Editor’s Note: Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a Member of Knesset and Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, is the author of The Night Archer and Other Stories (Wicked Son, 2020). The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
This could be the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For more than 70 years, alongside oil and Islamic extremism, that dispute defined the Middle East. Innumerable books were written about the subject, and courses on it were offered at most major universities. Iran and Iraq could fight for eight bloody years, the Lebanese could massacre one another for 15, and wars would rage along the borders of Morocco, Libya and Egypt, but the term “Middle East conflict” almost invariably referred to that between Israel and the 22 Arab states.
Similarly, “Middle East peace,” did not mean reconciling such regional rivals as Syria and Turkey or Saudi Arabia and Qatar but mediating between Arabs and Israelis. All that ceased Tuesday with Israel’s signing of agreements normalizing Israel’s relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Those treaties were spurred by many interests, not the least of which is the vast economic benefits likely to flow from wedding Israel’s technological prowess with the Arab states’ energy wealth. On the strategic level, though, the treaties reflect seismic shifts in the regional balance of power. The rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on the one hand, and of a resurgent Turkey closely allied with Islamic radicals on the other, placed moderate Arab governments in a bind.
In the past, Arab leaders could count on protection from America. But with the United States far less dependent on Arab oil and exhausted by two unsuccessful wars, Washington began withdrawing from the area. Several Arab nations, especially in the Gulf, seemingly felt they had little choice but to turn to the only regional power that did not threaten them – indeed, which promised to aid in their defense.
Even then, the process took decades. Despite the transformative events of 1979 – the Islamic revolution in Iran and the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty – and the Israeli-Jordanian agreement achieved 15 years later, the conflict continued. The reason was the persistent dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
Though the Oslo Accords of 1993 promised a staged resolution, the process fell victim to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and resistance to Palestinian statehood, together with the Palestinians’ acts of terror and rejection of several two-state formulas. Throughout, the Arab states maintained their support for the Palestinian cause and made relations with Israel contingent on the prior creation of a Palestinian state.
Yet, the growing unpopularity of Palestinian leaders among their own people, their pervasive corruption, and refusal to negotiate with Israel even under the most propitious conditions, eroded Arab patience. Faced with the twin Iranian and Turkish threats and the reality of American retreat, Arab governments refused to give the Palestinians a veto power over peace with one of the few countries that could benefit them both financially and militarily.
The result was not only Israel’s accord with the UAE but also its agreement with Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s implicit support for these arrangements, and its willingness to allow Israeli overflights of Saudi airspace, signals definitively the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If the custodian of the two holiest cities in Islam is willing to reconcile, even implicitly, with the Jewish custodian of the third, Jerusalem, then most of the Arab world seem sure to follow. After the UAE and Bahrain, next in line likely to make peace with Israel are Oman, Sudan and Morocco.
If not for its subjugation to Hezbollah, Iran’s powerful terrorist proxy, Lebanon, would likely join that list. The Arab League, which has notably refrained from condemning these developments, can be expected to gradually adopt a supportive stand. And a new generation of Palestinian leaders, realizing that time is no longer on their side, may well return to the negotiating table. Opposite the Turks and the Iranian-Syrian axis buttressed by Russia could emerge an Arab-Israeli alliance backed by the United States.
This outcome, though, is not inexorable. Peace could be derailed by an Israeli move to annex a large portion of the West Bank or to expand settlements in areas earmarked for eventual Palestinian sovereignty. Terror, which historically escalates in the wake of any peace agreement, and armed efforts to defeat it, could dampen enthusiasm for normalization among Israelis and Arabs alike. The United States could also delay the process by restoring the Palestinian issue to the forefront or precipitously renewing relations with Iran. American leverage is key to finalizing additional Arab-Israeli agreements, and priority must be given to preserving it.
On Tuesday, a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace seemed within reach but upheaval in the Middle East is scarcely behind us. Rather than the cause of that conflict, the normalization between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, as between Israel and other Arab states, can be a rare source of stability. The task now is to build on that progress and ensure a more secure future for both the Middle East and America.