The reaction to the agreement reveals how deeply rooted the concept is that Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians in order to achieve peace with its neighbors.
But the deal has not been greeted with the kind of fanfare bestowed upon the peace agreements of the 1990’s, and ironically appears to have received only a lukewarm response from many groups that are champions of peace. As Trump administration adviser Jared Kushner and a US delegation arrived in Israel on August 30, the deal is being pushed forward by the White House.
On the surface, Israel has welcomed the White House push for peace, but the interpretation of how to get there, such as through annexing part of the West Bank, has left a lack of clarity about what this “peace” means. The UAE deal puts an end to Israel’s annexation plans – for now. Ostensibly, that is an important achievement as it keeps open the normative concept of a two-state solution, even if a divided Palestinian leadership currently has difficulty negotiating such a solution with Israel.
Nevertheless, the UAE-Israel deal is an essential step to normalizing ties with Israel. It is often taken for granted that Israel doesn’t have ties with countries in the region. In fact, the push for normalizing these ties has often been either absent from the agenda of peace voices and groups or not part of a central campaign. In short, groups that talk about Israeli-Palestinian peace rarely seem to push Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Iraq or other states to make peace with Israel.
AFTER ISRAEL and the UAE announced the deal, many well-known voices that have advocated for peace over the years expressed concern about the agreement.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, wrote that while Israel’s foreign minister said the country is moving from annexation to normalization, “[The] reality is normalization must be proceeded by an end to occupation and a two-state deal,” and that it’s an “illusion to think it can be achieved without addressing the Palestinian issue.” He also argued, on the day the deal was announced, that “any move to establish warmer ties between Israel and its neighbors is a good thing, but comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace can’t leave Palestinians on the outside look in.”
A look at the social media posts of those like Ben-Ami, APN and others who are generally deeply interested in Israeli peace issues shows that between the August 13 announcement and August 30 when Jared Kushner arrived in Israel, there were other posts about the UAE agreement, but most of them were either lukewarm or critical.
Part of the reason for a lack of hype over the deal is that it isn’t the same as previous peace deals with Jordan and Egypt, which were once at war with Israel. Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former key advisor on Israel-Arab negotiations, tweeted: “Let’s not blow the UAE-Israel deal out of proportion. A significant development. But not to be compared with Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt – largest/strongest military power in Arab world – or Jordan – with longest and least defensible border – which took both off confrontation line.”
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, one-time special envoy for Israel-Palestinian negotiations and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that while the normalization is a historic development, “it doesn’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was what they and Obama were trying to achieve. In that respect they failed just like the rest of us.” He sees a silver lining that the Kushner trip to the Middle East, with National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, could push for Israel-Palestinian peace. He noted that the Palestinian anti-normalization strategy is failing.
Other voices have chimed in as well. Trita Parsi of the Quincy institute argued that the UAE-Israel deal came about because of shared concerns over America’s withdrawal from parts of the Middle East. Peter Beinart, who has recently become well known for talking about a so-called “one-state solution,” didn’t seem to tweet about the UAE deal, but did re-tweet Tareq Baconi, who wrote “UAE-Israel deal doing what its meant to do: avert gaze away from occupation.” Former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes also critiqued the deal, arguing it was “dressed up as an election eve achievement” and that it excluded the Palestinians.
The anti-occupation group IfNotNow, in arguing against the deal, said that “Netanyahu is right at home among these authoritarian rulers.” They and others also argued on social media that the deal was actually about weapons sales to the UAE from the US. “While this deal is being applauded, its face-value changes only create a façade of peacemaking while allowing de-factor annexation, continuing the occupation, silencing Palestinian voices [and] harming the fight for justice,” the group wrote. Mairav Zonszein noted that Israel was making peace with a country it was not at war with “while continuing to occupy millions of Palestinians.”
THIS SAMPLE survey of reactions among former diplomats, professional pro-peace activists, far-left organizations, commentators and writers who have been deeply involved in Israeli-Palestinian issues for many years reveals many common themes about the deal. At its essence, the deal is critiqued for not including the Palestinians.
Another reality revealed is that during the period after the peace deal was announced until Kushner’s trip to Israel, there was a lot of focus on the Democratic and Republican conventions, meaning this is an intensely political time in the US. Many voices who were critical or lukewarm on the deal are also critics of the Trump administration. It was seen as politically connected to the administration’s attempt to burnish its credentials on the eve of a US election.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East on August 24 was seen as partisan because he taped a speech in Jerusalem for the Republican convention. In addition, protests in the US after the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 have led many to concentrate on domestic politics and racial justice in place of looking at the Middle East.
The reaction to the agreement reveals how deep the concept is that Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians in order to achieve peace with its neighbors. This is interesting, because today the main reason for lack of normalization is ascribed to the “occupation” or Israel’s control of the West Bank.
However, prior to 1967, the Jewish state also didn’t have normalized ties and wasn’t occupying the West Bank. This means that the goal posts for “peace” have shifted over the years. There was no recipe for peace prior to 1967, only denial of Israel’s right to exist by a plethora of states in the Middle East.
Peace with Egypt came later, and Israel agreed to leave the Sinai Peninsula. In 2002 during the Second Intifada, the Arab Peace Initiative proposed normalization throughout the region in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. This concept largely underpins hesitancy in Riyadh and Bahrain to normalize relations with Israel today.
The anomaly of Israel’s lack of relations – and the theory that Israel must make peace with Palestinians to achieve relations – is not found in any other conflict. India doesn’t have to come to an agreement with Pakistan over Kashmir to have relations with countries, for instance.
The theory that lack of normalization has pressured Israel to make peace with the Palestinians has little evidence to back it up. Decades of lack of normalization didn’t bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to a solution – if anything, it entrenched Israel’s role in the West Bank after it left the Gaza Strip.
Much of the discussion about peace therefore centers primarily on Israel achieving peace, even if neither the Israelis or Palestinians can agree on basic aspects of it – such as Jerusalem, refugees and removing Jewish communities in the West Bank – creating a Catch-22 in which Israel can’t achieve peace with the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, and therefore can’t achieve normalization anywhere else.
It appears that much of what was put into the Oslo process in the 1990s was doomed to create impossible “final status” issues, put off to the end and thus making it impossible for Israel to reach beyond the Palestinians to peace with more countries in the region.
The UAE deal breaks that trend.
CRITICS SAY this means that Israel doesn’t have to make concessions to Ramallah. However, 15 years of the Palestinians being divided between Hamas-run Gaza and PA-run Ramallah seem to illustrate that even if Israel has a peace-driven prime minister, which it hasn’t for a decade, little progress will be made. A divided Middle East, with Iran and Turkey backing Hamas while the UAE and its allies want a greater role in Ramallah, make things more complex.
The end result is that the Israel-UAE deal generally got a lukewarm response for many reasons: partisan opposition to the Trump administration; criticism that it doesn’t achieve much for Palestinian demands; concern that it was done cynically or for weapons sales; anger over it appearing to cement a victory for Netanyahu and Trump; and criticism of the UAE by those who are closer to the regional views of Turkey or Iran. In many ways, it was seen as linked to US domestic politics or was overshadowed by the domestic crises in the US, and thus didn’t inspire voices to celebrate the agreement.