Thursday, December 24, 2020


Seth Frantzman presents an interesting thesis in his op-ed in Newsweek this week. He argues that Israel's Peace Deals Show How Abnormal Israel's Treatment Has Been, based on his recent visit to Dubai -- along with 50,000 other Israelis since November 26.

Noting how normal his experience there felt, and how normal in fact it should feel, Frantzman writes that Israel's isolation within the Arab world is an artificial situation:
However, a concerted campaign over the decades attempted to make it seem acceptable that not only would Israel lack relations with dozens of mostly Muslim countries, but Jewish religious displays themselves would be considered taboo or "controversial" in those places. 
...Acceptance of the isolation of Israel and erasure of Jewish history in the Middle East has been an open wound afflicting the whole region. It should never have happened. Israel and some Arab countries fought a war in 1948, and there are legitimate reasons that Palestinians and their supporters opposed Israel's policies. But similar terrible wars, such as that between India and Pakistan in 1948, didn't result in dozens of countries not recognizing India or pretending that Hindus don't exist. Normalization and the presence of diplomatic relations are the most basic geopolitical norms throughout the world. Yet so many politicians, like former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who pushed for engagement with Iran, blindly accepted the fact that so many countries did not normalize ties with Israel. [emphasis added]
Frantzman sees the "anti-Israel crusade" of the past 70 years as the result of antisemitism.
The comparison of Israel with India is an interesting one.
On the one hand, one can argue that unlike India, Israel -- as a Jewish state -- provokes the long-standing animus in the Arab/Muslim world against Jews that is practically hard-wired into Islam. That tension has been evident throughout the Arab world since its beginnings.
Normalization is a Western concept and the goal towards which states work when they resolve conflicts with each other. It is not necessarily an Arab approach -- where hudnah, or truce, is used: a temporary solution, awaiting an auspicious change in the status quo with the enemy.
That is what makes the Abraham Accords so striking -- that it is not the way things are normally done in the Middle East, as opposed to the peace treaties Israel has with Egypt and Jordan, where there is a 'cold' peace and anti-Israel rhetoric there is common. In the Abraham Accords, there are Arab countries that have turned the corner and do not see Israel as the enemy; Egypt and Jordan have not yet been able to do this.
The similarity between India and Israel is in their active pursuit of improving ties, both globally and with the Muslim world in particular.
The Wikipedia article on Foreign relations of India has a list of the countries with which India has forged ties. In the section describing India's ties with the Palestinian Arabs, it says
In the light of a religious partition between India and Pakistan, the impetus to boost ties with Muslim states around the world was a further tie to India's support for the Palestinian cause. [emphasis added]
This claim that India's conflict with Pakistan is a motivator for better relations with Muslim countries is echoed in the descriptions of India's ties with some Muslim countries: 
Afghanistan: "The new democratically elected Afghan government strengthened its ties with India in wake of persisting tensions and problems with Pakistan, which is continuing to shelter and support the Taliban"

Bangladesh: "At the outset India's relations with Bangladesh could not have been stronger because of India's unalloyed support for independence and opposition against Pakistan in 1971."

Iran: "After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Iran withdrew from CENTO and dissociated itself from US-friendly countries, including Pakistan, which automatically meant improved relationship with the Republic of India."

Tajikistan: "India's role in fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and its strategic rivalry with both China and Pakistan have made its ties with Tajikistan important to its strategic and security policies"
And on the flip side:
Saudi Arabia: "India's strategic relations with Saudi Arabia have been affected by the latter's close ties with Pakistan. Saudi Arabia supported Pakistan's stance on the Kashmir conflict and during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 at the expense of its relations with India."

Turkey: "Due to controversial issues such as Turkey's close relationship with Pakistan, relations between the two countries have often been blistered at certain times, but better at others."
In other words, Pakistan has served as an impetus for certain Muslim countries to improve their ties with India, similar to the way Iran has motivated certain Muslim countries to improve their relations with Israel.
While one might argue with Frantzman's contention about how artificial the enmity towards Israel is in the Arab world, it is clear that prior to Trump, US administrations "blindly accepted the fact that so many countries did not normalize ties with Israel." The Trump administration didn't, and orchestrated not just the end of hostilities, but normalized relations between Israel and 4 Muslim states.
In a recent article, Jonathan Tobin describes How Trump Transformed ‘Quid Pro Quo’ From Democratic Slur to Diplomatic Triumph. He notes the opposition, including among Republicans:
That Latin phrase has become a term of abuse among Democrats, ever since it became the totemic phrase used to justify their failed Trump impeachment attempt. But the string of normalization deals showcases a triumphant side of the quid pro quo approach.

Far from indicating a shallow, cynical attitude to governance, these deals show quid pro quo is a swifter, smarter, saner strategy than the very different ideas and tactics pursued by previous administrations.
Tobin describes this quid pro quo approach as transactional diplomacy -- but good luck defining how it is any different from normal diplomacy.
Wikipedia traces transactional diplomacy back to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who focused specifically on regional solutions and working with countries to build up their infrastructure and reducing their reliance on the US. The Christian Science Monitor sees transactional diplomacy as values free and compares it with the US agreeing to reduce its relations with Taiwan in order to improve relations with China or Obama trading sanctions relief in exchange for Iran's agreeing to a nuclear deal.
Tobin's view of transactional diplomacy is pragmatic and is about tossing ideas that don't work:
The point about Trump’s transactional strategy is that it worked. Instead of focusing on maintaining policies that could never achieve any results — such as the unrealistic hope the Palestinians would ever seriously negotiate, and the equally hopeless stalemate in the Western Sahara — Trump seized opportunities to make deals that did advance U.S. interests, rather than allowing himself to be bogged down by diplomatic traditions.
Maybe the Trump administration really is onto something here. No act of diplomacy could have created the kind of warmth and friendship we are seeing between Israel and the UAE. 
Maybe that quid pro quo did not so much create peace as remove the roadblocks to it.
And that brings us back to Frantzman's claim that normal relations for Israel, even within the Arab world, may not be such a strange or abnormal idea after all.

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