A Common Denominator Of No Common Border
By Amir Oren
Israel has been fighting for dear life since its inception. In late 1947, its leadership accepted a painful compromise – part of the territory they dreamed of, alongside an independent Palestine and a UN-controlled greater Jerusalem. There was simply not enough international support for more than that. A take it or leave it, now or never, proposition, and they took it.
The Palestinians, for whom it would have also been a painful compromise, did not. They tried to snuff the Jewish State in its cradle. In May 1948, the Arab states bordering the partitioned country invaded it, not to help Palestine but to grab parts of it for themselves. They were helped by expeditionary forces from other members of the Arab League farther away, notably Iraq, which vied with Egypt for regional supremacy much the way France and Germany are now co-leaders of the European Union.
They all failed in their goal of aborting Israel, but they succeeded in denying it peace, agreeing at most only to an armistice and harboring hopes of another, final round. For its first 30 years, Israel did not have one day of serious peace negotiations, let alone peace itself. It fought five wars and endless campaigns and battles, losing thousands upon thousands of its soldiers and civilians.
Anwar Sadat changed it. He followed the formula set in 1967, Peace For Territory – the land captured in the Six-Day War. Egypt took the lead in realizing that the Arabs will never be able to set back the clock to 1947. They could either keep their hostility or get their territory back. Their choice. Sadat, having Egypt’s best interests at heart, chose wisely, and Menachem Begin reciprocated. Begin’s reputation was of being tough and persistent. He drove a hard bargain, but once that deal was reached he forced it through the Israeli body politic.
So one down and at least three to go – Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, the Armistice signatories that did not advance to peace, plus Iraq and Saudi Arabia and all the other Arab countries not bordering Israel. For Israel, peace with its next-door neighbors is a must. With the rest, only nice to have, except when they threaten to have weapons of mass destruction.
As part of the Sadat-Begin deal, which Egypt insisted would not be a seperate peace, Israel had committed to start a process of transforming the system of government in the West Bank, captured from Jordan which earlier took it from the aborted Palestine and annexed it, with the world on record as objecting but doing nothing about it. When the Palestinians started organizing in the mid-60’s, however, they made clear that their goal of “liberating” their lands was intended against Jordan as well as against Israel. This was one reason Jordan and Israel secretly found common cause. There were also Egypt, Syria and Iraq as threats looming over both Amman and (West) Jerusalem, but the underlying benefit for Israel in protecting the Hashemite Kingdom was that it was preferable over all other options, including a Palestinian state on the East Bank of the river constantly scheming to head west.
As Sadat set his precedent, Israel had to choose between Jordan and the Palestinians, or a federated combination of both, for the future of the West Bank. True to fashion, it chose neither. It left the initiative to other forces and missed an opportunity to settle with Jordan, which then disengaged and left Israel – and the United States – to find a way out of the mess vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Free of responsibility for the West Bank and able to care for its iwn basic interests, Jordan became the second confrontation state to sign peace with Israel.
With peace in vogue, and the interim Oslo deal legitimizing ties with Israel, several Arab and Moslem countries felt they had cover enough to uncover their ties with Jerusalem. From the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf to East Asia, the 1990’s were an era of Israel being accepted into the club which heretofore banned Jewish members. There was, however, a caveat – the peace process in the inner ring around Israel had to proceed to its logical conclusion, namely peace for territory with Syria (which will also bring around Lebanon) and the Palestinians.
This was not to be, even though the outcome of the negotiations, once resumed, is known to all – the 2000 Clinton Parameters, the 2002 Saudi Initiative, the Bush Road Map of the same period, these and later iterations all revolve around the same outline. They are dormant, pending the end of the Syrian Civil War, domestic political problems within the Palestinian (Gaza under Hamas Vs. Fatah’s Palestinian Authority) and Israeli communities and freeing Lebanon from Iranian interference through Hezbollah, but they will surely wake up. Daylight Saving Time can only gain one a single hour of sleep, to be paid back later, when spring comes.
The unifying threat of the Islamic Republic strengthened the ties between Israel and most members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. With President Trump eager to sell arms, willing to undertake unabashedly pro-Israel gestures and able to use his leverage over the Netanyahu government in time for his re-election effort, came the latest string of normalization announcements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan.
Each case is different, but they all have something in common – the understanding that you don’t say No to the most powerful politician in the world, when he tells you he needs you to deliver right now. You can haggle over the price, you can set terms, you can phrase it so it will be reversible (“subject to an approval by a yet to be formed national assembly”), but you don’t refuse his offer. This is the art of the deal and it works both ways – Netanyahu had to consent to shelving the annexation of the West Bank and to the sale of F-35’s to the UAE, with other Gulf customers probably waiting in line.
Interestingly enough, while in Israel itself the conventional wisdom is that Netanyahu will not honor his part of the deal with “alternate” Prime Minister Benny Gantz to let him take over in a year, the Trump Administration has insisted on gaining Gantz’s approval for najor moves, such as the Vision For Peace (he OK’d it), annexation (no) and the F-35 sale.
What did Israel get in return? A lot, according to Netanyahu, not much, if one goes by his critics. The Netanyahu line has two components, the theoretical and the practical. The theory proven by the recent developments is that the Palestinians can be leapfrogged. Arab countries are not beholden to Ramallah, which could take forever. With Tehran – and Washington – on their minds, they will put the UAE, or Bahrain, or Sudan first.
As for the practical benefits to Israelis, who never considered these countries threats or enemies, anyway, regardless of their formal status, Netanyahu put up a map showing the time (and thus money) to be saved by being able to fly over rather than around the Gulf and Sudan for points East and West. Thailand and Brazil, here we come. We came, anyway, but now the trips will be shorter and cheaper.
A clever marketing appeal to the Israeli travelling class, even if less so during COVID-19 times, but the flights have very little to do with fights Israel wants to get rid of so it can finally get on with its life like any nornal nation – which is supposed to be the whole idea of normalization. And for that, it still has to sort out its conflicts with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, with the Iranians doing their worst to keep Israel from living in peace. Flying to Dubai or above Khartoum is a sideshow. The main event is still, and will always be, closer to home.