This New, Narrow Vision for the Middle East Isn’t Really About Peace

World Politics Review, 14.09.2020
Frederick Deknatel, editor ejecutivo

An Israeli El Al airliner in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, after a ceremonial flight from Tel Aviv. (Nir Elias/AP)

Imagine a different Middle East.

Were all outstanding hostilities resolved, border formalities simplified and roads unblocked, one might breakfast beside the Mediterranean in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, drive up to the Syrian capital of Damascus for lunch, race south to Jordan’s Amman for tea, make Jerusalem for an early dinner, and be back beside the Mediterranean for a stroll before bed in Tel Aviv.”

That might have seemed like a fanciful vision when John Keay, a British writer and historian, sketched it out in 2003, in his book “Sowing the Wind: The Seeds of Conflict in the Middle East.” He was underscoring the small geographic size of that core of the region, the source of decades of conflict. But it was hardly a new vision. Indeed, the promise of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, beyond an independent Palestine coexisting with Israel, was of a more normal Middle East, where borders could be crossed easily and countries could become defined not by their barriers but by their openness and proximity to each other.

Jordan’s then-King Hussein spoke directly of that hope and geography at the 1994 signing ceremony for the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, which was held at the Wadi Araba border crossing, with the Israeli resort town of Eilat on one side, and its Jordanian twin, Aqaba, on the other.

Behind us here, you see Eilat and Aqaba—the way we have lived over the years, in such close proximity, unable to meet, to visit each other, to develop this beautiful part of the world. No more.”

That vision, of course, was never ultimately realized. But something has changed. Long gone is the prospect of land for peace, with Israel giving up territory it has occupied since the 1967 war in exchange for ending hostilities and establishing diplomatic ties with its neighbors. Instead, what’s taking shape is what Israel’s right wing has wanted all along: “economic peace.” The proof is in the normalization deals that Israel struck with the United Arab Emirates last month, and with Bahrain late last week.

Both deals, brokered by the Trump administration, are billed as peace treaties, although Israel was never at war with either the UAE or Bahrain. In fact, they’ve been moving toward a de facto alliance behind the scenes in recent years, united by their opposition to Iran, and have cultivated economic ties for longer than that. Israel gained full diplomatic relations with the UAE, a powerful, oil-rich Arab country in the Gulf, in exchange for agreeing to halt its planned annexation of the West Bank. But neither the Israelis nor the Emiratis still really agree about what they agreed on. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted the hold on annexation is only “temporary,” likely in an attempt to appease the hard-right settler movement whose support he still needs. The UAE has framed the normalization agreement as having ended any chance of West Bank annexation. As part of the deal, the Trump administration reportedly promised the UAE that the U.S. wouldn’t recognize any Israeli annexation of the West Bank until 2024 “at the earliest.”

But either way, the heart of the deal isn’t really about that. It’s about airlines, among other economic benefits. The message was hardly subtle when Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and designated Middle East dealmaker, headed an American and Israeli delegation on a ceremonial flight on Israel’s national airline, El Al, from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi—the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight between the two countries. There will undoubtedly be similar flights the other way on Emirates and Etihad, the UAE’s two flashy flag carriers, though Emirati officials may be a little more low-key. After all, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, will not attend Tuesday’s signing ceremony at the White House, even though his name is on the joint announcement of the deal.

Rather than a Middle East where a handful of countries right next to each other, with a history of conflict, make peace and open their borders—with that tantalizing vision of anyone driving freely up the Mediterranean coast, or throughout the Jordan Valley—the dividend of normalization now is new flight routes between Israel and repressive Arab monarchies in the Gulf. As well as new American fighter jets. And, of course, all kinds of other trade, with commercial ties set to thrive between Israel, that “start-up nation,” and the UAE, flush with petrodollars and other wealth that have built Dubai and made its autocrats into powerful regional actors.

The normalization agreement with Bahrain is much the same, except Israel gave up even less, if it gave up anything at all. As Elham Fakhro, the International Crisis Group’s senior Gulf analyst, noted on Twitter following the deal’s announcement, while Israel committed to “temporarily halt” West Bank annexation with the UAE, the Bahrain agreement “lacks even the pretence of a ‘land for peace’ exchange, ie the backbone of the Arab Peace Initiative and two-state solution. Israel gets peace for zero concessions.”

The Arab Peace Initiative, endorsed by the Arab League back in 2002, was meant to offer Israel the prospect of peace and normalization with the entire Arab world, in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. But now it just reads like a primary source in a history book, invoked by Arab foreign ministers as a relic.

This new, Trumpian vision for so-called Middle East peace—between countries that have not been at war, and as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank looks essentially perpetual, with America’s blessing—is proudly articulated in the Trump administration’s much-hyped “Peace for Prosperity” pitch to Israelis and Palestinians. Unveiled early this year, that proposal for peace, if it can really be called that, more openly favored Israel and its West Bank occupation than any previous American initiative. It reads more like a real estate scheme, hyping billions in future investment, if only you get in early. This “economic framework” takes up more than half of the proposal, which Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator, has called a roadmap for a “permanent occupation.”

Not surprisingly, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, commended it as a “serious initiative that addresses many issues raised over the years” and “an important starting point for a return to negotiations.” In June, Otaiba wrote an op-ed in Israel’s largest newspaper warning Israelis against annexing the West Bank, calling it a “misguided provocation” that would kill the prospect of normalization with the likes of the UAE. It was reportedly a preview of the offer Otaiba then took to Kushner, trading normalization for annexation—although it’s not really clear that Israel actually gave that up.

Bahrain supported the Trump plan too and had hosted a TED Talk-style conference in Manama last year ginning it up. The “economic workshop,” as it was billed, included a presentation in which Kushner talked about making the Palestinian territories “investable.” It was, in the words of Michael Koplow, a WPR contributor and the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, “the Monty Python sketch of Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.”

And yet, it seems to be winning out. What about the Palestinians? As Ellen Laipson wrote in WPR last year following the Bahrain conference, “Palestinians will not embrace Jared Kushner’s empty sales pitch as the solution to their long quest for political recognition and statehood.” But they are now suddenly confronted with a new, narrow vision for the Middle East, being formalized at the White House this week, that leaves them more abandoned than ever.

The Arab position that demands the establishment of an independent Palestinian state before normalizing with Israel is collapsing,” Jehad Harb, a Palestinian analyst in Ramallah, told The New York Times. “The Bahraini move is an affirmation of this new reality.”

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