Analysis from Israel

On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.

The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.

But the real bombshell–actually, several bombshells–lay in the proposal’s details: In exchange for Israel freezing settlement construction in “certain areas” of the West Bank and relaxing its blockade of Gaza, the Arabs would establish direct telecommunication links with Israel, let Israeli aircraft overfly their countries, lift certain trade restrictions and perhaps grant visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen. All these details are significant even in the likely event that the proposal goes nowhere.

First, they show that Arab leaders–unlike Trump–understand that Israeli-Palestinian peace is nowhere on the horizon. They didn’t merely say so to the Journal; it’s clear from the proposal itself. All it asks of Israel are gestures that would leave the status quo essentially unchanged, not concessions on any final-status issue. Granted, many of these same Arab leaders have told Trump that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be a high priority, but that merely proves the old truism that what Arab leaders say to their Western counterparts shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Second, and more importantly, Arab leaders are no longer willing to give the Palestinians (or Syria) a veto over their relations with Israel. The last time Arab states proposed normalization with Israel (in the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002), they conditioned it on Israel signing final-status agreements with both the Palestinians and Syria and withdrawing completely to the 1949 armistice lines (also known, wrongly, as the pre-1967 border). Even eight years ago, when President Barack Obama urged Arab states to make gestures toward Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze, they unanimously refused, saying steps toward normalization were impossible until an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal was signed. Now, they’re seriously discussing partial normalization even without a final-status deal.

Third, unlike the Palestinians, Arab states have abandoned the fantasy of an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines. Their decision to demand a settlement freeze only in “certain areas” of the West Bank clearly implies that they see no reason for a freeze in other areas. They would remain Israeli under any final-status deal. This, incidentally, is something the Obama Administration never grasped. It treated construction in major settlement blocs or Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as identical to construction in isolated outposts.

Fourth, after decades of spearheading boycotts of Israel, Arab states are now keen to do business with it. That’s clear from the fact that, aside from visas for athletes, all the Arab gestures under consideration are aimed at facilitating business. As a senior Arab official involved in discussions of the proposal told the Journal, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

In one sense, this is no surprise. In February, Bloomberg reported that Israeli high-tech firms were already doing booming business with the Gulf States via pass-through companies. What is surprising, however, is that then, just three months ago, the “experts” Bloomberg consulted were still insisting that open trade between Israel and the Gulf would be impossible without Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now, leading Arab countries are proposing open business ties without a peace deal.

Thus, even though the proposal doesn’t include formal diplomatic ties, it’s a huge step forward over any previous Arab offer.

Admittedly, it might well go nowhere at this stage. First, Saudi Arabia and the UAE won’t do it alone, and it’s not yet clear whether a critical mass of other Arab states will join them. Indeed, the WSJ report makes that less likely, since it will give opponents of normalization a chance to mobilize public opinion against the idea.

Second, it’s not clear what the Arabs states will ultimately demand in exchange. By the time they finish negotiating among themselves, the proposal may be significantly worse, just as the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 was significantly worse than the initial Saudi proposal (for instance, the Arab League version included language which Arabs interpret as requiring Israel to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees).

Finally, even if this doesn’t happen, the demands as stated could be unacceptable to Israel, depending on how the Arabs interpret them. For instance, Israel has long been willing to take some steps to help Gaza, but it would not agree to end the blockade entirely, as that would enable Hamas to import masses of lethal weaponry. Similarly, while Israel could agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements, it couldn’t accept a public freeze on construction in Jerusalem, its capital, which Arabs consider part of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, the very fact that this proposal is being openly discussed shows that Arab-Israeli relations are thawing at a faster pace than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. The credit for that goes primarily to changing geopolitical circumstances, but secondarily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has worked hard and successfully to expand Israel’s foreign relations precisely because he never accepted the “expert” consensus that this was impossible without progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Just last summer, Israeli pundits from across the political spectrum were united in asserting that normalization with the Arab states would require an Israeli-Palestinian deal. At the time, I termed this assertion “sheer folly,” given how fast things were already changing; today, it looks even more ridiculous. And that’s good news not just for Israel, but for the entire Middle East.

Originally published in Commentary on May 17, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

How a Changing American Liberalism Is Pulling American Jews away From Israel

In his essay “Why Many American Jews are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” Daniel Gordis lists, as key sources of tension, four major differences between the American and the Israeli political projects. His analysis strikes me as largely accurate, yet I think he misses something important by treating the differences as longstanding and perhaps even inherent. In fact, most are of recent vintage, and there is nothing inevitable or intractable about them. They are the product, first, of dramatic changes in the tenets of political liberalism, and second, of a collective decision by many American Jews to follow the new liberalism wherever it leads—even when it contradicts longstanding axioms of both American politics and traditional Judaism.

Take, for instance, the issue of universalism versus particularism. It’s true, as Gordis notes, that unlike Israel, America was not founded to serve a particular ethnic group. Nevertheless, throughout most of its history, America has viewed itself and functioned as a nation-state. Thus, despite promoting supranational projects like the European Union, which entail forfeitures of sovereignty, America has shunned any such project for itself, preferring jealously to preserve its own sovereignty. This preference traces straight back to the founders’ distrust of “entangling alliances.” Even today, there is bipartisan agreement that America’s first responsibility is to itself, whether or not the “international community” agrees; that’s why even a thoroughly liberal president like Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to launch strikes against anti-American terrorists worldwide without waiting for UN approval—something few European countries would deem thinkable.

Of course, the agreement isn’t wall-to-wall. In recent decades a vocal subset of American liberals, mostly housed in the left wing of the Democratic party, has come to believe that—in the words of Walter Hallstein, first president of the European Commission—”the system of sovereign nation-states has failed.” As perhaps inevitable corollaries of this belief, they argue that national decisions require “global legitimacy,” and that one’s fellow citizens have no more claim on one’s allegiance than do citizens of other countries.

Princeton University, my alma mater, exemplifies this evolution. When I graduated in 1987, the university’s motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service,” which nobody considered problematic. A decade later, the idea that a university should dedicate itself to serving its own country in particular had become unacceptable in advanced liberal circles. And so, in 1996, the motto was changed to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Two decades later, even this was deemed too particularistic; last year, the university’s trustees recommended a new version: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

The change is hardly trivial. Americans who view their country as a nation-state, even if not the state of a particular ethnic group, have no trouble understanding why, when Israeli and Palestinian interests clash, Israel puts its own interests first: why it is reluctant to cede more territory to Palestinians when every previous such cession has massively increased terror, or ready to fight wars to stop rocket fire on its civilian population. Only for liberals who believe that countries have no right to prioritize their own citizens over other human beings are such decisions unacceptable.

Read more
Archives