Just a few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a news conference to discuss the surprise development that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to normalize relations, in a deal brokered by the United States. That’s big news, and the speculation is that Bahrain and Oman might be next.
Many Arab countries, particularly conservative Sunni Muslim countries that consider Shi’ite Muslim Iran the archenemy, have reportedly had covert diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, but the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven emirates including the major commercial center of Dubai, could pave the way for major progress in Israel’s integration into the region. Israelis are anxiously awaiting commercial air service to Dubai, which is roughly the same distance from Tel Aviv as Cleveland is to Miami.
The breakthrough followed the failure of the White House (and reservations expressed by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party) to go along with Netanyahu’s hair-brained scheme to annex 30% of the West Bank. That would have set back Palestinian plans for an independent state in the West Bank and made Israel a pariah state in the Arab world. Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, reportedly then pushed the UAE to consider full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for suspension of the annexation plan.
The accepted wisdom had been that peace with the Arab world required peace with the Palestinians first, but Netanyahu now claims that the agreement with the UAE is proof that the opposite is true. His implication is that the Palestinians have missed the boat and that Israel can proceed full steam ahead to forge ties with countries in the Arab world without regard to the conflict with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu knows better. He knows that Israel will never fully integrate into the region until it finds some way to settle the conflict with the Palestinians. He may believe that the conflict is unresolvable at this time, but it’s also likely that he is afraid to pursue the process because he knows that it would involve painful concessions that would alienate his right-wing base.
The Palestinians are not ideal peace partners. The Gaza Strip, which is part of the territory on which a Palestinian state would be established, is under the control of the Islamist Hamas movement, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the Palestinian towns in the West Bank, has long exceeded his term in office, yet no new elections have been called. But I, along with many other Israelis, believe that peace with the Palestinian Authority is possible, and that if we don’t separate from the Palestinians, we are dooming Israel to becoming a binational Jewish-Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are our immediate neighbors and will continue to affect our lives much more than what happens in the glittering towers of Dubai. The folly of the situation was on full view recently as I drove on a freeway through the seaside town of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. The freeway overpasses in Netanya were decorated with Israeli and UAE flags. One of the overpasses is Route 57, which runs east from Netanya and ends less than 10 miles away at a border wall beyond which is Tulkarem, a Palestinian city under Palestinian Authority control.
It defies the imagination that we should be focusing our diplomatic efforts on making friends with Arab countries hundreds of miles away while pretending that the conflict just down the street can fester without long-term consequences for Israel.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the CJN from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.