I grew up singing songs of peace for Israel.
“Next year we will sit on the terrace and count the birds.”
“If not tomorrow, then the day after.”
“Peace will yet come upon us and on all.”
“Go sing a song of peace, not a whispered prayer.”
As a child, I could not understand why “the Arabs” would reject peace with us, as we clearly only wanted to live in peace. We thought peace was found after the Camp David agreement with Egypt. We thought peace was found after the breakthrough of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. We thought peace was found when Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein signed the Israeli-Jordanian treaty. And while peace has proved elusive over the subsequent generation, the announcement of establishment of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates brings us a huge step closer to that peace we sang about as children.
The long, drawn-out, and unsuccessful “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians has dulled our senses to the appreciation of progress. The fact that the Palestinians expressed disappointment at the announcement and recalled their ambassador from the UAE did not help. The Palestinian dismissal of the concession that Israel agreed to put on hold any territorial annexations in the West Bank was both disappointing and unsurprising. From the Palestinian side, the agreement marks a breach in the wall of Arab solidarity for the Palestinian cause. The policy of the Arab world was to wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “resolved”—supposedly through either diplomatic or military means—before full relations could be established with Israel. The UAE has broken that approach in Israel’s favor, and will likely (hopefully) be followed by other Arab states. But the UAE was not the first Arab government to do so. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian treaties, in 1978 and 1994 respectively, kept the Palestinian issues on the forefront even as they moved forward with peace. The UAE, in insisting that Israel hold off on territorial annexations in the West Bank, has done the same. While it is true that Israel’s concession was passive, only conceding not to do something that would have faced condemnation throughout the world, the significance of the decision should not be underrated. The Palestinians would have been in a more difficult situation if Israeli annexation went forward, and the UAE should be credited for using its diplomatic capital with Israel to intervene on the Palestinians’ behalf, even if their efforts were not “authorized” by the Palestinian Authority.
The reason for the Palestinian disappointment is that Benyamin Netanyahu succeeded in convincing the UAE that the power of moving forward does not need to reside in Ramallah. The long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict is not identical with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The seismic change that was announced this past week signifies movement toward resolution of that wider rift. While the UAE was never a combatant against Israel, as Egypt and Jordan were, it has the potential in its developing relationship with Israel to establish a real and more tangible peace woven through economic and military-strategic ties than the chill that is sometimes felt between Israel and its two immediate neighbors.
The Israeli-UAE agreement has the potential as well of moving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis closer to resolution than ever before. Normalization of relations with Arab neighbors will reduce Israeli existential concerns and provide more space for Israel to resolve matters with the Palestinians closer to home. While it is true that King Hussein needed the Oslo accords to permit him to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, it is also true that the thawing of relations with Jordan was what allowed Israel to agree to the establishment of and cooperate with the Palestinian Authority and its autonomous control over most of the Palestinian population. Similarly, it was Israel’s trust in Egypt that permitted it to withdraw not only from Sinai, but also from Gaza, as difficult as that has been. The more secure Israel feels vis-à-vis its neighbors, the more flexible it can be with addressing the hard questions.
There is also the possibility that Arab friendship may be able to establish lasting peace in the region and between Israel and the Palestinians, where Arab opposition and rejection have failed. When states work together rather than against each other, for collective rather than selfish concerns, everyone will benefit. Cooperation and collaboration always have been more effective than conflict.
The tension remains in the region between the more moderate states and the Iranian-backed radical states. The extraordinary shift of direction of the past week indicates the moderate side’s willingness to ally with Israel in that broader conflict. Standing together is always the prudent course. Regional stability had been maintained in the past through dependence on one or another foreign superpower. Today the Middle East has begun to attain maturity, building its own self-sustainable interdependencies.
That Israel has become a part of that calculus, rather than the perpetual other, marks the achievement of the greatest hopes of Zionism. The reason why we have a Jewish state was so that Jews could be accepted as equals among the community of nations and peoples. The Zionist project has struggled with an ironic paradox — since the beginning of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine, a movement away from the colonizing Great Powers became itself a colonizing great power. The UAE’s acceptance of Israel is a recognition that Israel is a part of the neighborhood of the Middle East, rather than a European island disturbing the homogeneity of the Arab world.
Amid such difficult times, we must recognize that these developments are more than a whispered prayer. Next year may we sit on the terrace in peace, counting the birds.