Even if the agreement with the UAE leads nowhere, the taboos that have been broken will be difficult to reconstruct.
Two terrible ideas took a severe beating today with the announcement of a peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates: annexation, and the Arab refusal to acknowledge Israel’s existence.
Annexation of the West Bank, at least if annexation is understood as encompassing a large chunk of territory rather than a (hopefully agreed upon) border adjustment, has never made sense for Israel. This was evident in June 1967 immediately after the Six Day War ended, and the basic reasons why have not changed very much in the ensuing 53 years: Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic in borders that include most of the West Bank.
In 1977, the right-wing Likud party swept into power for the first time on a platform of, among other things, annexing the West Bank. If there was a moment where it just might have happened, it was then, 43 years ago. But Begin had the liberal Dash party as coalition partners, and annexation was put on hold. A year and a half later, he signed the Framework for Peace in the Middle East at Camp David, and this pushed the prospect of an Israeli annexation even further.
Over the decades that followed, the Right occasionally talked about some kind of annexation, with the understanding all along that someone or something — coalition partners, a delicate diplomatic process, pressure from the United States — was preventing it from happening. And then all the excuses disappeared, and they still couldn’t pull it off.
Not only that, but now a Prime Minister who has staked his public reputation on annexation even more than Begin did (albeit on a much smaller annexation than the one Begin claimed to want) has voluntarily abandoned the idea in exchange for a splashy coming out party for a relationship that everyone already assumed was going on anyway.
Ultimately, even under the most auspicious conditions, the Israeli Right has been unable to carry out an annexation. In fact, just as the First Intifada did for the Left and the Second Intifada did for the Center, the aborted annexation of 2020 might end up being the moment the Israeli Right comes to grips with the loss of any realistic way to incorporate West Bank into sovereign Israel.
This might end up being Netanyahu’s greatest accidental contribution to the cause of a Jewish and democratic Israel — certainly a more meaningful one than his reluctant acceptance of a Palestinian state back in his hostage video-like speech at Bar Ilan in 2009.
Even stupider than the Israeli wish to swallow the West Bank has been the Arab idea that pretending that Israel doesn’t exist might actually help something. There are many bitter international conflicts in the world, but there are few rejections quite so thorough and quite so self-defeating as the Arab refusal to recognize Israel.
The Arab rejection of Israel was, until Sadat broke from the consensus in 1977, absolute and total. No relations, no trade, no travel, no overflights, no sporting competition, and even, for many years, an inability to say the name of the country “Israel.” Has any benefit accrued to the Arab world from this unremitting hostility and denial of the fact of an Israel, if not (dare we say it?) the justice of an Israel?
What’s notable about the UAE gesture is that it used the world “normalization” and seems to mean it. If this agreement is carried through, we may actually see Emiratis do what Jordanians and Egyptians have not done: Come to Israel. Check out its beaches, see its holy sites, argue with its waiters, get stuck in its traffic, make patronizing comments about its food.
They could still go home and disagree with many of its policies. The ticket lines at museums in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are full of Europeans who do that.
But they’ll know it’s here.
They’ll know that it’s yet one more state in the Middle East with a history and a story and all the tensions and contradictions that come with that. That it is one more country in western Asia that was carved out of a fallen empire and that has managed to build something that is far from perfect but still pretty darn impressive (if you ask me).
There is still a lot that could go wrong. It’s only been a few hours. So much of this diplomatic initiative rests on the whims of a mercurial American president. And the Palestinian cause may not have the same purchase over Arab imaginations as it once had in the past, but it does have one ace in its sleeve: Whenever the Palestinians are worried about the Arabs losing interest in their cause, they can always create a violent provocation around al Aqsa as a way of bringing regional public opinion back in line.
But even if this particular deal leads nowhere, the taboos that have been broken will be difficult to reconstruct. Annexation is off the table. A half century of intensive settlement activity has not turned the West Bank into a part of Israel and it never will.
And the Arab states, even if some can’t quite bring themselves to say it out loud, have made their peace with the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. A shame it took more than seventy years.
The article was published in the Forward.