Kerry Personifies the History of State Department Failures in the Middle East
It was no surprise that most of the Arabists and famous peace processors were silent following the landmark peace agreements signed between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE. Besides not wanting to give the Trump administration any credit for accomplishing in a few months what they could not achieve in decades, these Middle East experts cannot admit their approach to peacemaking was based on erroneous assumptions that led to failure.
If you want to point to one example that encapsulates the misjudgments of the peace processors that led to their repeated diplomatic fiascos, look no further than the remarks of former president Barack Obama’s secretary of state — John Kerry.
Like most of his predecessors, Obama’s stubborn insistence on focusing all his attention on the Palestinians reflected a refusal to entertain the idea that regional peace did not begin and end with them. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world,” Kerry said in 2016. “I want to make that very clear with all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, ‘Well, the Arab world is in a different place now. We just have to reach out to them. We can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians.’ No. No, no, and no.”
He continued, “I can tell you that, reaffirmed within the last week because I’ve talked to the leaders of the Arab community, there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
Except it was not, and probably never was.
As former State Department official Francis Fukuyama explained decades ago, Arabists “have been more systematically wrong than any other area specialists in the diplomatic corps.”
Kerry and those who shared his views over the years accepted at face value Arab leaders’ claims of fealty to the Palestinians. Ironically, the truth is, unlike some Israelis and other supporters of the Palestinians outside the Middle East, most Arabs have a low opinion of the Palestinians. Consider that none of the Arab states except Jordan ever offered them citizenship, hundreds of thousands are still kept in refugee camps, Lebanon denies them all sorts of rights, and Kuwait expelled 300,000 of them for supporting Saddam Hussein.
President Donald Trump (really his son-in-law Jared Kushner) realized the Arabs also worry more about their own security than the welfare of the Palestinians. This is not new, but successive administrations refused to believe it. You can go back to the 1950s, when diplomats would meet with the Saudis and for the first few minutes the king would rant about the Zionists and American support for Israel, but then focus on his real concern, which, at that time, was the possibility the Hashemites of Jordan might try to get back the territory they lost to Ibn Saud. Later, the danger was Nasser and pan-Arabism, the Soviet Union, and now Iran. As I have written before, the Saudis (and the other Gulf potentates) care only about keeping their royal heads connected to their royal shoulders.
The Arabs want our protection and arms to defend themselves against external threats. The arms are mostly useless, since their armies are no match for their enemies, but they do need our protection. In exchange, however, we have demanded nothing from them because of exaggerated fears that angering them would jeopardize access to their oil and give them an excuse to engage with the Russians or Chinese. This also led administration after administration to look the other way when it came to the Arab states’ lack of democracy and violations of human rights. In that respect, the Trump administration is no different than its predecessors.
For all those years, however, the United States could have made recognition of Israel one of the requirements for our protection. While the Emiratis say they made peace because Netanyahu agreed not to apply Israeli sovereignty to the settlements, the more likely reasons were the desire to obtain F-35s — which Trump apparently was not willing to offer without a quid pro quo — the opportunity to have greater access to Israeli technology, and, most importantly, to strengthen the anti-Iran alliance.
Paradoxically, it is the failure of Trump’s Iran policy that also drove the Gulf states closer to Israel, as they have seen the withdrawal of US troops from the region and the president’s unwillingness to respond to Iranian provocations as Obama-like weakness. The Arab leaders understand the United States does not see itself as endangered by Iran, whereas Israel shares with them a sense of the immediacy of the threat posed by the Islamic republic.
Incidentally, reports suggest that Sudan may be the next country to establish relations with Israel. The quid quo pro in this case has become public: If Sudan makes peace (and pays $330 million in compensation for Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies), the US takes it off the terrorism list.
We now see what could have been done years ago if the US was willing to use its leverage on Israel’s behalf. And it is not just in Israel’s interest to have peace with Arab/Muslim countries; it also helps stabilize the region, strengthens Iran’s opponents, reduces anti-American fervor (critics’ predictions of upheaval proved wrong again, as they did when the US recognized Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and moved our embassy), and creates opportunities for multilateral trade and cooperation.
The prospects for peace with the Palestinians have also improved. By eliminating the Palestinian veto over Arab-Israeli ties, the Abraham Accords have shown the Palestinians that they cannot depend on their fellow Arabs to exert pressure on Israel while they remain irredentist. Though they may hope a Biden administration will bail them out by returning to the failed policies of the past — coddling them while pressuring Israel — the reality is they have few friends, and none but the United States have any influence over Israel.
Furthermore, the parameters of negotiations have narrowed and are closer to an agreement Israel could accept; that is, a deal along the lines of the Trump plan. There is no going back to the idea of Israel withdrawing from more than 90% of the West Bank and dividing Jerusalem — even under Biden. The Trump plan is probably the Palestinians’ last best chance for statehood, as the size of the Jewish population has made the two-state solution as conceived by the peace processors (but never accepted by the Palestinians) no longer feasible. The situation will only get worse for the Palestinians as settlements expand and more of their erstwhile friends establish relations with Israel.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.