One of the few bright spots of genuine good news this year – if not the only one – has been the sudden outbreak of peace between Israel and several majority-Muslim countries in the region. For those of us interested in history and world affairs, this is undoubtedly one of those “I’m so happy to have lived to see this” moment, akin to the dissolution of the Soviet Union 29 years ago yesterday. I know it is for me.
Israel, it is often forgotten, was one of the first creations of the United Nations. Attacked by its neighbours on its founding and several times thereafter, and in between all that subjected to near constant terrorism, boycotts, and attempts to delegitimise (ironically under the aegis of the United Nations), it’s been a rough 70 years for the Jewish state. It didn’t stop Israel from developing the only vibrant liberal democratic culture in the region, as well as general prosperity and entrepreneurship again unparalleled throughout those parts of the Middle East poor in oil and gas and even many so rich. In all that time, only Egypt risked a peace treaty with Israel back in 1979 (for which its president paid with his life), followed in 1994 for Jordan. Now in 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have normalised relations with Israel. As Prime Minister Netanyahu, the great survivor of the last three decades of Israeli politics, said the other day
You can see the Arab countries, some have already come forward, others are coming forward… I think we should continue that policy and we’re going to see many, many more countries, a lot more than people expect and perhaps a lot sooner than people expect.
Since 1948, all the relations (or lack thereof) between Israel and the Muslim world have been the slave to the Palestinian question. It is now pretty clear that Palestinian Arabs will not get a better deal than what’s currently on offer (and has been with slight variations for at least 20 years now), which is virtually all the land of Gaza and West Bank, with some territorial adjustments and compensations elsewhere. There will be no “right of return” of Palestinians who prior to 1948 used to live in what is now Israel; no sane state would allow a mass immigration of millions of people who want to see the state in question destroyed, as most Palestinians unfortunately still do, clinging to the fantasy of a one-state (final) solution – a Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately too, any future Palestinian state looks to continue as a semi-failed polity, torn between the Islamists of Hamas and the more traditional and secular Arab kleptocrats of Fatah. The diplomatic progress of the past few years has been possible only because an increasing number of regional states have decided to acknowledge the long-standing realities on the ground and “consciously uncouple” themselves from the millstone of Palestinian intransigence.
Then, of course, is the rising threat of Iran, whether nuclear or not, but consistently saber-rattling. This is the case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, as Arab Sunnis come to a realisation that Israel, threatened by the Tehran mullahs with the second Holocaust, can be a useful ally to help balance the Persian Shia, seeing its military is probably the most technologically advanced and most effective in the region.
There is a good book to be written about the role that Jarred Kushner has played on behalf of the United States to facilitate this Arab-Israeli warming. Disdained by the entire foreign policy establishment in the West, the young Jewish New Jersey property developer has nevertheless managed to achieve what none of them ever could and what most considered impossible. They laughed at Trump sending his son-in-law on a behind-the-scenes peace mission, seeing it as the ultimate sign of lack of seriousness by the President. Arab societies and elites, clannish as they are, I suspected saw things exactly the other way – America’s leader sending his close relative as a personal envoy, instead of yet another career diplomat, actually showed the utmost importance of the mission to all parties concerned. It’s been a matter of the right people in the right place at the right time.
With the incoming Biden administration trying to cozy up to Iran and revive Obama’s nuclear deal with the mullahs, the fair bet is that even more Sunni states will follow in the footsteps of the first four. Other contenders for diplomatic normalisation include Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim state and not directly implicated in the Middle Eastern geopolitics. The Jewish-Muslim peace still has great many enemies, particularly among the masses, for decades fed by their rulers and spiritual guardians a steady diet of anti-Semitism, in part as a distraction from all sorts of domestic problems. But at least the elites, it seems, have finally caught a dose of common sense.
Let’s pray that in this one aspect, 2021 will be just like 2020 and more.