On Peace, Normalization and Politics

By | Dec 14, 2020
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1. Peace, peace, and more peace

The latest news came late last week. Morocco has joined the growing list of Arab countries upgrading their relations with Israel. This list now includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

A pattern has formed in the past few months. Each time an Arab state announces its intention to normalize relations, President Trump holds a White House call with the leader of that state, then issues a statement about the historic achievement; in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu calls a press conference to celebrate the event, stressing that it is a “peace for peace” deal, no price tags attached; the Palestinians issue a statement expressing their disappointment from yet another Arab country to cross the line; Jewish Americans praise the move, adding a nudge for the Palestinians to jump on the peace wagon; and all the others—American liberals, Israeli leftists and western Europeans—well, they’re left with a begrudging welcome, qualified with something along the lines of “yes, peace is great, but…”

The terminology used to describe these Israeli-Arab accords varies, depending on the political position of the speaker. For Trump, Netanyahu and their teams, these are all peace deals. (Trump likes to add a vivid, yet made up, description of how these peace deals will end an era of “blood on the sand.”) Detractors of Trump and Netanyahu, on the other hand, make sure to use the term “normalization” when discussing the agreements.

What’s the difference?

Peace is usually a deal reached to end a war. And while it’s true that most Arab countries were formally in a state of war with Israel, they never engaged in military combat. In other words, the United Arab Emirates never sent its troops to battle against Israel, nor did Bahrain, Sudan or Morocco, so the term “peace” would seem like a bit of an overreach.

Normalization, they claim, is a more accurate description of these new accords.

These differing terms delineate the battle lines between right and left when assessing the Trump-brokered deals. And still, they are mainly semantic. After all, if both sides to the agreement call it peace, why not go with the flow?

2. Sour grapes?

Call it peace or call it normalization, this set of dramatic, fast-evolving peaceful events in the Middle East have left liberals in a bit of a conundrum.

Can the self-proclaimed “peace camp” do anything but embrace not one or two but four peace deals? Or, as Trump/Netanyahu supporters would argue, are they just unable to give these two leaders credit for advancing the left’s agenda more than their favorite political leaders have ever done?

The picture is more nuanced than that. Let’s unpack both sides’ views.

3. Argument: Peace and normalization are always good news

This one is easy. 

What could be the downside of a peace accord, or a normalization deal or, frankly, any other type of national reconciliation?

The most significant advantage of Trump brokering agreements between Israel and these four countries is breaking the decades-old wall of Arab refusal to recognize Israel until the Palestinian conflict is resolved. This policy, broken previously only by Egypt and Jordan, prevented Israel’s integration in the region and fueled animosity passed on from generation to generation.

There’s also the obvious geopolitical benefit: The deals unite Iran’s foes—Israel and the Sunni countries—to be a presumably more effective counterweight in the region.

Israel, as well as Trump and his Middle East team, also believe that by showing Palestinians that they no longer hold the key to Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East, the Palestinian leadership will understand that it has no choice but to compromise with Israel and with the Trump administration.

4. Counterargument: Peace is excellent, but not all peace is equal

Weakening the Palestinian hand is, to a great extent, the biggest underlying issue of these accords.

While the Trump/Netanyahu side sees it as a huge advantage, those on the other side believe that this is exactly what’s wrong with this deluge of peace deals flooding the region. 

The Israeli left and American liberals worry that broad Arab recognition of Israel, without any progress on resolving the Palestinian conflict, will not drive Abbas and the leadership in Ramallah to seek further compromise with Israel. Instead, it will embolden Netanyahu and right-wing elements in his government, to avoid a compromise, expand settlements and perhaps even annex the West Bank, since there is seemingly no longer a price to pay for this behavior.

There are also purely American interests that have been put into question by signing these deals, specifically interests relating to the price paid by the U.S. to reach these deals.

Is it good for America to fuel an arms race in the Middle East by selling advanced F-35 jet fighters to UAE and signing a $1 billion advanced arms deal with Morocco? (And taking into account that in order to offset these deals, the U.S. will have to provide Israel with access to even more advanced military items.)

Is Trump’s pledge to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara region, in return for upgrading its ties with Israel, really in America’s interest? How will it impact U.S. relations with the rest of the world, which refuses to accept Morocco’s claim on the region? Or America’s standing when it comes to other regions in dispute?

“The bottom line,” wrote former Obama administration Middle East hand Ilan Goldenberg, in a Twitter thread last week, “is that the US and Israel are different countries and have different interests. They are allies but that doesn’t mean everything that is good for Israel is good for America.”

5. The (liberal) Jewish American dilemma

Where does this leave members of the—largely liberal—American Jewish community?

For years, they’ve fought for peace and Israel’s right to be recognized by its neighbors—for normalization and legitimization.

At the same time, many in the community have also preached for resolving the Palestinian conflict and ending Israeli occupation. They’ve expressed sympathy for the rights of oppressed peoples in lands occupied by others, from Tibet to Crimea, and—for some—in Western Sahara.

So how does a liberal American Jew go about resolving this dilemma?

Here’s one way of looking at it:

Try to imagine that the circumstances were exactly the same, except the American president brokering these deals was not Donald Trump, but Joe Biden, or Barack Obama.

Would you still see them as problematic?

If not, then your problem is with Donald Trump, not with the peace deals (also known as normalization agreements).

4 thoughts on “On Peace, Normalization and Politics

  1. Ian Lustick says:

    What is being normalized is a one-state non-democratic reality in which Israel’s population has topped 14 million, nearly half of whom have no political rights and virtually no civil rights. If by normalizing this reality, instead of ignoring it, American liberals can come to grips with the need to democratize the country rather than shrink it, perhaps in the future with the help of pressure from Arab states with embassies in the country, that is a very good thing.

    1. LEONARD OKEN says:

      The population of Israel?
      “Ahead of 72nd Independence Day, Israeli population stands at 9.2 million,” Times of Israel, (April 26, 2020);
      “Israel’s population up to 9.25 million, though growth rate, immigration down,” Times of Israel, (September 16, 2020);
      U.S. State Department.
      Neither Israelis nor Palestinians want Palestinians in Israel’s Democratic State. Israelis- Jewish, Arab , Christian, and Druze live in the only true Democracy in the Middle East. If you don’t believe it, come to the Knesset and watch it in real-time. Mr. Lustick is talking about the “Israel” he has conjured up in his mind and the mind of Israel’s detractors of which he may very well be one. If Palestinians are suffering from a lack of civil rights unfortunately one need look no farther than their government and leadership. Everything else is baseless propaganda and frankly “false news”!

  2. LEONARD OKEN says:

    “Strengthen your friends and weaken your enemies” who hasn’t said this or something like this countless of times in different ways and languages in the past. President Trump has led the way in the Middle East following just this mantra bringing together nations that seek Peace and Normalization with each other while even more important forming a potential force to counter the malignant governments of Iran, Turkey, and their lackeys. This series of alliances is a bone in the throat of these dictators and their malicious intent. Only Trump-hating Liberals can see this as something other than what it is. If President Trump does not win the Nobel Prize , President Biden should award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and be done with it!

    1. H. Gottlieb says:

      how do weapon sales bring peace ?

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