There’s nothing normal about the normalization deals Israel formalized at the White House yesterday. Having weeks ago made public the news of an agreement with the United Arab Emirates, President Donald Trump then announced that, at the same White House event, Bahrain will also sign an accord with Israel.
This diplomatic double-play refutes notions that have powerfully influenced U.S. Middle East policy for more than half a century. The first is the assumption that the Palestinians are central to the larger Arab-Israeli conflict. The second is the belief that the Palestinian problem has to be solved before the United States or Israel can improve relations with the Arab states. Both belong on the trash heap of the peace process.
The agreements to normalize relations include opening embassies in each other’s countries. They are the most stunning developments in Arab-Israeli affairs since the 1993 Palestinian-Israeli Oslo Accords. Gulf Arabs—businessmen, athletes, and officials—have increased both clandestine and open contact with Israelis over the last decade or so, but full normalization between nations is a large leap forward.
The accords reflect common apprehension of strategic danger from Iran. A number of Arab states, including the UAE and Bahrain, see Israel as a valuable ally in opposing that threat. Israel already counters Iran by military and cyber means, as well as diplomatically, especially in Washington. This had drawn the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel closer. As reflected in Trump’s Middle East peace plan, officials believed that the Iran threat created an opportunity for Israel to normalize its relations with Arab states. “Enhanced strategic cooperation” among them, the plan said, could help counter Iran, serve U.S. security interests generally, and increase chances for peace.
In that plan, published in January, the administration identified the parts of the West Bank they believed Israel would retain in any realistic peace deal. Trump said it was very important that the United States “recognize Israeli sovereignty” over those areas if the Palestinian side continued to reject peace deals that Israel proposed.
On the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was largely about Palestinian control over the West Bank, successive Israeli governments tried unsuccessfully to make peace with the Palestinians based on a division of the territory. Israel and the Palestinians both have historically based legal claims. Jordan conquered the West Bank in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war and Israel then conquered it in the 1967 war. Israel has controlled the West Bank since 1967, but has not formally extended sovereignty over it.
In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a peace deal including control over an area at least 95 percent of the size of the West Bank. Arafat turned it down. In 2007 and 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a peace deal including approximately 94 percent of the West Bank and a so-called land swap from pre-1967 Israel equal to another 5 percent, together with other concessions. Unhappy with the land swap specifics and insistent that Israel take in millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, Abbas rejected it.
In light of this history, the Trump team rejects the view that the West Bank is the essence of the conflict. It sees the key to peace as Israeli strength and Palestinian resignation to Israel’s permanent existence. When Trump promised to recognize Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank important to Israeli security, he was warning the Palestinians that continued rejectionism would lose them ground. He was showing support for Israeli security and, in effect, minting currency that Israel and the United States could use with the Palestinians or the Arab states.
Trump’s promise to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank triggered debate among Israelis on how and when they might change the legal status of parts of the territory. Some call it “annexation,” others “extension of sovereignty.” The issue became a hot controversy throughout the Middle East and around the world, creating a diplomatic opportunity which Emirati and now Bahraini officials have seized.
They have an interest in opening diplomatic, technological, commercial, and other connections to Israel. The controversy allowed them to strike a deal with Israel in return for Israel’s agreeing to “suspend declaring sovereignty” over parts of the West Bank. It appears that the Israeli government would have been happy to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank with U.S. support, but it was even happier to suspend the action in return for a peace deal with the UAE—and one with Bahrain to boot.
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Israel did not renounce its claim to sovereignty in the West Bank. It has agreed only to suspend formally extending it, without specifying a time period. In return, Israel wins the benefits of recognition from the UAE and Bahrain, hoping it also will lead to normalization with Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and other states. As a practical matter, Israel already controls the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, anyway. It has kicked down the road the problem of when and how it might suspend its suspension.
Despite decades of extravagant rhetoric—“We reaffirm that the Palestine Cause is the entire Arab nation’s main priority,” the Arab League declared in 2018—the Arab states never actually subordinated their own interests to those of the Palestinians. In the last dozen years or so, when there have been no serious Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, the Gulf Arab states have quietly expanded cooperation with Israel, with only occasional public displays, for example at sporting events.
With increasing boldness, they are now showing a willingness to ally with Israel. They are shedding even the pretense of deference to Palestinian politicians. The UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel deals make this reality undeniable. The countries say they will not only work together against Iranian threats; they will also do business, investing jointly and working together to manufacture goods, grow food, and organize cultural events. They have spoken of medical cooperation and forging scientific and technological ties. They seem intent on making their peace far more normal—involving lots of people-to-people interaction—than has been the case with Israel’s so-called cold-peace relations with Egypt and Jordan.
There is sympathy for ordinary Palestinians, to be sure, but Arab state officials have (yet again) lost patience with Palestinian politicians whose corruption is surpassed only by their ineptitude. The Palestinian economy is poor and growing worse. Endemic corruption discourages investment and initiative, and there is much wasteful spending that includes paying huge sums to the families of those whom Israel convicted and imprisoned as terrorists or killed in action.
More and more Gulf Arab state officials recognize that the Palestinian people, the Arab states, and the United States (not to mention Israel) would all be better off if new, more constructive Palestinian leaders came to power. At the same time, there is less and less adherence to the conventional view that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians before it can make peace with the Arab states.
By noting that greater strategic cooperation between Israel and the Arab states against Iran would “set the stage for diplomatic breakthroughs,” the Trump peace plan anticipated the UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel accords. It implied that such deals could usefully increase pressure on the Palestinians to reform their politics, which is the key to a breakthrough on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The message to the Palestinians from yesterday’s White House signing ceremony is that they need a political upheaval—new leaders, new institutions, new ideas—or they are going to become utterly irrelevant in the eyes of the world, including the broader Arab world. As they lose attention, they will lose diplomatic support and economic aid. If they cannot make war and they will not make peace, their hopes to shape their own future will diminish to nothing.
A venerable strategic maxim says that if a problem is too hard, expand it. Trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by focusing only on the Palestinians and the tiny slice of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is a mission impossible, but the two new peace deals point the way to a wider and wiser approach: encourage greater cooperation between Israel and the Arab states and enlist those states in pressing the Palestinians to empower new and better leaders.
That is the most reasonable means to advance U.S. interests and to make Palestinian-Israeli peace possible. The UAE and Bahrain deals with Israel are so full of promise that the U.S. policy that helped bring it about should be continued no matter who wins the presidential election in November.
Read in Foreign Policy.