than theatrics.”
Acknowledging this achievement and its potentially huge downstream effects should be an obvious step, and indeed many people on the left, among them Dennis Ross and Thomas Friedman, have done so. It may well be that those who oppose this peace agreement are simply so deranged with hate for Trump or Netanyahu that they can’t bring themselves to give these leaders the credit for achieving it. But for some, more subtle reasons may be in play: They are either unwilling to accept that a peace agreement necessarily involves compromises from both sides or are unable to admit that their fundamental assumptions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were wrong.
The first overturned assumption of the left regarding the conflict is that resolving the Palestinian issue is the only way for achieving normalization with the Arab world. Netanyahu, however, has repeatedly emphasized that the Palestinians are not the key to Middle East peace. The reason is explained thoroughly by Micah Goodman in his book Catch 67. Goodman contends that Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state in the land of Israel is tantamount to a renunciation of their Arab-Muslim identity as it sees the Jews as a colonial force that forbids non-Muslim sovereignty in a holy Muslim territory. This Arab-Muslim solidarity has persisted for so long that breaking with it would result in an identity crisis. Thus, given a choice between an independent Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one versus retaining their Arab-Muslim identity, Palestinian leaders consistently choose the latter. The longer they hold out, the more impossible the choice becomes. They are trapped in a vicious cycle.
Netanyahu hoped to bypass the Palestinian identity crisis by working directly with the rest of the Arab world. This way, when the Palestinian leaders realize that their brethren have made peace, the price of choosing it themselves is cheaper. It does not come at the cost of losing their Arab-Muslim identity. They would be free to choose independence.
The second overturned assumption was the “land for peace” formula. That is, a peace plan must include Israeli land concessions. This formula, preached by the left in Israel and liberals in the United States since 1967, was proved wrong with the UAE deal. The only concession made was Israel’s agreement to give up, for now, its intention to extend its sovereignty into parts of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, which may not have happened anyway. The new formula is “peace for peace.” This is a novel approach based on shared interests that sees Israel as a desired ally with economic, geopolitical and military power.
The Trump and Netanyahu administrations have worked closely together to make Mideast peace a reality. In 2018, the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thus recognizing it as Israel’s capital. The following year his administration recognized the Golan Heights as a part of Israel. The year after that, the administration announced that Israel’s West Bank settlements do not violate international law. All these actions were widely criticized by liberals and by many Arab leaders across the Middle East. They claimed that these actions would lead to turmoil, cause a reversal of Israel’s budding relations with Arab states and harm U.S. efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Instead, the opposite has occurred. The Trump administration’s acts have bolstered the prospects of peace rather than undermined it.
The Israel-UAE treaty is another fracture in the united Arab front. Until now, only two other countries have signed a peace treaty with Israel: Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The agreement with the UAE will hopefully pave the road to warmer relations with the rest of the Arab world. Moreover, that this deal is on the heels of the unveiling of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision earlier this year, for which the UAE was present, signals to the Palestinians that the UAE has had enough of Palestinian rejectionism. Bahrain and Oman were also at the unveiling. Might they be next to change allegiances?
For some, a peace deal that doesn’t include the Palestinians is not an achievement. But due to current Palestinian rejectionism, an agreement that does include them is simply not possible. Israeli accords made with Arab countries may well be what be the factor that brings the Palestinians to the negotiating table. The more Arab countries that follow the UAE’s lead, the more likely it is that the Palestinian leadership will be forced to compromise. And it is only through compromise that a greater peace can be achieved.
Anat Talmy is an Israeli-American software engineer living in Pittsburgh.
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