How Israel and the Arab World Are Making Peace Without a Peace Deal

By Aaron David Miller | Politico
May 27, 2020
How Israel and the Arab World Are Making Peace Without a Peace Deal

Without much fanfare or notice, the first known commercial aircraft from the  United Arab Emirates recently landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport. It  was carrying Covid-19 supplies for the Palestinian Authority, which, out of pique, rejected them.

As unprecedented as the flight was, it  really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. For the past five  years, contacts between Israel and the Gulf states—especially Saudi  Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain—have been booming. The examples of what  amounts to a Great Thaw in an otherwise frozen political landscape are  plentiful:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with his  wife and the director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, has been  received in Oman by the late sultan. He has met the UAE and Omani  foreign ministers in the U.S. Israel’s minister of culture has visited  Dubai. Israelis, including Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, have been welcomed  in Bahrain, and Bahrain has reached out to Israel for help battling  Covid-19. Israeli athletes have competed in judo competitions in the  UAE, where, for first time, the Israeli national anthem was played and  the Israeli flag displayed. Trade between Israel and the Gulf states is  now estimated at about $1 billion a year. One Israeli-owned company, AGT International, has reportedly concluded an $800 million deal with the  UAE for border surveillance equipment. And this partial list comprises  only the visible signs. Much more on the intelligence and security side  is reportedly happening below the waterline.

Even more stunning,  this putative détente is taking place on the watch of a right-wing  Israeli prime minister who doesn’t even feign interest in a two-state  solution and is doing everything he can to ensure one never emerges by  keeping large parts of West Bank and all of Jerusalem. Contrary to the  warnings from diplomats, analysts and peaceniks who predicted Israel  would become a pariah if it didn’t settle up with the Palestinians,  Israel seems to be making more progress toward normalization with Arab  regimes without a credible peace process than with one.

Clearly  the Gulf states aren’t on the verge of full normalization with Israel;  nor is the Arab world willing to untether itself from the emotional pull of Palestinian issue or its hostile and all too often anti-Semitic  views of Israel. But even the most skeptical observers would have to  admit something has changed.

So what explains this shift?

Three significant factors. The rise of Iran and Sunni jihadists spewing  terror across the region has created a narrow but important coincidence  of interests between Israel and the Arab world. Increasing exhaustion  and frustration with the never-ending Palestinian cause has opened up  more space for Arab states to follow their own interests. But behind it  all, lay a White House enamored of Arab money for arms sales and  investment in the U.S. and eager to marshal the Arabs in the service of  its anti-Iranian and pro-Israeli agenda. Indeed, in an effort to court  the Gulf Arabs, Trump and his Middle East envoy son-in-law Jared Kushner have given the Saudis carte blanche to pursue disastrous policies while holding their coats. And Arab nations, sensing opportunities with an  autocrat-friendly U.S. president, have been only too happy to follow.

From the Israeli perspective, the reasons for the détente are not hard to  divine. Netanyahu’s regional outreach to the Arab world is part of his  broader campaign to project Israel’s political profile internationally  with historic visits into Latin America, Asia, South Asia and Africa.  Israel now has more diplomatic recognition in the international  community than at any time since independence. In the Middle East, his  outreach is aimed to demonstrate that Israel can do business with key  Arab states without having to compromise on the Palestinian issue and of course to marshal Arab state support in his campaign against Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, see Iran—not a seemingly intractable Palestinian issue—as their most pressing national security challenge  and see Israel as a powerful partner in containing Tehran’s regional  designs. The partnership began to crystallize with the Obama  administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and the perception that  Washington was opening the door to legitimize the Islamic Republic as a  potential regional partner.

One of the reasons the Israeli-Arab  state détente has gained traction is because it’s homegrown—emerging  from the perception of common threat. But the Trump administration  picked up the ball and ran with it. Determined to reverse the policies  of his predecessor on Iran and the peace process that had alienated both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump made both countries key to his Middle  East policies. In my first meeting with Jared Kushner in 2017, he made it unmistakably clear that his father-in-law was determined to establish strategic relationships with both countries.

It was certainly no coincidence that the president’s first foreign trip,  in May 2017, was to Saudi Arabia, where, accompanied by a retinue of  some of the biggest names in American business and finance, the  president talked about Saudi investment, American jobs and billions in  arms sales. Then it was on to Israel, where Trump became the first  sitting president to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. That trip—planned by Jared Kushner—would also give rise to his close relationship with  the Saudi king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. A  reckless and impulsive 30-something reformer, MBS would figure  prominently in many disasters, from the war in Yemen to the kidnapping  of the Lebanese prime minister, to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal  Khashoggi, as well as in Kushner’s plans to promote Middle East  peacemaking.

At the core of that vision were efforts to promote  Israeli-Arab state cooperation, both to cement a common front against  Iran and to build leverage to pressure the Palestinians to come to the  negotiating table. And the Gulf Arab states played the Israeli card for  all it was worth. Convinced the road to Washington lay through  Jerusalem, the Saudis in particular cozied up to the Trump  administration, which refused to abandon them even after bin Salman’s  disastrous role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. For a few token  appearances with the Israelis, such as the Warsaw Conference on Middle  East Peace and Security in February 2019, where Netanyahu met with the  Saudi foreign minister, Riyadh stayed on Trump’s good side, as it had in low-keying the Saudi reaction to Trump’s opening a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. And later that year in  Manama, with Riyadh’s permission, Bahrain hosted a U.S.-orchestrated  economic conference that brought together Arab and Israeli  representatives from the private sector to discuss the economic aspects  of Trump’s Vision for Middle East Peace.

Will the Israel-Arab state honeymoon last? The answer is probably yes, anchored as it is in self-interest.

The Iranian threat isn’t going to disappear. The U.S.-Saudi relationship is going through a bad patch now over oil prices. But as long as the  Saudis and Emiratis think it’s in their interests to stay in Trump’s  favor, their cooperation will continue. And why shouldn’t they? The  Saudis have few friends in Washington other than the White House, which  recently bypassed Congress, declaring a faux national emergency to facilitate billions of dollars in weapons sales to Saudi and the UAE Positioning themselves as being good on Israel certainly can’t hurt,  though the talking points might not be as effective for a President Joe  Biden who has labeled Saudi Arabia a pariah state.

As for  Netanyahu, as long as he doesn’t expect too much from his new Arab  friends and doesn’t break the bank by annexing wholesale the Jordan  Valley and the whole West Bank (very unlikely), the Gulf Arabs will stay on board as they did when the U.S. Embassy opened in Jerusalem.

It ain’t peace. But then again that was never in the cards. In a broken,  angry, dysfunctional Middle East, who could ask for more?