OK, I’ll admit it. My first reaction when I heard of the historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was not to celebrate this historic accord, but rather to wonder how it would affect the domestic political fortunes of the agreement’s principal beneficiaries, President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was not an unreasonable reaction. After all, both Trump and Netanyahu are currently facing significant domestic political challenges. Trump is in an uphill battle for reelection, while Netanyahu is struggling to hold his coalition together while fighting corruption charges. Both stand to benefit politically from this agreement.
Once I overcame this initial reaction, however, I began contemplating the potential implications of this achievement for the prospects for Middle East peace. When the accord is fully implemented, the UAE will be only the third Arab country to have full diplomatic relations with Israel and the first to establish such relations since the treaty with Jordan more than a quarter of a century ago. UAE isn’t exactly a world powerhouse, but among Persian Gulf countries it’s not an insignificant player. Now that it has broken the taboo against formal relations with Israel, other countries may follow. Both Oman and Bahrain issued supportive statements and may be the next to follow suit. (Of course, the real game-changer would be Saudi Arabia, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.)
Israel and the UAE have had informal relations for a while, so some may be tempted to dismiss the agreement as being of minor importance. That would be a mistake. Diplomacy is a game of symbols, and the symbolic value of Israel exchanging ambassadors with another Arab country — one with which it does not share a border — is difficult to overstate. It signals that in the Arab world official dealings with Israel are no longer unthinkable. Moreover it demonstrates that the Palestinians are losing their veto power over Arab-Israeli relationships. They clearly were not consulted before the accord was concluded, as the angry recall of the Palestinian ambassador from the UAE makes clear.
That doesn’t mean that Israel has no need to resolve the Palestinian question; nearly five million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza, and they’re not about to disappear. What it may mean is that the Palestinians no longer have the leverage to insist on resolving that question on terms clearly unacceptable to Israel, and we may be getting closer to the day that they are forced to recognize that. Far from making comprehensive peace a more distant dream, as pro-Palestinian advocates are claiming, the Israel-UAE accord may actually make it more likely.
In part, that’s because the accord, especially if other countries follow the UAE, may increase pressure on Palestinian leaders to return to the negotiating table. More immediately, the accord gave Prime Minister Netanyahu the cover he needed to escape the corner he had painted himself into by his reckless election promise to annex part of the West Bank. Annexation would have been a diplomatic setback for Israel just when its international standing was improving. The UAE agreement would not have been possible without abandoning annexation, at least for the time being, and Egypt and Jordan, the two previous Arab countries to make peace with Israel, had also voiced strong objections. My suspicion is that Netanyahu is just as happy to have a face-saving way of extricating himself from what he knew to be a rash promise.
Some on both ends of the ideological spectrum are claiming that Netanyahu only agreed to a temporary suspension of annexation, leaving Israel free to pursue it after a brief pause. (Those on the left are saying this in denigration of the accord, those on the right in praise of it.) True, Netanyahu didn’t commit to a specific time frame, but it’s clear that his goal is to build a long-term diplomatic and trade relationship with the UAE, and hopefully with other countries to follow. It would not serve his purposes to renege on what was a precondition to the UAE’s agreement. More likely, he has no intention to proceed with annexation in the foreseeable future, and his emphasis on the temporary nature of the suspension is primarily intended for domestic consumption.
Of course, the accord implicates American as well as Israeli domestic politics. It gives Trump a concrete foreign policy achievement at a time when his polling numbers are low and his domestic policy achievements meagre. The timing of Trump’s announcement, moreover, was suspiciously close to Vice President Biden’s introduction of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate and was probably intended to overshadow it, as well as to distract attention from the Democratic National Convention the following week.
When it comes down to it, however, the accord is unlikely to affect the election results. Those who value Trump’s record on Israel above all else had already decided to disregard his horrendous domestic record, including his egregious mishandling of the pandemic. Those determined to vote Trump out of office are not likely to be persuaded otherwise by this accord. If anything, many are more likely to find reasons to criticize the accord because it was brokered by the Trump administration.
The administration’s success in brokering this accord reminds us that the world can sometimes be a complicated place. Many Jewish Republicans argue that the Democratic Party is no longer the reflexively pro-Israel party that it once was. Though greatly exaggerated, this argument is not a complete invention. Two virulently anti-Israel Democrats — one of whom expressly opposed the Israel-UAE accord — recently won primaries to retain their seats in the House Of Representatives, and two of the party’s leading Presidential contenders made a point of skipping the AIPAC conference. At the same time, both the party’s Congressional leadership and its Presidential ticket have impeccable pro-Israel credentials.
The administration’s pro-Israel policies remind American Jews that, much as we try to deny it, we can sometimes face a conflict between what is best for Israel and what is best for the US. There is no magic formula to resolve such conflicts when they arise. We do ourselves no favors, however, to pretend we can wish them away.
To me though, the 2020 Presidential election presents no such conflict. While it could be argued in previous elections that Israel faced an existential threat while the U.S. did not, in this election the opposite is true. After three and a half years in office, Donald J. Trump has demonstrated conclusively that he is mentally, morally and temperamentally unfit to be President. He has undermined our democratic institutions, corrupted the administration of justice and so mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic as to cost many thousands of American lives — more per capita than any other country. Even as he seeks reelection, he is openly and shamelessly using the levers of power in his control to undermine public confidence in the electoral process itself, openly admitting that he is prepared to sabotage the United States Postal Service in order to obstruct the counting of mail-in ballots. His continuation in office would pose a potentially lethal threat to our democratic way of life.
As a Jew, I am grateful to the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for his efforts to help Israel build the infrastructure of a secure peace in that part of the world. But those efforts cannot make up for the harm his father-in-law has done to the United States and its democratic institutions — the health of which is essential to the peace and security not only of Israel but of the entire world.