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Stunning Israel-UAE deal upends the ‘rules’ about peace-making in Middle East

Setting aside a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main impediment to peace, to work on the region’s other priorities, marks a fundamental shift that just might work
President Donald Trump announces an agreement to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)
President Donald Trump announces an agreement to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

The impending peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is more than just a stunning diplomatic breakthrough. It represents a fundamental shift in the paradigm of peace-making.

For more than 50 years, that paradigm has been based on seemingly unassailable assumptions. The first of these was that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the core dispute in the Middle East. Resolve it, and peace would reign throughout the region. The premise was largely dispelled by the Arab Spring of 2011 and the subsequent civil wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Still, a large body of decision-makers, especially from Europe and the United States, continued to regard a solution to Israel-Palestine as the panacea for many, if not most, of the Middle East’s ills. Then-secretary of state John Kerry’s intense shuttle diplomacy, which paralleled the massacre of half a million Syrians in 2012-14, proceeded precisely on this assumption.

The next assumption was that core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was settlement-building in Judea/Samaria, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Freeze it and the dispute would be easily mediated. This, theory, too, collapsed in the face of facts. Israel withdrew from Gaza, uprooting 21 settlements, in 2005, and then froze settlements for much of 2009-10. The conflict nevertheless continued and even worsened, but that did not prevent foreign policymakers from persisting in the belief that peace is incompatible with settlements.

And, in addition to ceasing construction in the territories, Israel was expected to give virtually all of them up. This was the third assumption — that peace with the Arab world could only be purchased with Israeli concessions of land. This belief is as old as Israel itself. The first Anglo-American peace plans — Alpha and Gamma — were predicated on Israeli concessions in the Negev and elsewhere. After 1967, the principle applied to areas captured by Israel in the Six Day War and, after the return of Sinai to Egypt in 1982, to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. The same secretary of state Kerry repeatedly warned Israel that failure to forfeit those areas would result in its total international isolation.

Yet another assumption held that “everyone knows what the final agreement looks like.” With minor modifications and territorial swaps, this meant that a Palestinian state would be created along the pre-1967 lines with a capital in East Jerusalem. The Palestinians would give up the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees, agree to end the conflict with Israel and to cease all further claims, and to accept the formula of “two states for two peoples.” Israel, in turn, would remove dozens of settlements, redivide its capital, and outsource West Bank security either to the Palestinians or some international source. Of all the assumptions, this was the most divorced from reality. Not a single aspect of it was achievable. In fact, no one knew what final agreement looked like.

Finally, successive peace-makers assumed that the Palestinians, as the weaker party, had to be rewarded, especially when they left the negotiating table. The Palestinian Authority could promote terror and reject far-reaching peace plans and in return receive major increments of aid, as well as increased international recognition. Not surprisingly, this reinforcing behavior merely incentivized the Palestinians to ramp up their support for terror and to keep rejecting peace.

But now comes the Israel-UAE agreement and overturns each of these assumptions. It shows that resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is nowhere near as important as countering the Iranian threat and stimulating Middle East development. It proves that, in order to achieve peace with a powerful Arab state, Israel does not have to uproot a single settlement or withdraw from a meter of land. It opens the way to alternative approaches to addressing the dispute, one that is not dependent on Israelis and Palestinians offering concessions that neither can ever make. And the agreement punishes, rather than rewards, the Palestinians for leaving the table. It will not be surprising if, in the coming weeks, the Palestinian Authority begins to intimate its willingness to return.

For more than half of a century, the paradigm of Middle East peace-making has proven highly resistant to change. Yet even the fiercest advocates of that belief-system must recognize the seismic shift that will take place once the UAE-Israel treaty is signed. Some will no doubt insist on adhering to disproven assumptions. Those who care about peace will abandon them.

About the Author
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and a member of Knesset, is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide(Random House, 2015).
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