The declaration of peace between the United Arab Emirates and Israel marks the dawn of a new day. The old paradigm of Arab-Israeli conflict is over, and the era of Arab-Israeli cooperation has begun.
The biggest news here is that peace between Arabs and Jews is still possible. It has been 26 long years since the last peace deal between Israel and Jordan, and the events of those years have been mostly dark and discouraging. The chaos that broke out at the turn of the millennium has not let up for two decades, leading many analysts to classify the region as irredeemable. Regimes have collapsed; borders have broken down. Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad struggle under Iranian occupation. The Palestinian issue remains unsolved. Turkey has mutated from Western ally to Islamist opponent, attacking its neighbors and expanding its territory in hopes of restoring its old caliphate. Apart from Israel and a few scattered interests, the region looks hostile and irrelevant to most Americans.
That is why this announcement is so important: It restores a measure of hope after 20 years of hopelessness. It reminds Israelis that some Arabs will accept them, and reminds Arabs that Israelis can negotiate in good faith. It shows Americans that we can still play a constructive role if we adapt our methods, and that the disastrous results of our post-2003 foreign policy need not be the final word. We can still do good things.
The Israel-UAE agreement is also important because it demonstrates the paradoxical nature of Near East peacemaking. Ironically, the deal came about as the consequence of war. Armchair diplomats (not to mention some professional ones) like to discuss peace in sentimental terms, chafing at the notion of “cold peace” between grudging regimes in favor of “warm peace” between friendly peoples. But relations between Israel and the UAE only commenced a decade ago when Israelis and Emiratis, despite their many differences, saw a mutual enemy in Iran. The peace announced yesterday is the fruit of a common conspiracy based, at least to start, in common interests. Those who prefer loftier motives rooted in universal brotherhood will be disappointed by this backstory, but Israelis and Emiratis are fine with it.
Some commentators have rightly pointed out that the UAE is undemocratic and oppressive, and cite numerous human rights reports to back up that claim. But Jordan and Egypt were also undemocratic when they made peace with Israel; so was the PLO when Yasser Arafat signed the 1993 Declaration of Principles. Yet those three agreements, imperfect as they were, saved the region from a far worse fate. To reject peace with flawed regimes is to forget that their recognition and respect of neighbors is a necessary step on their path to better behavior.
The most jarring insight from yesterday’s statement was that Arab-Israeli peace and Palestinian independence do not necessarily go hand in hand. Diplomats have insisted for years that Israelis could build relations with Arab states only after reaching a deal with the Palestinians. Now we know otherwise. Though committed to a Palestinian state in the future, UAE leaders seem unbothered by peace with Israel in the meantime. No doubt the continued intransigence of Palestinian leaders to accept any offer extended to them helped get UAE leaders over the hump.
It is important to point out that the Emiratis are still taking a big risk in breaking ranks with much of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took the same risk in the late 1970s and paid with his life. But the Emiratis are going for it anyway, proving that common interests can only produce peace when paired with bold leadership. In a region where leaders fear, and thus often follow, their people, Khalifa Bin Zayed showed that real leadership means making hard choices in the people’s best interests even when those choices are unpopular.
The nice thing about courage is that it’s contagious. At first it was just Egypt at the table. Then came Jordan. Now the UAE has joined them. Millions of Arabs and Muslims are watching these developments with curiosity—and not a little envy—as they consider what peace with Israel might bring in terms of political and economic benefits. More breakthroughs are likely as Israel’s quiet relations with states like Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia develop in the same direction over the coming months and years. The dam has cracked; soon it will break.
Palestinian leaders have a tough decision to make. Will they adjust their national strategy in light of changing realities or double down on the resistance? Only time will tell. For the rest of us, the conclusion is obvious: More peace is better than less peace, and cold peace is better than no peace.
Israel is here to stay, and the sooner the region accepts that fact the better.