Thursday, October 29, 2020

Vic Rosenthal's weekly column


The end of the historic “Arab-Israeli conflict” may be on the horizon, depending on the outcome of the US presidential election.

Oh, It wouldn’t mean that the Palestinian Arabs will soon give up on the idea that they can flood Israel with the descendants of 1948 refugees and reverse the result of the War of Independence. It wouldn’t mean that the antisemitism and misoziony that are rife in our neighbors Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, are likely to end in our lifetimes. It wouldn’t mean that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will stop trying to re-establish the Ottoman Empire, including Jerusalem, or that the revolutionary regime in Iran will stop planning to wipe Israel off the map and establish a Shiite caliphate in the region. ISIS, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood will not be normalizing relations with the Jewish state no matter what. There will be plenty of conflict and terrorism in our region for the foreseeable future.

But the classical Arab-Israeli conflict, as expressed by the Three No’s of 1967 may soon be history. The idea that no Arab nation can accept the existence of the Jewish state – or even mention it by name – until all of the extreme demands of the Palestinian Arabs have been met has already fallen by the wayside. It is becoming obvious to any honest observer that the reason the Palestinian issue has festered for so many years is that the Palestinians, encouraged by the Arab nations and European antisemites, have never entertained any possibility short of total victory. Now Arab support for their intransigence and rejectionism is falling away.

The UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan have already made normalization agreements with Israel. Others are expected to follow. The most important of those would be Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, the custodian of the Holy Mosques, and the source of funds for countless Islamic institutions around the world. There are reliable reports that the Saudi regime, which is increasingly under the control of Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Defense, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), will normalize relations after the US election – if Donald Trump wins.

It’s hard to imagine that any of this would have happened if not for the change in US policy initiated by the Trump Administration. The recognition of Israeli rights in Jerusalem and sovereignty over the Golan, and the downgrading of relations with the PLO, sent an unmistakable message that America did not support the Palestinian program to replace Israel with an Arab state. Trump’s peace plan, unlike those proposed during the previous administration, is not based on the transformation of the 1949 cease-fire lines into borders, but respects the concept of “secure and recognized boundaries” as expressed in UNSC resolution 242.

In order to truly appreciate the change in policy, compare it to that of the previous administration. Even before his inauguration in January 2009, Barack Obama forced Israel to abandon its campaign to oust Hamas from Gaza, probably the last practical opportunity to do so. In June of that year he visited Cairo and made a speech in which he directly compared the Holocaust to Palestinian “suffer[ing] in pursuit of a homeland” (he didn’t visit Israel until 2013, and then chose not to speak to the Knesset in Jerusalem but rather informally to students). Obama deliberately refrained from helping Iranian dissidents in Iran’s failed Green Revolution. He supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab Spring conflicts in Egypt, endangering Israeli-Egyptian relations. He demanded a freeze on all “settlement activity” which was used by the Palestinians as an excuse to refuse to talk. He deliberately humiliated PM Netanyahu when he visited the White House in 2011. He stopped a shipment of missiles to Israel during the 2014 conflict with Hamas in Gaza. At the same time the FAA ordered flights to Israel canceled, in an action that many thought was ordered by the administration.

Obama rammed through the Iran deal over the objections of a majority in Congress, including huge cash payments that the regime used to finance terrorism and Hezbollah’s military buildup. In 2013, his administration leaked information to the press about Israeli attacks against Iranian weapons shipments in Syria, making a wider conflict more likely. Finally, as a lame-duck parting shot at Israel in 2016, he encouraged the introduction of an anti-Israel Security Council resolution, and instructed his ambassador to abstain, ensuring its passage. And there is much more.

One can understand why Arab leaders might have thought that there was no percentage in improving relations with Israel while the US was kicking her to the curb.

Joe Biden was deeply involved in the Obama Administration’s relationship with Israel. You may recall that Biden was “furious” after an Israeli official announced the completion of a step in the process of approval for the construction of apartments in eastern Jerusalem while he was visiting Israel, precipitating a 45-minute angry phone call full of demands from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to PM Netanyahu.

Biden has said that he would “rejoin the [nuclear deal with Iran] … as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” He opposes Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach and even blames it for Iranian progress toward nuclear weapons. He is likely to reopen the American consulate in eastern Jerusalem that was the unofficial “US Embassy in Palestine,” and the PLO office in Washington that were closed by Trump. He will restore financial aid to the Palestinian Authority that was cut off by Trump because the PA would not agree to stop payments to convicted terrorists (“pay to slay”). He will probably restore payments to UNRWA, which supports the descendants of 1948 refugees and is closely aligned with Hamas in Gaza. And he will bring back the tired rhetoric of the impossible “two-state solution” based on 1949 lines. It’s doubtful that he would be as hostile to Israel as Barack Obama, but he would undo much of the progress made by Trump.

This explains the statement by MBS that he would not normalize relations with Israel immediately if Biden becomes president. There is plenty of opposition in Saudi Arabia to such a bold step, which could even express itself violently. MBS is willing to take the risk if it will lead to the development of a powerful, US-supported Sunni-Israel bloc which could challenge Iran for regional leadership. Why should he do so if the US returns to the Obama-era policy of appeasement of Iran? And the same applies to other Arab countries that are waiting in the wings.

The development of a Sunni-Israel bloc in the region would be a breakthrough that would fundamentally alter the balance of power, and reduce the need for the US to physically intervene to keep the peace. It might set the stage for greater regional independence, so that outside players like Russia, the US, and Turkey would be less able to use its nations as pawns in their power struggles. It might lead to the Iranian people finally throwing off the corrupt and oppressive regime of the Mullahs. It might even bring a solution to the Palestinian problem somewhat closer. It would not fix all of the region’s problems, but it would be a good start.

But all of this depends on continuing Trump’s sharp turn towards rationality in Middle East policy. And Joe Biden is not the guy to do it, especially since he has already adopted some of the same advisers and former officials of the Obama Administration that were responsible for its destructive policies, including several architects of the Iran deal. Biden’s mental condition is a matter of dispute, but the specter of the enormous power of the US president in the hands of unelected and unaccountable operatives who have demonstrated their hostility to Israel and their approval of Iranian regional hegemony is truly frightening.



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