Are People Tired of Middle East Peace Progress?
1. Peace, peace and more peace
Remember when Donald Trump first ran for office in 2016 and promised that “we’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning”? Well, it’s a matter of anyone’s political persuasion to judge just how much America has been winning in the past four years and whether there really are people out there who are sick and tired of winning.
But to paraphrase Trump’s promise, could people be sick and tired of too much Middle East peace?
The past few weeks have brought about a flurry of peacemaking activity, or at least what some in Washington and Jerusalem see as peacemaking activity.
First came the surprise normalization accord reached between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, an accord which is expected to be formally signed at a White House ceremony perhaps as early as next week. Then came the direct flights from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, with Jared Kushner and the U.S. Middle East team on board for the debut flight. And then the Saudi and Bahraini permission given to Israeli planes to fly over their airspace. And last Friday, another surprising agreement brokered by Trump: Serbia has agreed to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Kosovo confirmed it would establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
Just how important are these recent developments?
These are all positive steps, potentially capable of breaking the sense of Israeli isolation and of breathing new life into the dormant Middle East peace process. But it’s important to note that as impressive as the White House signing ceremony will be, this is not a peace accord, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Israel and the UAE never engaged in war, they do not share a border, and have had informal ties for decades. Furthermore, the normalization agreement with the UAE, and the civil aviation gestures from Saudi Arabia, do nothing to promote the real peace process—the one with the Palestinians. In fact, many on the Palestinian side believe that it will only further postpone any chance of negotiations on a two-state solution with Israel, since Netanyahu and his government can now argue that Israel proved it is an integral part of the Middle East, without having to first resolve its conflict with the Palestinians.
With elections around the corner, does it have any political significance in the U.S.?
To answer this question, try to imagine a cohort of ten voters in a swing state. How many of them have heard of the Kushner-brokered deal between Israel and the UAE? How many can point to the UAE on a map? How many follow Balkan geopolitics and appreciate the importance of Serbia moving its embassy or Kosovo and Israel forming diplomatic relations? And of those who do, how many care or view these developments as an issue in the upcoming elections?
The answer is clear: Very few.
These moves, all framed in the broader context of Trump’s support for Israel, will, of course, help with Christian evangelical voters who care deeply about the Jewish state; but by now, most white evangelical voters are already convinced that Trump is pro-Israel.
Does it help embattled Jared Kushner save his image?
Kushner has taken a lot of heat for his role as Trump’s frontman in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Now, he’s all over the media, promoting the UAE-Israel deal and has been very visible in his shuttles between Israel and the Gulf states.
The success in brokering the deal between Israel and the UAE can indeed be credited to Kushner, who used his sway with the Gulf leaders and with Netanyahu to finalize the accord.
In addition, Friday’s agreements with Serbia and Kosovo demonstrate how when the U.S. administration uses its leverage, it can get partners to go the extra mile, even when it relates to the touchy issue of ties with Israel.
But it also highlights the fundamental shortcoming of Kushner’s view—and that of the Trump administration in general—when dealing with the Middle East. They know how diplomacy works, they understand how Middle East actors operate and they are fully aware of how to use carrots and sticks to advance regional goals. And yet, for some reason, Kushner and Trump decided not to use these tools when dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, they decided to push the Palestinian Authority to the corner, offering it to either accept an unacceptable peace plan or be ignored forever.
Clearly, a White House ceremony starring leaders of Israel, the UAE and the United States will be an impressive event. An event featuring Netanyahu, Abbas and Trump would be way more impressive, and ultimately much more consequential.
2. Why are Jewish groups rooting for Cyprus?
Even in the best of days, a U.S. decision to lift an arms embargo imposed on the small Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus would not make huge headlines. And at a time of global pandemic, mass unemployment, protests and a heated election, there’s little chance anyone noticed the State Department’s decision to “waive restrictions temporarily for FY 2021 on the export, re-export, retransfer, and temporary import of non-lethal defense articles and defense services controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation destined for or originating in Cyprus.”
The embargo was imposed by the U.S. in 1987 in order to encourage both sides of the Cypriot divide, the Greek-allied Cyprus and the Turkish-backed Northern Cyprus, to enter into reconciliation talks. Now, as relations between the U.S. and Turkey have gone sour, the U.S. is partially lifting the ban, in a jab at Ankara and the Erdogan regime.
Behind the scenes, there was a fair amount of lobbying for the sanction relief by Jewish organizations.
The American Jewish Committee’s CEO David Harris welcomed the move, calling it a “milestone in the U.S.-Cyprus bilateral relationship, one that will have a positive effect on the increasingly integrated Eastern Mediterranean.”
Why would these organizations care about U.S. arms sales to Cyprus?
It all has to do with the emerging notion of a Hellenic regional partnership, which encourages ties between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, as a counterweight to Turkey’s increasing power in the region.
This is a clear interest of Israel, and Jewish groups in America were quick to follow suit and lobby for it in Washington.
A reminder of how volatile these issues can be: It was just a decade ago when Jewish American groups actively advocated in favor of Turkey, when it was on Israel’s side, even to the point of dampening relations with the American Armenian community.
A lot has changed since then: Turkey has become hostile, pushing Israel to chose other regional partners, and American Jews switched sides without a blink.
3. Stepping up Jewish outreach
With less than two months to go, outreach to Jewish voters on both sides is in full swing.
Democrats are making the most of their newly discovered star, Doug Emhoff, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s husband, who might one day be America’s first Second Gentleman (or, as referred to in Jewish Democratic circles, the “Second Mensch”).
Emhoff, in several virtual and in-person meetings and fundraisers with Jewish voters and donors, has proven to be an effective messenger, combining criticism of Trump’s record on anti-Semitism with telling his personal story of Jewish activism.
Republican Jews are also preparing to launch their major election mobilization, with campaign ads and targeted phone banking.
With nearly 650,000 Jews, making up 3 percent of the population in a state traditionally decided by less than 2 percent, Florida remains the main prize for both presidential campaigns.
Outreach is a bit harder this time around, due to COVID-19 restrictions that make it harder to convene in-person campaign events, especially for older Jewish voters. Either way, Jews of Florida will once again enjoy the feeling of being courted by both sides, a privilege Jews in New York and California, both safe Democratic states, can only dream of.
4. Battleground Pennsylvania
This will also be a big year for Jewish voters in Pennsylvania.
If there’s one lesson that Democrats took from their 2016 defeat, it is to never underestimate Pennsylvania and each and every subgroup of its voters.
What should Pennsylvania Jewish voters expect?
Your phone is going to ring off the hook, and your favorite social media sites will be popping with ads directly aimed at Jewish voters. The topics of most ads will be similar: a lot of questions about dealing with anti-Semitism (mainly on the Dem side) and Israel (on the Republican side.)
5. The latest in Jewish campaign ads
Jewish Dems are running ads in support of several congressional Democratic candidates.
In Michigan, a new ad targets Republican John James who is challenging Democratic Senator Gary Peters in a tight race.
Another Democratic Jewish ad focuses on the Georgia Senate race, supporting Jon Ossoff and attacking his rival Senator David Perdue.
Both ads make the case that the Republican candidates are weak on countering anti-Semitism.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has a 3-minute video titled “Wake Up Call” starring Jewish voters who say they used to be Democrats but have switched over to Trump because of his record on Israel. A Forward article found that some of the “lifelong Democrats” depicted in the ad actually have histories of voting for Republicans.