Opinion |

Get Over Your Liberal Guilt About Israel’s Peace With the Gulf

Can the Israel-UAE, Israel-Bahrain and whatever other normalizations follow be detoxified – and should they?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Representations of the U.S., Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini flags are projected onto a wall of Jerusalem's Old City, marking the day of a signing ceremony in Washington, Sept. 15, 2020.
Representations of the U.S., Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini flags are projected onto a wall of Jerusalem's Old City, marking the day of a signing ceremony in Washington, Sept. 15, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Did you hear the one about the Chabad rabbi, the settler leader and the Arab sheikh who walked into a kosher steakhouse in Dubai?

It’s not the opening of a bizarre joke, but reality in the Persian Gulf today. A delegation of settlers spent the week in the United Arab Emirates, meeting with local businesspeople to explore the possibility of joint ventures. As for Chabad, the most reactionary Jewish sect, it’s been there for a while, taking control of the local synagogues and kashrut certification.

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If anyone had predicted a few months ago that settlers and Trump-supporting Chabadniks would be the vanguard of Israeli peacemaking in the Middle East, you would have said that was too far even for the year of madness that is 2020. But now it all makes a kind of warped sense.

Israel is establishing diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain, and it’s a right-wing enterprise. Those of us who dreamed of a time when Israelis could freely roam distant corners of the Arab world are bitter about it, because now that the dream is coming true it’s been tainted for us by the two men who made it happen: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump.

That’s why we’ve been so busy poking holes in the Abraham Accords. It’s easy, since, as Ehud Barak once said about a different peace agreement, it’s as full of holes as a Swiss cheese.

For a start, how can you can call something a peace agreement if Israel and the Gulf states were never at war to begin with? And anyway, this isn’t really a peace deal, it’s an arms deal, in which the Emiratis get to buy billions of dollars’ worth of advanced U.S. military hardware.

Of course, this isn’t real peace with nations, just with the elite dictators of oil-rich kleptocracies. (To make this claim, you need of course to ignore the fact that all of Israel’s peace deals, with Egypt, Jordan and the PLO, were hardly signed with model democracies.)

And Israel’s real challenge is making peace with the millions of Palestinians it occupies, by allowing them to build their state. The agreements with the UAE and Bahrain push the Palestinians to the furthest margins.

So there’s plenty for those who hoped for a Mideast peace predicted on the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians to be bitter about. And at the same time, it’s no coincidence that settlers are welcome in Dubai.

This is a peace after their own hearts. For decades, the left told Israelis they would get to fly off to Arab capitals, do business and vacation there only if they first ended the occupation and signed up to the two-state solution. The bitterest medicine to swallow is reality. And don’t expect the UAE to suddenly shut the gates just because Trump lost.

Can the Israel-UAE, Israel-Bahrain and whatever other normalizations follow be detoxified – and should they?

There are three answers to this. The first is that Israel is and always will be part of the Middle East, and not every engagement between Israel and Arab countries should be hostage to changing political parameters and the conflict with the Palestinians.

The second is that while the Emiratis, in the short term at least, obviously have little interest in the Palestinians and whether they reach an agreement with Israel, improved relations between Israel and other Arab states will increase Israel’s stake in creating a different environment in the Middle East.

The Palestinians could be part of this or they could be cast aside, relegated indefinitely to the bottom of the regional agenda. It depends on who will be building these intra-Mideast relationships.

Israel's national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, left, bumps elbows with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani in Manama, Bahrain, Oct. 18, 2020. Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Pool Photo via AP

The third answer is less comfortable for liberals, but unavoidable.

This part of the Middle East was headed in this direction anyway, even without the encouragement of the Trump team. Israel’s not-so-secret alliance with the Gulf states has been in the making for at least two decades. If anything, President Barack Obama’s decision to engage with the Iranian leadership and sign the nuclear agreement with them helped bring together Iran’s enemies in the region.

Those who supported a Palestinians-first diplomacy will find little comfort in the morality and expedience of this approach, and no reassurance in current reality. The transition to a Biden presidency in Washington isn’t going to change the strategic decisions made by the rulers of the UAE or of Bahrain. But with Trump and his henchmen soon gone, there will be a vacuum to be filled, and not only by professional diplomats.

There are currently two types of parties involved in Israel’s burgeoning ties with the Gulf: those aligned with the right wing in Israel and the United States, and businesspeople who are in it for the money. What will this key relationship look like once Team Trump, backed by its Israeli cheerleaders, is no longer in power?

That depends on whether there are other players prepared to move in, from other parts of the political and cultural spectrum.

The same question applies to the broader issue of relations between Israel and America’s Jewish community, the largest in the world, now that people like Jared Kushner and the Adelsons are no longer the most influential Jews in America.

Do liberal American Jews have the energy and the passion to rebuild that connection? After four years of selfish men and their political bases narrowing the bridge between the largest groups in the Jewish people, can it be done?

The past four years were not simply an aberration. The inauguration of President Joe Biden will not be enough in itself to turn back the clock. The landscape has changed, and not just in the Gulf.

According to polls, two-thirds of Israelis wanted Trump to win the election – and not because they all support Netanyahu, or are even right-wingers themselves. Even centrist and left-leaning Israelis preferred an administration that seemed to be on their side, and they didn’t care that for the overwhelming majority of American Jews four more years of Trump was the darkest of nightmares.

Trump’s defeat doesn’t mean Israelis are going to suddenly acknowledge the fears and relief of liberal U.S. Jews, and they won’t take kindly to even gentle criticism from them.

Normalization with the UAE and Bahrain wasn’t just Trump’s parting gesture to Netanyahu, the last in a long series of gifts, it was a challenge to the liberal diplomatic paradigm that in the past had transcended the terms of presidents and administrations.

It was the latest piece of proof that perhaps Israelis no longer need their kind American cousins, their philanthropy, lobbying and certainly not their advice. It meant that however American Jews choose to engage with Israel now, in the post-Trump era, it will have to be radically different from anything that went before.

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