Trump’s Middle East accord is the illusion of peace

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From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan on September 15 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Israel normalized relations with the Arab states Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, in an accord partially brokered by the Trump administration.
  • These are only the third and fourth Arab states to recognise Israel. That makes this a very big deal.
  • But it’s hardly “the dawn of a new Middle East,” as Trump called it.
  • In fact, thanks in part to the Trump administration’s repeated capitulation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is farther away than ever from making peace with the Palestinians.
  • As long as Israel is an occupying force, it can never be at peace or call itself a liberal democracy.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Israel has existed as a sovereign state for over 70 years in the Middle East, alongside the 22 nations that make up the Arab League. Until this month, just two of those countries recognised Israel’s existence: Egypt and Jordan.

Both had fought several wars with Israel before signing treaties that effectively normalized relations between them. (Mauritania, a North African Arab League state, recognised Israel in 1999 but cut off diplomatic relations in 2009 in protest of that year’s Israel-Gaza war).

That’s why, however much it pains President Donald Trump’s critics to admit it, the deals brokered in part by the Trump administration with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalize relations with Israel are historically significant.

But they have not — by any stretch of the imagination — brought about “the dawn of a new Middle East,” as Trump put it.

There’s no peace in the Middle East without a Palestinian state

Israel still holds dominion over nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and, along with Egypt, imposes a land and sea blockade on nearly 2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Both territories were seized by Israel following 1967’s Six-Day War, when it struck first at the Arab armies amassed at its borders that had promised a war of attrition and nothing less than the total destruction of Israel. Forces from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq (with support from several other Arab and Muslim nations) were quickly sent into retreat.

In the more than half-century since, Israel has prospered into a technologically advanced, economically thriving social democracy with universal healthcare and clandestine nuclear weapons.

But the seemingly permanent occupation of the Palestinian territories has contributed to Israel’s status as an international pariah. Critics, including former President Jimmy Carter, have likened the status quo — in which stateless, disenfranchised Palestinians’ movements are restricted even within the occupied territories — to apartheid.

Many Palestinians, Muslims, and left-wing Westerners believe Israel is an inherently illegitimate country forged in war without the consent of the Palestinian population. It’s an argument far too dense for one column, but suffice it to say that Israel is hardly the first nation-state to be born of a war that caused a tragic refugee crisis and mass population displacement.

It is the intransigence of this particular criticism of Israel — that the country is not and never will be legitimate — that causes many Israelis to believe that no amount of rapprochement with the Palestinians will ever be enough, leaving them coarsened and jaded by perpetually fruitless talks of lasting peace. The failures of several exhaustively negotiated potential peace deals, which would have yielded a sovereign Palestinian state, have also contributed to Israeli cynicism about a two-state solution.

But the fact remains that a two-state solution is the only solution if Israel wishes to call itself a liberal democracy. The Trump-brokered deals with Bahrain and UAE do nothing to change that calculus. In fact, they may have entrenched it even further.

Alliances of convenience

The coalition of Sunni Arab dictatorships, which for so long had refused to recognise Israel out of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, has seemingly abandoned the Palestinians.

Though many of them, including Saudi Arabia, have been back-channel economic and intelligence partners with Israel for years, the push toward official normalization radically changes the dynamics of the Middle East chess board.

It is Iran, a Shiite theocracy, and its belligerence toward its neighbours that is of far greater concern to the Sunni Gulf states than the endless Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Israel knows it needs all the friends it can have in an always tumultuous, unfriendly neighbourhood and has no shortage of reasons to fear and loathe the Iranian government.

But just because oil kleptocracies are willing to do business out in the open with the Jewish state doesn’t mean the Arab populations have followed suit, nor does it mean the Sunni states will try to convince the Palestinian leadership to get back to the negotiating table.

The Palestinians have fewer stalwart friends among Arab leaders than ever.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the Arab states’ normalization with Israel, had his foreign minister quit the chairmanship of Arab League meetings, and ordered the drafting of a pointless condemnation of UAE, which the Arab League summarily rejected.

Almost a decade and a half since the Authority’s ruling Fatah party lost a civil war in Gaza to Hamas, the Palestinians have essentially lived in two occupied non-states ruled by two governments.

Hamas, a fascist anti-Semitic theocracy, will never recognise Israel, much less make peace. That leaves Abbas’ party as the only possible peace partner.

The problem is that the Israelis have already seen what kind of fickle “peace partner” Abbas can be, and Abbas is overwhelmingly unpopular among his own people. Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The Times of Israel, “The next intifada is as likely to be directed at [Palestinian] leaders as at the Israeli occupation.”

But Abbas isn’t an entirely unreasonable man. And he’s not wrong to look at Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the administration’s de facto Middle East envoy, as a dishonest broker of any prospective peace deal with Israel.

Kushner’s dishonest diplomacy

Credit where it’s due, Kushner’s dealmaking with UAE and Bahrain was impressive and very much in the interest of an important US ally. Kushner’s extraction of a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not illegally annex parts of the West Bank is also to be lauded.

However, it was the Trump administration’s total capitulation to Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government on settlement building in the West Bank and the annexation of the Golan Heights that even gave the prime minister the ability to cash in a negotiating chip he never should have had in the first place.

A US negotiator interested in maintaining even the appearance of impartiality between Israel and the Palestinians would have made it clear that the US opposed annexation of significant chunks of the small, narrow, and dense piece of land that would form the bulk of any Palestinian state.

But Kushner is not an honest negotiator.

In his tweet announcing the deal between Israel and UAE, Trump reiterated the “Peace-to-Prosperity” plan the administration released in January would serve as the road map for future Middle East peace efforts.

But the most important aspect of that plan, the future map of a Palestinian state, was ridiculous (and may have been plagiarized from a strikingly similar World Zionist Organisation-produced map from 40 years earlier).

Remember, this plan is the starting point to any negotiations that would require painful concessions from both sides. This first position, however, envisions a noncontiguous Palestinian state, pockmarked with innumerable Israeli enclaves. There’s simply no way this works without Israeli forces continuing to occupy Palestinian land — which might be the point.

Kushner doesn’t seem much interested in maintaining even the pretense of neutrality in his “peace” efforts.

He told CNN in January, following the release of his insultingly half-assed peace plan, that the Palestinians ought to accept a peace deal into which they had absolutely no input.

“If they don’t, they’re going to screw up another opportunity, like they have screwed up every other opportunity that they have ever had in their existence,” Kushner said of one of the two parties with whom he’s tasked with negotiating lasting peace.

So give one cheer, but only one, for Trump’s Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

Save the other two cheers for a US administration that takes a meaningful interest in permanent sovereignty for the Palestinians, without which Israel can never achieve long-term security or liberal democratic legitimacy.