Washington Wednesday – Steps toward peace in the Middle East

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 2nd of September, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Washington Wednesday. 

On August 13th, President Trump made a surprise announcement from the Oval Office.

TRUMP: Just a few moments ago, I hosted a very special call with two friends: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates where they agreed to finalize a historical peace agreement. Everybody said this would be impossible.

Here’s what Israel gave up: It will postpone the annexation of Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank. That area is part of land the Palestinians hope to claim for their future state.

No matter: Palestinian officials called the deal a stab in the back and the Palestinian street responded.

AUDIO: [Sound of protesters chanting]

REICHARD: Hundreds of protesters in Gaza chanted “No to normalization.” A senior Hamas official said the deal “serves and promotes the occupation in its projects that target Palestine and the whole region.” Occupation, meaning Israel.

But that did not deter the new diplomatic friendship from progressing. On Monday, the first commercial flight from Israel landed in Abu Dhabi. It carried high-ranking delegations from Israel and the United States.

EICHER: During a post-flight ceremony, President Trump’s son-in-law and chief adviser, Jared Kushner, hailed the agreement as a step toward peace. And he urged the Palestinians to stop living in the past and move into a more hopeful future.

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about what this all means for a larger, regional peace deal is Michael Rubin. He’s a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute specializing in the Middle East. Good morning!

MICHAEL RUBIN, GUEST: Good morning! 

REICHARD: We just heard audio of President Trump announcing the agreement. The news broke as quite a surprise, at least as far as the general public is concerned. But clearly this has been in the works for a while. What role did the United States play here?

RUBIN: Well, certainly the United States and the Trump administration played a facilitation role—especially when it came to encouraging the Gulf allies, of which the United Arab Emirates is front and center that they had far greater interests to make peace now. The other thing that came into play was the Trump administration’s role in negotiating an agreement that would forestall Israeli annexation of some portions of the West Bank in exchange for this normalization.

REICHARD: The United Arab Emirates is not the biggest player in Arab politics in the Middle East. So how significant is it for them to make this move?

RUBIN: Well, it’s extremely significant. The United Arab Emirates may not be the most populous state—that’s Egypt—or any of the most politically significant states, but it really has been punching above its weight in recent years. And it’s been promoting a model of tolerance and of business first, and therefore, it seems to be a natural fit. 

I mean, certainly there’s also the factor which overshadows all of this peace dealing, which is both Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as many other Arab states, now face a common perceived threat with regard to Iran. And therefore they may want to get all their ducks in a row.

REICHARD: Everyone gets something in a deal like this, so what’s in it for both sides?

RUBIN: Well, what’s really interesting in this case as opposed to previous deal-making—the Israeli-Egyptian peace, the Israeli-Jordanian peace, for example—is that this for the first time is more a peace among equals. The economies of Israel and the Emirates are both fairly similar. They both have similar emphases on high-tech industries and being business friendly. 

And what makes this peace deal more significant than anything else is while Jordan and Egypt were about security, were about ending a state of war, this really is the first opportunity for a peace with Israel that’s going to be a warm peace instead of just a cold, formal peace.

REICHARD: President Trump said he expects other countries to follow in the UAE’s footsteps, and you’ve said you agree with that. So who are the most likely candidates and what does each of them bring to the table, in terms of significance?

RUBIN: Well, you know, there are so many candidates right now, which shows the sea change which we’ve seen in Arab politics. Some people are putting their bets on Sudan, which recently overthrew a rejectionist dictator. I mean, just over a decade ago we were talking about genocide in Sudan and now it seems to want to rejoin the community of nations. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was just out there. 

Or it could be Bahrain. Bahrain is the smallest Arab state. It’s an island nation in the Persian Gulf, but it’s also known to be one of the most tolerant. Just a few years ago, Bahrain sent a Jewish female ambassador to the United States. And so it’s also a host to our fifth fleet and so they also have some security concerns which unite them with Israel and the United States. 

This El Al flight, this historic El Al flight, which took Jared Kushner and the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi, flew over Saudi airspace, which really has never been done before because Saudi Arabia has traditionally banned Israeli overflights. And so a lot of people are saying Saudi Arabia could be next. 

Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, had an open visit to Oman, the Sultan of Oman, and so there’s another candidate there. Or we could look to North Africa where both Morocco and Tunisia have strong historic ties to Israel simply because so many of their Jewish community not only left to Israel but also returned regularly to Israel at the encouragement of the king.

REICHARD: When do you think we might see one of these countries recognizing Israel? Could it be weeks or months, or are we talking more like years?

RUBIN: This could be a matter of weeks. Certainly that’s what the Trump administration hopes because many of these states are also wary that American foreign policy has become a bit of a political football. 

And, therefore, they feel that if they don’t make this deal—or, at least this is what the Trump administration is saying—that under a Biden administration there could be a more strategic orientation of the United States, more towards Iran, trying to vitalize that Iranian diplomacy, trying to give incentives to make that diplomacy happen, which could come at the expense of interests of some of these Gulf states. 

So, the Trump administration on one hand is saying, “Hey, let’s get this deal done now.” Some of the other states in the region, however, are saying, “You know, it’s too close to an American election. We don’t’ want to fall into this dynamic of being a political football, so maybe let’s put it on ice until after we see what happens in November.”

REICHARD: Of course, the Palestinians are not happy about this at all. If more Arab countries do recognize Israel, where does that leave the effort to end the conflict over the Palestinian territories?

RUBIN: Well, the Palestinians are saying in many ways this is a betrayal of their desire for statehood, but after decades, a lot of the Arab states aren’t buying this anymore. They say, “Hey, look, under the Oslo accords, you agreed to a two-state solution.” Under the Oslo accords, there’s an understanding that there’s going to be compromise on territory and so forth—even on Jerusalem—therefore why should we keep abiding by your veto when, after all, the Israelis offered a peace deal in 2000, under Bill Clinton. They offered a peace deal in 2008 at the end of the George W. Bush administration that actually would have given the Palestinians more than 100 percent of the territory they had claimed and the Palestinians still said no. 

So a lot of the Arab states are kind of exasperated by this. The last thing to keep in mind is that within the Palestinian community, a lot of people are saying, “Hey, look, on one hand, the Palestinian leadership is calling for a boycott, but on the other hand, is it really our interest?” No other than Suha Arafat, who was Yassir Arafat’s widow, she recently said, “You know, the Palestinian leadership’s just got to get over this and actually join and help shape a future instead of simply vetoing everything.” 

REICHARD: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about a bit of advice you offer to U.S. diplomats and officials going forward: step out of the way. What do you mean by that?

RUBIN: Well, I mean, basically what we need to understand is that we really have a historic confluence of interest here. In many ways we could get a sense of this with the Arab Spring, which was about everything but the Arab-Israeli conflict. And so if Arab states are saying, “You know, we want to get involved with Israel.” We shouldn’t do anything that say, “Hey, look, let’s wait. Let’s try to bring this into a more comprehensive, multilateral peace deal like we’ve been trying to do for the last 50 years or so.” 

Rather, we should just—if these states want to have bilateral deals with Israel, let’s see where momentum goes and stop putting impediments or brakes in their path and let’s also stop trying to look at this solely through the lens of the American political calendar to recognize that other states have other interests and no state should be fearful of what the United States’ reaction should be should they decide to make peace with Bibi Netanyahu.

REICHARD: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute specializing in the Middle East. Thanks so much for joining us today!

RUBIN: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Adel Hana) Islamic JIhad supporters hold placards as others wave their black flags during a protest against the United Arab Emirates – Israel deal, after the Friday Prayers at the main road of Gaza City, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. 

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