While my attentions were elsewhere, peace erupted yesterday between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. I didn’t even know we were at war, perhaps because I am just a little more than a week out of quarantine. Personally, I have never had a beef with the UAE, wish them well, and can envision visiting Abu Dhabi someday. It looks like a fine place. But why is “peace” in this region never just the result of realizing that two countries, not contiguous to each other and having no substantive disagreements and many mutual interests, decide to recognize each other? Why does the attainment of “peace” – or in this case, full diplomatic and trade relations – require substantive concessions only of Israel but not of the interlocutor?
Certainly there is a value in formalizing what has already been an informal and symbiotic relationship for several years, born of a mutual antipathy and suspicion towards Iran. Enemies of enemies do become friends. And it stands to reason that similarly-situated nations in the Gulf, who recognize Israel’s permanence, economic and military prowess, and close ties with the United States, will soon follow suit. Nevertheless, this was not simply the recognition of the mutual interests of two nations.
In this agreement, Israel forfeited its asserted intent to annex Judea and Samaria. The claim that such is just a temporary suspension is politician talk; surely in the next election campaign, which may come sooner than anyone wants, PM Netanyahu will trot out his commitment to annex these lands, or at least apply Israeli law to them. And surely his acolytes will believe it. But this is nothing less than the selling out of one’s patrimony in exchange for something that already existed – increasing diplomatic and commercial ties between two nations. It is a steep price to pay and betrays both a political inferiority complex as well as a deficient spiritual attachment to the heartland of Israel, even if we are mindful of Menachem Begin’s dictum that one cannot annex his own land.
Did Israel make an analogous demand and was there an analogous concession on the UAE’s part? Does anyone believe that if, in exchange for suspension of annexation, Israel had insisted that the Emiratees face Yerushalayim, not in Mecca, in prayer, that they would have agreed? Or what if, thinking smaller, Israel had just sought a commitment that the prayer for the IDF be recited in mosques across the kingdom every Friday, or even just once a month? Probably not.
There is an old story (or two) that plays out repeatedly in Israel’s negotiations over the decades. There is a sense that Israel does not deserve normal relations with other countries, and therefore must always pay a price for an embassy, an ambassador, commercial ties and the like that other nations, that see each other as equals, never do. Embassies are great and “peace” is even greater but we should recognize how frequently over the last decades the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies in Israel have been closed and diplomats recalled over some perceived offense that Israel committed, usually acting in its own interests and self-defense. Those are all symbols; the renunciations of claims are substantive and reveal uneasiness, almost a psychological discomfort, with asserting claims that advance Israel’s biblical and prophetic destiny.
The second historical trope has been Israel’s inability to clearly articulate what political goals it wants to achieve and then seek to achieve them. Its strategic objectives have always been murky (aside from survival) and this haziness has been facilitated by perpetual references to the Americans, and what they purportedly will allow or not allow Israel to do. This has been a mostly false and self-serving narrative, and has certainly been so in recent times. President Trump entered office asking Israel what it wants and has struggled to get a clear answer. Even the move of the embassy and the recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital – and other extremely pro-Israel actions – took longer than expected because of Israel’s hesitations. (A similar dynamic unfolded in the early years of the Bush administration when George W. Bush was ready and willing to move the embassy and fulfill a campaign promise and was dissuaded from doing so by then PM Ariel Sharon.)
Israel politicians have often used the so-called “American veto” in the same way that a child tells his friend that he can’t go hiking because his father won’t allow it, when the child really doesn’t want to go in the first place. It’s a convenient excuse and Israelis have usually accepted it as true. But it is not. Most Americans have only a passing familiarity and fleeting interest in what happens here, and those who do are mostly Christian evangelical supporters of Israel.
The same has now happened with the proposed application of Israeli to Judea and Samaria. It should be outrageous that more than a half-century since Israel’s conquest of these lands, its residents’ daily lives are still governed to a large extent by military, not civilian, authorities, and mundane issues such as building a house or a neighborhood become matters for the military and judicial authorities to resolve. That doesn’t seem very fair or very efficient.
Moreover, it was short-sighted not to exploit the Trump offer of annexation – there will never be a president as pro-Israel and Israelis should be rightly anxious about a potential Democrat ascending to power. It would have been advantageous to pocket that concession – 30% of the land is also something – and then work for the future. I sense that it was domestic politics that precluded this from happening – the Blue/White party with whom Likud shares a tense coalition opposed it – and so the government was more than happy to toss this inedible carrot to the UAE if that would clinch the deal. But it doesn’t bode well for the future.
Israel’s reluctance to proffer a coherent strategy is nothing new. I just finished reading a book about the Watergate era, to which was appended, for no discernible reason, recently declassified memoranda from the Middle East negotiations of the early 1970’s. In one, CIA Director Richard Helms reports on the results of the ongoing secret meetings between King Hussein and Golda Meir (1972). The Israelis insisted on direct, not third-party, negotiations, because “peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations…the King observed ironically that there have now been approximately fifty meetings between Israel and Jordan and the parties are still at square one.” In other words, the whole point of the exercise was not achieving peace – granted, the parties’ positions were far apart – but talking about peace.
Indeed, Helms concluded that “although peace is desirable, Israel can live without it…Things will remain as they are now; and instead of a formal state of peace, Israel believes there will be a gradual drift toward peace since Israel is intent on teaching the Arabs to coexist with her.”
Almost a year and a half later, the Yom Kippur War broke out. There has been much bloodshed since, but one objective has been achieved: much of the Arab world is ready to co-exist with Israel, and not necessarily because they have become Zionists. It is rather because they recognize that it is in their own interests to ally with Israel to confront common foes and build a better future.
That can be achieved formally or informally; it doesn’t really matter. The formal agreements that enshrine the informal relationships mainly serve the interests of the politicians who love ceremonies and use them to bolster their campaigns. This is another missed opportunity, hidden amid fanfare and bold promises. What awaits is visionary, new leadership that is not trapped in the paradigms of the past and that can advance Israel’s true interests going forward.