Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the United States has sought to broker a peace deal between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. The effort has employed the time and prestige of presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, U.S. Secretaries of State and other high government officials. For the most part, these efforts failed. The Rogers Plan (1969), the Reagan Plan (1982), the Kerry Plan and now the Trump Plan have all been relegated to the dustbin. These are the white elephants of American diplomacy!
The irony is that the most notable successes in the long quest for Middle East peace were achieved not because of these grand plans but in spite of them. This was true for the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979, and is true for the much more recent restoration of full diplomatic relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, witnessed on the White House lawn just last month.
Let us start with the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, whose genesis resulted from the élan of the Egyptian President and American gaffes more than it did conscious diplomatic spadework from our well-intentioned State Department and White House. Those of us alive in 1977 well remember then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. In his address to Israel’s Knesset, he proclaimed, “[W]e welcome you among us with full security and safety.” But before Sadat’s visit, the United States had been on a different track, calling for a peace conference in Geneva to be co-chaired by the United States and the Soviet Union. Sadat, who had thrown Soviet forces out of Egypt in 1972, wanted no part of an American plan that would bring the Soviet Union back to the Middle East.
After failing to persuade the leaders of Syria and Saudi Arabia to join him, he decided that he would strike out to Jerusalem alone. The United States quickly fell in line and wholeheartedly supported Sadat’s initiative. President Jimmy Carter immersed himself in the details at every step along the way, beginning with 13 days at Camp David in the fall of 1978, to presiding over the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in March 1979 at the White House. In the end, the United States got it right, but it was earlier missteps by the United States started the process.
Likewise, the establishment of diplomatic relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain followed a similar course. The long-promised Trump Peace Plan announced only earlier this year never got off the ground, yet it did open the way for Israel to annex Palestinian territory. But inviting Israel to annex a large part of the Palestinian West Bank led to accelerated efforts by the UAE’s ambassador to Washington and government minister, Yousef Al Otaiba, to craft an agreement in which Israel agreed to suspend the annexation of territory in exchange for the establishment of full diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE. Unlike President Carter in his prominent role in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, President Trump remained on the sidelines while Al Otaiba made the rounds in Abu Dhabi, Washington and Jerusalem. Bahrain soon followed the UAE in establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel, and other Arab countries are widely expected to follow – most likely Oman, Sudan and possibly Morocco.
Al Otaiba deserves his place on the honor roll of statesmen (alongside Sadat and Menachem Begin, King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin) who have each advanced the Arab-Israeli peace process.
There is a lesson to be learned from the failure of our country’s peace plans and the success of Sadat and Yousef Al Otaiba. Without leadership in the Arab world, no amount of goodwill on the part of the United States or other third parties, including the United Nations, is likely to succeed. Regional peace must have regional buy-in.
And now what was once a far-off fantasy is within reach: the stage is close to being set for a possible initiative by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to make the ultimate deal in which Israel moves toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in return for recognition of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem and Mecca at peace! A dream? Yes. But so, too, was the creation of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948 and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
Sometimes, faux pas are the mother of invention!