TEL AVIV—Assuming last-minute disputes about mask-wearing and social distancing can be ironed out in time, the South Lawn of the White House will once more be the site of a historic Middle East peace deal signing. Two deals, in fact, as both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates normalize ties with Israel.
Rejecting the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East has been a totemic political and moral commitment in the Arab world for 75 years now. Travel to or from Israel was prohibited, as was all trade and cultural exchange and sporting competition. For years even the mention of the name “Israel” was abjured in favor of alternative formulations like “the Zionist entity.” The two Arab states that did, after a series of military defeats, sign peace treaties with Israel maintained formal relations while steering clear of anything that looked like the dreaded “normalization.”
This is a big deal then, not just for the three states involved or even the Trump administration, desperate to cough up an election season success rather than droplets of contagion, but for a rapidly shifting regional order in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. And it’s also an opportunity to revisit the received wisdom of the gloriously self-confident class of experts on Arab-Israeli peace—not just to mock them for being so wrong so often and so consistently in the years leading up to this breakthrough, but also for being so churlishly wrong and petty in their reactions since the agreements were announced.
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The experts told us that no Arab-Israeli peace was possible without first settling the Palestinian issue. Years and years of Palestinian rejection of peace deals did not wear down the certainty that Israel was at fault, but they did wear down the patience of some Arab states who didn’t want their entire foreign policies hostage to a revenge fantasy.
It’s not that the Washington foreign policy brahmins were against any peace deal between Israel and an Arab state. For years they preached that the most stabilizing thing that could happen to the region would be an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights leading to a peace deal with Syria. Nine years into a Syrian civil war that has dragged in so many international actors near and far and led to the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen in decades, one might prefer not to imagine how the whole thing would have unfolded with Syrian forces, jihadist rebels or both on the shores of Israel’s Sea of Galilee. But we owe it to ourselves to imagine just that scenario, because if it had been up to our betters, that’s precisely where the Syrian civil war would have extended to at a minimum. Recall that for years the Israelis who opposed a Golan withdrawal were dismissed as opponents of peace with outdated notions of the security benefits that territory could bring.
More recently, we were told by former diplomats and self-appointed experts that American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would “ignite” the region. The same people issuing dire warnings on the Jerusalem issue in 2017 aren’t always keen on being reminded of them now, but back in 2017 what they were not keen on being reminded of was that for much of the previous decade they had been touting the virtues of the “moderate” and “democratic” Islamism of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the performance of the foreign policy grandees has been no better. Israeli military action could never succeed in ending the Second Intifada, we were repeatedly assured, right up until it did succeed, at which point we were warned that a third one was inevitable and imminent (it hasn’t happened yet). A fence couldn’t keep out suicide bombers (it has); and assassination of Hamas leaders would only lead to more terrorists carrying out more attacks (it hasn’t).
Watching these same experts comment on the recent announcements of normalization agreements first between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and then between Israel and Bahrain has been edifying and even sometimes entertaining. Apparently, peace agreements no longer count as peace agreements if the countries weren’t at war, which is odd since Israel and Jordan were not at war when they signed a peace treaty in 1994, and neither were Israel and Egypt in 1979. Nor, for that matter, were Israel and the PLO when the Oslo Accords were signed. Come to think of it, neither were the US and Japan when they signed a peace treaty in 1951. This is a talking point, not a serious claim.
Equally unserious is the bellyaching about the nondemocratic nature of the regimes in Bahrain and the UAE. This is supposed to indicate a “preference” on Israel’s part for despotic Arab regimes (as opposed to which?) or even just an agreement of one illiberal state with two others. The latter formulation has the benefit not only mischaracterizing Israeli democracy as something even comparable to absolute monarchies with non-citizen majorities, but also making Israel somehow responsible for the lack of democracy in the Arab world.
This charge would be plausible if there were democratic states in the Arab world extending a hand of peace to Israel only to be met with rejection. Or if, say, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates had no normal relations with other democracies besides Israel.
But, of course, both countries have normal diplomatic relations with nearly every other state in the world, including all of the world’s most advanced democracies, without any of them being tainted by it.
In the diplomatic Calvinball which Israel has to play, having normal relations with a non-democratic regime now makes you complicit in its domestic policies. That wasn’t the rule one month ago, but it is now, and if you don’t understand you just aren’t a very sophisticated observer of global events.