Last week’s announcement of a breakthrough peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is not only a very significant diplomatic achievement for the parties but for Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects and the U.S. administration as well. For years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied the Trump administration to put the annexation of certain territories in the West Bank on the table and saw the fruits of his labor with the unveiling of the President’s peace plan last January. Had Netanyahu cashed that chip and went ahead with his planned annexation, he risked condemnation by most of the world, the American Left (and quite possibly a new American president come January) and even the Israeli Left in exchange for marginal domestic benefits which would have amounted to not much more than semantics to please his political base on the Israeli Right.
Instead, Netanyahu and Trump turned the “annexation threat” into a historic peace deal with a key Gulf state which not only benefits Israel’s general standing in the world at large and, more specifically, in the Arab world which comes with many economic benefits, it more importantly presents a united regional front against the ongoing Iranian threat and sends a clear message to the Palestinians that the Arab world is not going to tolerate their rejectionism forever.
By applying sovereignty to portions of the West Bank, Netanyahu had hoped to placate his political base and, more importantly, make it clear to the Palestinian leadership that their continued inability to make the decisions necessary to make peace has consequences.
However, the risk of annexation outweighed any benefit. Much like his 2015 ill-advised decision to address Congress in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, annexation ran the risk of putting more daylight between Israel and U.S. Democrats, and, more significantly, could have spurred the Palestinians to pursue a one state solution which could force Israel to have to choose between being a Jewish State and a Democratic one.
Not only does this deal obviate the real risks associated with annexation, it significantly strengthens Israel’s position vis a vis the Palestinians. In reaching this agreement, the UAE implicitly recognizes that during the course of the past 27 years of negotiations, Israel has made very serious efforts to make peace while the Palestinians have simply waited for things to work out for them without offering a single concession.
Furthermore, even if the Palestinians had shown willingness to make peace, Israel cannot make existential concessions to an individual or an entity which does not represent almost half of the Palestinian people. Hamas’s firm grip on its rule of the Gaza Strip and its stated goal to the uncompromising destruction of Israel make it very clear that it will never agree to any peace agreement. The goal of the peace process is a two-state solution with one Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, not a three-state solution with a terrorist entity ruling Gaza. Lastly, the Palestinians must give up the delusion that there ever will be a “right of return.” No matter who the Israeli prime minister might be, a right of return for the Palestinians would be a non-starter. It is merely a convenient excuse for the Palestinians to wallow in victimhood indefinitely.
Yet, while the facts on the ground show a slim to no chance of the Israelis and Palestinians reaching a bilateral agreement in the near future, Israel cannot ignore the existence of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Israel must preserve the possibility of a two-state solution and this deal gives them the opportunity to do so on its own terms while applying pressure on the Palestinians to finally turn onto the road towards self-determination.
Annexation might have sent a message to the Palestinian, but this peace deal with the UAE sends the Palestinians the much stronger message that their allies are not going to wait around for them either. Moreover, this deal is likely to embolden other moderate Arab states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel which will put even more pressure on Palestinians to make concessions.
Finally, credit must be given where credit is due. By putting the threat of annexation on the table, Netanyahu and Donald Trump, through his envoy, Jared Kushner, created a bargaining chip that did not previously exist and used it to score a huge diplomatic coup. It gave the UAE (and reportedly other Gulf states in the near future) an opening to openly embrace Israel and jump start the process of unifying Israel with the other U.S. allies in the region.
There is a lesson to be learned for Joe Biden should he win the presidency because it is unlikely that the Obama administration could have pulled this off, despite Biden’s assertion that this deal built upon diplomacy fostered by the Obama-Biden administration. Arguably, it was the regional perception that Obama got too close to the Iranians which brought the sides together, but it is doubtful this is the way Biden intended to be credited.
By and large, Israel is interested in peace. However, because of the very real existential threats Israel faces, it needs to feel that the Americans are unequivocally on their side when facilitating any such peace deal in the future. This means Israel must feel that it can fully trust the American president. While President Obama did many good things for Israel while in office, most notably his support for the Iron Dome and the 2016 security assistance memorandum of understanding which provided Israel with $38B of military aid over ten years, his Cairo speech, his approach to the Iran nuclear deal and his decision to abstain from a UN Security Council vote on his way out of office along with deprecating statements from administration officials such as John Kerry and Ben Rhodes left Israelis feeling differently. Like President Trump, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush understood this and for the sake of progress in the region, future presidents must do so as well.