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October 2, 2020 10:58 am

Will Recent Israel Peace Deals Lead to More Limited US Involvement in Middle East?

avatar by Grant Newman

Opinion

The national flags of Israel and the United Arab Emirates flutter along a highway, in Netanya, Israel, Aug. 17, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Nir Elias.

Normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is arguably one of the most significant events in Middle East politics since the establishment of the State of Israel.

The deal itself is a victory for Middle East peace; that this deal could lead to more such agreements between Israel and other Arab nations is a victory for world peace. Within a month of the Israel-UAE deal, Kosovo and Bahrain have both followed the example of the UAE and agreed to open relations with Israel. Surely, more of Israel’s regional neighbors will follow: It is difficult to see Bahrain recognizing Israel without Saudi permission, and so perhaps Saudi Arabia is in line to recognize Israel as well — a crowning achievement after decades of tension.

To the extent that the Trump administration played a role in the Israel-UAE deal, this is arguably the biggest foreign policy accomplishment for an American president in decades. Indeed, in a different era, the Israel-UAE deal would likely be grounds for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Trump and his Israeli and UAE counterparts. By comparison, it would be difficult to argue that Trump does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize now for facilitating an actual normalization of ties between Israel and an Arab state, but that Obama did deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just one year after being elected president and one year before the Middle East entered its most bellicose decade in recent memory. If Obama’s legacy is an award without the peace, then Trump’s legacy might very well be a peace without the award. It is now the duty of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to determine which of these two variations is the more noble preference.

Comparing the Trump and Obama presidencies suggests that an American president can have a tremendously beneficial influence on Israel’s relations with its neighbors, or he can have an equally detrimental influence. The role of the American president in the Middle East peace process is a tool and, as with any tool, it can be used for good or evil: A hammer is just as necessary to drive a nail as it is to remove one, and just as necessary to build a house as it is to demolish one; what matters is the intent of the carpenter holding the hammer.

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In geopolitical terms, with the support of the Trump administration, Israel has built a model for normalizing relations with its neighbors. The UAE is the first country to follow that and by doing, so has set an example for other Arab nations to emulate. But the gains witnessed during the Trump presidency could be wiped away by a future American president who derails the peace process — even with the best of intentions. It is not difficult to see how this could happen: The Israel-UAE deal undermined at least two tenets of Washington establishmentarian thinking about Middle East peace, namely that peace in the region would require (1) concessions to Iran, and (2) concessions to the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria and to Hamas in Gaza.

As the Israel-UAE deal suggests, resolving disagreements with the Palestinians is not a necessary condition to peace with other Arab nations, and combating the threat from Iran is of much greater importance to nations in the region than establishing a Palestinian state. However, it is possible that a future American president could revert back to establishmentarian thinking and (1) make efforts to strengthen Iran (perhaps by resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal), and (2) demand that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians as a condition for American support for any future Israeli-Arab peace deal. Such a reversion to the Washington foreign policy establishment’s conventional wisdom could derail the broader peace process.

This possibility causes one to pause and think: Inasmuch as the role of the American president in the Middle East can still be used for ill purposes, the question must be asked whether it is in Israel’s interest in particular — and in the interest of Middle East peace in general — to diminish the role of the American president in Israel’s relationships with its neighbors. Now that there is a roadmap to regional peace, Israel must minimize any risks that could hinder progress towards that goal. A model has been developed and a permission structure has been established in the form of UAE, Kosovo, and Bahrain recognizing Israel. The model must now be implemented and replicated. Perhaps this will require less involvement from future American presidents.

Just as the Israeli president plays a mostly symbolic role in Israeli politics, with the executive powers of the state delegated to the prime minister, perhaps it is wise to modify the role of the American president in the Middle East peace process to a mostly symbolic one that serves to guarantee any peace deals entered into by Israel and its Arab counterparts, with Israel retaining the power to conduct negotiations and enter into deals. Reducing the role of the American president in this way is perhaps one method for (1) preserving the peace achieved over the past four years and (2) protecting against any changes in Middle East policy from a future American president; a limited role would curb a future American president’s ability to derail the peace process.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the current peace process will proceed according to plan regardless of what a future American president does. Indeed, if a future American president were to, say, resurrect the Iranian nuclear deal, then this change in policy might only serve to hasten a normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, as they work to fortify their region against a resurgent Iran. With Israel and its regional neighbors entering into deals without American involvement, this undoubtedly would have the effect of reducing America’s role in the region. So, after decades of American omnipotence in regional politics, perhaps the Middle East is entering into a new era of limited American involvement, with the regional players themselves dictating the terms of their own peace.

Grant Newman is a publishing Adjunct at the MirYam Institute and a graduate of Harvard Law School where he was an executive editor of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. He is an alumnus of the I-LAP tour.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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