The American-brokered opening of full relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is a rare outbreak of peace and hope in a region short of both, and a significant vindication of the Trump administration’s diplomacy. Above all, it is a testimony to the strategic courage and fresh thinking of Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) of Abu Dhabi in particular, but also of Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and — whether you like it or not — Jared Kushner.
Thursday’s announcement is nothing less than groundbreaking. The complete and instant opening of full relations with Israel by an Arab leader is a crossing of the diplomatic Rubicon. MbZ has created an opening for further normalization by his fellow Arab and Muslim leaders. He has outlined a template for its terms too, just as he has outlined its spiritual counterpart in the Abrahamic Family House, now under construction in Abu Dhabi, a campus containing a mosque, a church and a synagogue: a mutuality common in Israel, but unprecedented in a modern Arab society.
The Nobel Peace Prize has been given for less, for instance in 1994, when it went to Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. More than 25 years after the false dawn of the Oslo Accords, a ‘new Middle East’ is again a possibility. It can’t be the same as the one that was dreamt of after the end of the Cold War. Back then, Russia’s position in the Middle East had suddenly collapsed, depriving the PLO of cash and anti-western Arab states of patronage, and leaving the US as the last foreign power standing. Today, as the US is getting out of the region, the Russians are moving back in. Local powers — Turkey, Israel, Iran — are the big military players.
A Jewish state was an irritant to the Arab monarchies, but the rise of imperial Iran is an existential threat. The tide of Sunni Islamism seems at last to be ebbing. In the last 20 years, while the Sunni Arab societies were being tormented by their domestic terrorists, Israel became a hi-tech superpower. A new generation of Arab leaders, led by MbZ in the UAE and MbS in Saudi Arabia, understand the strategic map and the economic territory of the early 21st century.
They have also tired of the Palestinians. The PLO betrayed every Arab patron, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now the creatures of non-Arab Turkey and Iran, and double-dealing Qatar. The UAE-Israel deal annuls the Palestinian veto over peace. It also commits Netanyahu not to annex the Jordan Valley and the settlements, but to focus on seeking ‘diplomatic breakthroughs’ with ‘other countries in the Arab and Muslim world’.
The next of these is close at hand. Last January, the ambassador of Bahrain attended the rollout of the Trump peace plan at the White House along with the UAE’s ambassador. At the ‘Peace to Prosperity’ conference of 2019, Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa, then Bahrain’s foreign minister, said that ‘Israel is part of this heritage of the whole region, historically. So the Jewish people have a place amongst us.’
Alliances and rapprochements have been built on less. This one is built between personalities, not states, and common interests, not external orders. That is why it has a good chance of lasting. The politics of the Middle East are volcanic and tribal: the Hebrew Bible describes an exceptionally quiet interlude as ‘peace in the land for 40 years’. The strong survive by the exercise of power, and power must be personal, as it was when Trump sent Kushner as his emissary. Democracy, as Erdogan and Netanyahu have shown, is a means to the ends of power and survival. The alternative is Lebanon, or Syria, or Yemen.
The Trump administration deserves praise for acknowledging these facts of life in the Middle East — facts which eluded bureaucratic experts and elected leaders, Democratic and Republican. But the Trump administration will receive mockery and venom instead of praise. The usual suspects will minimize this deal: Iran, Hamas, our more progressive professors, the Palestinian Authority, the career failures at the State Department, the think-tank apologists for Obama’s accommodation of Iran, the cheerleaders of anything anti-American at MSNBC and the New York Times. But really, can you imagine Joe Biden and Kamala Harris looking beyond the same old, tired Blob staffers, let alone pulling off this kind of breakthrough?
The dogs bark, the caravan moves on — and in the right direction, for once. I look forward to praying in the Abrahamic Family House and seeing pilgrims from the UAE in Jerusalem.