The Momentum of Peace
Oct 2, 2020 | Amotz Asa-El
Jericho had not been so stunned since Joshua’s trumpeters felled its walls.
Speaking in a Palestinian refugee camp outside the biblical oasis city, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba called on the Arab world to recognise Israel because “the policy of all or nothing only led to defeat.”
It was 1965, and the speech was met with hostility throughout the Arab world. The Six Day War, which broke out two years later, made the Arab League further harden its position, when it adopted, in Khartoum, its “Three Noes” resolution, which said no to peace, recognition or negotiations with Israel.
Bourguiba’s unorthodoxy was thus relegated to a historical anecdote, and remained such until then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. Now, 55 years and three historical turning points after his Jericho speech, the day when most Arabs are prepared to follow Bourguiba’s advice suddenly seems to be drawing near.
The three turning points that followed the 1965 speech were Egypt’s peace with Israel in 1979, the agreements struck between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993-1995 and Israel’s treaty with Jordan in 1994. Now the accords that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed with Israel on Sept. 15 at the White House mark a new historic turning point, one notably different from the past three both in terms of the motivations of the Arab leaders involved, and in terms of the deals’ potential domino effects.
In terms of motivation, there is no equivalent today to the economic constraints that led Egypt and Jordan to make peace with Israel, after each had spent billions they didn’t have on wars they didn’t win. The UAE and Bahrain are both rich, and they have never actively fought against Israel. Neither faces anything like the demographic problems that overpopulated Egypt had when the decision was taken to make peace with Israel.
Instead, the UAE made its move because it sees in Israel a strategic counterweight to nearby Iran, and a worthy trade partner for the Arab world’s most developed economy. Bahrain then followed its example.
This mercantile attitude is unprecedented in Arab-Israeli relations, which until now have overwhelmingly been low key. Jordan and Egypt, while signing big energy deals with Israel and allowing some Israeli investment in textile production, mostly shunned direct Israeli investments, agricultural cooperation and cultural ties.
The imminent launch of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai is expected to attract an influx of Israeli tourists to the Emirates, whom the Emirati people seem eager to greet. But if tourism is likely to connect middle-class Israelis to the UAE, the country’s financial sector, defence establishment and free trade zones are expected to attract Israeli big business.
Bahrain, an island kingdom of 1.6 million people 200 km north of the UAE, is not as economically vibrant as its neighbour, but the significance of that monarchy’s move lies in its very decision to follow its neighbour’s lead and establish full recognition of the Jewish state. It is a choice that others may soon follow.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump have flagged that more Arab countries are set to sign peace deals with Israel. The most significant of all the potential candidates is Saudi Arabia.
It has long been an open secret that Jerusalem and Riyadh have been sharing intelligence, and that assorted Israeli technologies have been sold to the desert kingdom. Moreover, it is clear the Emirati and Bahraini moves would not have been made without full Saudi approval.
Pundits in Israel believe the US is pressuring the Saudi Kingdom to make a move, but Riyadh is waiting to see what happens in November’s presidential election in the US. If Trump is re-elected, chances are high the Kingdom will recognise Israel. If Biden wins, the Saudis might prefer to wait and see where his administration heads and how they get along.
Another natural candidate to make peace with Israel is Oman, the sultanate abutting the UAE’s south and east.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Oman has openly hosted a series of Israeli leaders over the years – Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, Shimon Peres in 1996 and Netanyahu in 2018. Oman had a secret relationship with Israel even before the Oslo Accords, and in the 1990s exchanged trade representatives with Israel, before severing those ties in 2000 in the wake of the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
At the same time, Oman maintains good ties with Teheran, striving to play mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This inclination might convince Muscat to wait for Riyadh to move first, a prospect that will presumably make the Iranians understand that Omani diplomacy can only maintain a limited distance from that of Saudi Arabia.
The two remaining Gulf countries – Qatar and Kuwait – are more complex.
Qatar, a peninsula wedged between the Emirates and Bahrain, admitted an Israeli trade representative in 1996 and later held many public meetings with Israeli leaders. However, the Israeli envoy was asked to leave Doha in January 2009 in the wake of the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Even so, trade relations between the two countries persisted, and media reports claim there is also a vibrant defence relationship. Then again, relations with Qatar are obstructed by its vehement disagreements with Saudi Arabia and Egypt over issues that have nothing to do with Israel, such as the civil war in Libya.
Qatar joins Turkey in siding in that conflict with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE back the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Qatar also hosts a Turkish military base, in an affront to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. His enmity with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is open and intense, due to the latter’s support of Sisi’s Islamist opposition.
Further context is the fact that Qatar supplies Gaza’s Islamist Hamas government with cash, which plays a role in the Strip’s dealings with Israel.
Considering all this, Qatari leaders might feel that making peace with Israel at this time might compromise the image they are trying to cultivate of an independent country that fits into the orbit of no other Arab government.
Kuwait’s reluctance, by contrast, stems not from any diplomatic pretension, but from geography.
Wedged between Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf, Kuwait shares a maritime border with Iran, and, by land, is hardly 40 km. from Iranian soil. In addition, there are the memories of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait 30 years ago, a trauma that dilutes Kuwait’s taste for diplomatic adventure.
Then again, if its Gulf neighbours all make the move, Kuwait may be in no position to stay behind, especially given its military dependence on, and diplomatic indebtedness to, the US.
Lastly on the Arabian Peninsula is Yemen, whose bloody civil war, along with Iran’s meddling in it, preclude it launching any diplomatic move, least of all one as ambitious as reaching an accommodation with the Jewish state.
However, beyond the Red Sea to Yemen’s west sprawls Sudan, whose own civil wars have abated. Khartoum’s military government is considering joining the Emirati-led move and has already conceded that it is secretly engaged in a dialogue with Israel.
Further west still is Chad, which isn’t a member of the Arab League, but has Arabic as its main language. Chad has already announced its intention to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, and last year hosted Netanyahu on an official visit.
Chad appears for now to mark the westernmost extent of the unfolding Arab-Israeli rapprochement, as the Maghreb countries to Chad’s north-west for now seem either unavailable, such as war-torn Libya, or uninterested in full peace with Israel, as Morocco and Algeria say they are.
The same goes also for Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, all of which are under Iranian influence, albeit in different ways.
Still, if what happened in Washington in September expands to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Sudan and Chad, the impact will indeed be profound.
For one thing, it will make other Muslim-majority countries consider following their example. Most notable among these candidates would be Indonesia, which covertly trades with Israel and also hosted a visit by Rabin in 1993, but has never admitted an Israeli diplomatic mission. Neighbouring Malaysia’s long-standing anti-Israeli virulence might not change even if Saudi Arabia strikes a peace with Israel, but Indonesia’s might.
More importantly, a Saudi-led rapprochement would mean that the traditional Arab diplomatic dictum, that peace with the Palestinians must precede wider Arab peace with Israel, is obsolete. Furthermore, if diplomatic relations with Israel expand as far as Jerusalem hopes they will, this would mean that, 20 years after Bourguiba’s death in 2000, countries representing nearly half the Arab world’s 420 million citizens will have followed his advice and recognised the Jewish state.