Joe Biden is eager to start rolling back Trump-era policies as soon as he enters the White House, but he’d be wise to continue championing at least one of them: I’m talking about strong US support for the Arab-Israeli peace movement that swept the region in 2020. If Biden plays his cards right, he could add new Arab states to the list and maybe even get Palestinians to the party as well.
It is one of those ironic plot twists that President Donald Trump, everyone’s favorite blowhard, will leave the White House after just one term as perhaps the greatest American peacemaker in decades. Outsized evangelical support for his presidency led pundits to predict anti-Muslim crusades and a war with Iran. Instead, he and his evangelicals pursued a strategy of limited engagement that was remarkably successful on some important fronts. Obama’s battle against ISIS was sustained and completed. Iranian aggression was confronted and curtailed. Regional allies were strengthened. The Syrian conflict cooled. No new wars were started for the first time in 20 years.
There were some blind spots. Trump was chummy with dictators and too quick to retreat from the region. He ran on a platform of defending Near Eastern Christians, but leaves them worse off than they were before. Key figures in his administration perpetuated the old delusion that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a reliable partner despite his anti-Western rhetoric and regional warmongering. (Just this month, Turkey’s loud support for Azerbaijan’s conquest of Armenian land prompted little more than a whispered protest from Trump’s State Department.)
But let’s give credit where credit is due. Trump may not have brought the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to negotiate with Israel—their quiet relationships had been growing for nearly a decade—but his policy created the table around which they could publicly meet. Which Beltway expert forecasted that three Arab states, one of them a longtime sponsor of terrorism, would recognize Israel by the end of his term? Or that Lebanon would be sitting with Israel to define shared borders after seven decades of hostility? Or that more Arab peace deals would lie in the offing?
Critics of the policy insist that the Arab states in question aren’t sufficiently “real” or representative of their peoples’ will. But these states are real (Sudan is especially massive), and Arab democracy, despite our best wishes, is not much of an option for now. Israel’s two other treaty partners, Egypt and Jordan, aren’t democratic; nor is the Palestinian Authority (PA), an authoritarian statelet that hasn’t held a presidential election since George W. Bush was in office. Yet only the worst kind of American idealism would call for tearing up those agreements because their signatories aren’t as perfect as we are.
Democracy cannot be the basis for a Near East strategy because it only works when local people embrace it for themselves. Coerced democracy is a contradiction in terms. Only mutual respect—the principle that political actors’ borders and identities will be recognized so long as they recognize the borders and identities of others—provides a realistic starting point for regional pluralism. Autocrats love to blame their failures on the Zionist entity, which means that normalization weakens their hold on power by robbing them of their favorite trump card. As I wrote a few months ago, “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.”
That Biden should welcome additional Arab states to the peace table is a no brainer. His more novel contribution could be in coaxing Palestinians to the peace table, too. It is true that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vehemently boycotted peace initiatives under Trump and condemned normalization with Israel in the strongest of terms. I’m not sure any administration should feel pressured to placate him. But a new US president creates new opportunities, and, given the right approach, a post-normalization Palestine may be closer than we think.
For anyone laughing at that last assertion, I’ll point out that plenty of normalization already exists in practice. For all the talk of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a surprising amount of collaboration between the two sides. The Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel back in the early 1990s (before Friends was on the air), and the PA cooperates with Israel on a number of fronts every day. Security forces are in regular contact, and healthcare institutions on both sides of the Green Line have been working hand-in-hand to battle COVID-19 since the crisis began. Heck, even Hamas has developed a modus vivendi with Israel at this point.
But it isn’t just the institutions. Palestinians themselves are ready for normalization. Tens of thousands cross into Israel every day for work, and many thousands more want to join them. An even greater number speaks Hebrew, watches Israeli television, and listens to Israeli music. A recent poll found 67 percent applauding joint efforts to fight the coronavirus and 41 percent condemning the PA’s rejection of health supplies from the UAE because the Emiratis’ airplane landed in Tel Aviv rather than Amman. A surprising 31 percent wants to keep ties with Israel even if Israel annexes parts of the West Bank, and a shocking 18 percent want to disband the PA and return to Israeli rule. No doubt these attitudes are driven by dissatisfaction with over two decades of poor governance and a belief among 80 percent of Palestinians that their leaders are irredeemably corrupt.
About a third of Palestinians want normalization, another third rejects it, and a third goes back and forth. The fact that a majority could support normalization under the right conditions suggests that the lack of peace isn’t for want of plans but lack of leadership. Crowned with the legitimacy of a fresh mandate, Biden could foster pro-normalization forces, call for presidential elections, and grant political legitimacy to what Palestinians have been doing in practice for years.
There is of course a more selfish reason for Biden to encourage Arab-Israeli peace. As a policy of President Trump, it already has the support of half the country. Modified to reflect Biden’s own diplomatic priorities, it could attract support from the rest. Thus, before even stepping into the Oval Office, Biden could have in his possession a powerful tool for bringing our country together in a way that benefits third parties.
The script is solid. The stage is set. The audience waits. Biden’s greatest mistake would be to tear down the whole production in contempt for his predecessor. His smartest move would be to rebrand the show and make it his own.
For the sake of his administration, the nation, and the people of the Near East, let’s pray he does the latter.