There is a time for war and a time for peace, Ecclesiastes tells us. Joyously, in the middle of a joyless year, a time for peace is upon us. For only the third occasion since 1948, Israel has secured a deal for peace with an Arab state. The United Arab Emirates will put an ambassador in Israel and accept one in Abu Dhabi. Relations will reportedly go beyond formalities and include economic and scientific cooperation, in particular on developing a vaccine for Covid-19.
The normalisation of relations with the UAE follows a courtship at first clandestine but in recent years open and candid. Israel and the Gulf states share a common security threat in the Iranian regime and have figured that cooperation will strengthen their hand against Tehran. President Trump, who brokered the deal, says he is working on getting more Arab and Muslim nations to establish ties with the Jewish state.
The recognition of Israel by a third Arab country in 72 years suggests that, as Dr King (paraphrasing Theodore Parker) said, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. It could do with bending a little faster. Since 1948, all too many regimes and people in the Middle East and elsewhere have consoled themselves that the Zionist project would eventually fall, by its own hand though preferably by that of others. All rejectionism has done is bring war and squandered decades of missed opportunities for economic, cultural and scientific cooperation. Israel is here to stay, the UAE’s normalisation confirms that, and any state that continues to resist the logic and justice of peace is harming itself more than it is Israel.
The forgotten people of this arrangement are the Palestinians. The spell commanding Arab and Muslim nations to withhold recognition of Israel in solidarity with their Palestinian brothers may well have been broken. We will know for sure if others follow Abu Dhabi. Gulf Arab states see Israel as a powerful ally against Iran, and they recognise the benefits of cooperation, but the truth is that the Palestinian cause no longer rouses the Gulf street the way it once did. Demographic, cultural and attitudinal changes have displaced it as a prominent component of Gulf Arab political identity and the Palestinians’ repeated rejection of Israeli peace offers has played its part too. There has barely been a time since the founding of the PLO in 1964 when the organisation and the people it represents have been a lower priority for the region or indeed the larger world. That is not grounds for any kind of schadenfreude. It is simply the brutal facts of realpolitik.
At risk of dropping the pepper pot in the soup, I will note that as a condition of UAE normalisation, Israel has agreed to ‘suspend’ plans to apply its laws to Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria as well as the Jordan Valley security buffer. These plans had already stalled but linking diplomatic relations with government policy is arguably unwise. For one, it implies that foreign governments can exercise a veto over Israeli policy. Since none of us is that naive, let’s acknowledge that one rather important government can do this already in certain circumstances and on certain matters. But extending Israeli deference to the United States to any country offering to take a lease on office space in Tel Aviv potentially establishes a dangerous precedent. What happens if another Arab country promises normalised relations in exchange for Israel renouncing its claim to East Jerusalem?
The use of the term ‘suspend’ rather than ‘cancel’ might indicate that a deal has been struck to allow ties between Israel and the UAE to bed down before Jerusalem starts talking about sovereignty again. Equally, if Joe Biden wins in November, Benjamin Netanyahu has already said he won’t go ahead with his plans. In that case, the next opportunity for Israel to assert its legal rights in these areas may not come until there is another like-minded US president and Israeli prime minister, or until final status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Since the overwhelming majority of Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria live in the so-called ‘consensus settlements’, generally expected to become part of Israel in any two-state solution, Netanyahu’s sovereignty suspension is unlikely to trouble most Israelis. They will see this as a landmark day in the history of the modern State of Israel and the wider region too. There is a time for small-print and a time for celebration and for now Israelis will choose celebration. Peace has come upon them.
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