(September 27, 2020 / JNS) The agreements signed this month by the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain with Israel, called the “Abraham Accords,” is being touted by the Trump administration as a monumental achievement. What is perhaps more remarkable, given today’s hyperpolarized political environment, is that most of Washington is celebrating this accomplishment.
Former U.S. Vice President and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while pointedly (and predictably) noting that the agreement was built “on the efforts of multiple administrations,” welcomed the agreement negotiated by his opponent’s administration, saying “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave and badly-needed act of statesmanship.”
Naturally, there are partisan differences. Statements from Democrats tend to avoid directly crediting Trump and emphasize the need to leverage this success into a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, while statements from Republicans tend to praise Trump’s involvement and ignore the Palestinians. For example, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a potential chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Israel’s commitment under the agreements to suspend annexation efforts “restores the potential of a path towards a two-state solution.” The Republican reaction was typified by Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, who said the agreement was a “hopeful step forward in fostering peace and stability in the region for years to come. Excellent work from Donald Trump.”
Still, there are holdouts. In spite of the fact that the deal actually stopped previously planned Israeli annexation of territories claimed by the Palestinians, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) slammed what she called the “Trump/Netanyahu deal” as something that will “normalize” Palestinian suffering. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), said the deal “changes nothing.” But these were not representative of most Democrats, let alone most members of Congress. In fact, fellow Democrat Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) criticized McCollum, saying “knee-jerk opposition to something just because it was done by the other party is what’s wrong with our politics” and calling the agreement “a huge step towards peace.”
The overwhelmingly positive reaction of office holders is illustrative of the fact that the American public, already broadly pro-Israel, would have trouble understanding why their representatives would think more peace in the Middle East is a bad thing. However, former career diplomats, academics and think-tank fellows, more insulated from public opinion, are not as united. Many have been dedicated their entire careers to the notion that peace in the Middle East only comes when the Israel/Palestinian issue is solved. “The road from Jerusalem to Riyadh runs through Ramallah,” is how they often put it—something some academics were still touting as late as a year ago. The Trump administration flipped this inside-out approach to an outside-in approach, to the derision of many traditional foreign-policy thinkers.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, for example, thinks the UAE-Israeli peace agreement, coming as it did without a Palestinian-Israeli precursor, is “not historic [and] not particularly important.” Lorenzo Kamel of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the agreement “sets a dangerous precedent” because Israeli threats of annexation supposedly caused it to go through.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies chided such naysayers the day the UAE deal was announced: “I’m not saying Donald Trump knows how to make peace in the Middle East. But I am saying that most of the experts on Middle East peacemaking are very bad at what they do, and even worse at admitting they were wrong.”
Fortunately, however, some among Washington’s “smart” crew are less dogmatic. Former Obama administration officials David Makovsky and Daniel B. Shapiro argued that Israel’s newfound peace with its neighbors “could be a much-needed bridge to overcoming the current impasse” concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, writing that Israel’s new Arab friends could, among other things, “influence Palestinian leaders to adopt more realistic positions on certain final-status issues” and “speak directly to Israel” about legitimate Palestinian concerns. Former Brookings Institution Vice President and Obama administration negotiator Martin Indyk approvingly cited Makovsky/Shapiro, and similar thoughts were echoed by Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team.
This widespread acclamation, and relatively few dissenting voices, is promising for the future of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, regardless of who wins in November. However, one thing that is missing is an acknowledgment of the backdrop to which all of this is happening. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) notes this truth in a backhanded way, saying “the main folks unhappy about today’s hard-fought, diplomatic breakthrough are in Tehran.”
Sasse is correct. While there may be some genuine interest in peace for its own sake, much of the closeness that preceded the Abraham Accords is fear of the Iranian hegemon that has been rampaging around the region for decades, leaving long trails of dead bodies and countries in ruins. The Trump administration has, at best, inconsistently responded to these threats and provocations, while the Obama administration openly enabled them.
This trend towards peace between Arab states and Israel is the most promising in the region in a long time. But Washington must remember that that long-term peace in the region requires joining the Arabs and Israelis in working to annul the Iran threat. And that will require tough choices.
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