Politics as Public Relations: Review Jeffrey Toobin

True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump

Why True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump? Why not High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump? After all, Article II of the Constitution of the United States of America states that Congress may remove a president for impeachment and conviction of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (my italics) It does not say “true” crimes and misdemeanors. I read the book and could not find an explicit explanation.

Alexander Hamilton is cited (No. 65) most often describing impeachable offences as not only the crimes of bribery and treason, but also non-crimes (contra Alan Dershowitz in 2019 but consistent with Dershowitz in 1999, as well as the vast majority of constitutional scholars), “offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse and violation of some public trust. (my italics) They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” Was Donald Trump guilty of an abuse and violation of some public trust in the above sense in 2019 when he asked the president of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, Joe and his son, Hunter, with respect to the latter who served on the Board of Burisma, a large gas producer in the Ukraine though he had no credentials to do so? His remuneration had been extremely high.

The problem was that Ukraine was a foreign country, not the FBI. Further, Trump not only made such a request, but let the President of the Ukraine know both directly and indirectly that military aid would not be forthcoming as promised by the State Department and authorized by Congress unless and until that President announced that there would be such an investigation. Further, the meeting in the White House of the President of the Ukraine with the President of the U.S. would also not be scheduled until such an announcement was made.

Did the evidence support such a charge? If it did, did such behaviour constitute a “high crime and misdemeanor,” that is, an abuse and violation of a public trust? In other words, was the act a true crime or misdemeanor? But it did not have to be a crime supposedly. Then was it a true breach of a public trust when Donald Trump held up Congressionally approved military aid to an ally facing an effective military invasion by Russia in the east of the country?  Was it a breach of public trust if the President of the United States would only meet a foreign leader if and only if that leader announced that he was looking into possible corruption by the man (and his son) likely to be his opponent in the 2020 presidential race? The accusation that President Donald Trump also engaged in obstruction of Congress, the second article of impeachment, for impeding Congress in its lawful Constitutional responsibility to investigate such a charge, was also largely a judgement since the facts of the case were readily apparent.

There was no impeachment trial as a result of the previous Mueller Report and inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, although there were many indictments. In the case of the second major scandal, that of Ukraine in 2019, there was a trial. The House of Representatives by a clear majority (all Democrats) voted to impeach. The Senate by a majority (all Republicans) voted to acquit.

If the volume had been about simply the impeachment of Donald Trump, it could have been 122 pages or, at most, 172 pages. Instead, it runs to 451 pages. For the book is about legal strategy and tactics, about how and when to “turn” lower miscreants to inform on higher ups, but it is really mostly about politics as a public relations exercise rather than either a search for truth or for implementing the best policies to serve a nation and its people.

There is almost universal agreement that Donald Trump is a master at appealing to his base and manipulating the narrative of events to motivate that base. It is not so clear why he is surrounded by and supported by toadies and sycophants. There is the suggestion that Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, tolerates Trump because McConnell can get the conservative judges he wants appointed and, at the same time, forestall the Democratic Party agenda. (47)

However, the issue is not just about the Republicans and the reckless, narcissistic, egocentric, lying Republican president, but also about Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives. She too governs her actions to accord with the sentiments and priorities of her supporters. (348) Pushing for impeachment when the body politic was not ready and when the majority of Democratic members in the House of Representatives were not ready, was not her path, whatever the crimes, misdemeanors and breaches of trust for which the president may have been guilty.

However, it is not enough to appeal to your supporters to ensure you bring them along with you. There are the techniques for doing so. When you have sensational news, do you dribble it out over time or make a big splash all at once as when Wikileaks released the emails of the National Democratic Committee revealing how they had pushed events to favour Hillary Clinton over Berrnie Sanders? “The WikiLeaks provocateurs had learned from their experience in July, when they dumped all the DNC emails on the same day. In October, WikiLeaks parceled out the Podesta emails in piecemeal fashion – a new set posted each day in the final stages of the campaign – so that the damage to the Clinton campaign would accumulate. As in the summer, Trump embraced the WikiLeaks disclosures and the drip-drip pace of the Podesta disclosures gave Trump the chance to pump up the revelations each day.” (23)

However, according to Toobin, a reverse tactic was followed in the case of the Ukraine story versus that of the Russia revelations. “The zeal and skill of the news media (especially The New York Times and The Washington Post) kept the Russia story in the headlines every day. In the long run, though, the drip-drip of news coverage wound up working to Trump’s benefit. By the time the Mueller investigation concluded, the public knew much of the story and had become acclimated, if not inured, to its outrages. (In contrast, the story of Trump’s corrupt overture to the president of Ukraine was revealed in a single splash and thus retained its shock value.)” (37)

Why was drip-drip better than the single splash in the case of WikiLeaks release of emails but the single splash was better in the case of Trump’s troubles with Russia and the Ukraine? Toobin does not tell us. Perhaps there were factors in each embarrassing situation that made one technique better than the other for that scandal. If there is an explanation, we do not get it.  What about the use of repetition that can result in either conviction about a false claim or indifference to the substance of the tale? “Through sheer repetition of the Trump gloss on the Trump Tower story, it lost much of its ability to appall and outrage.” (109) Does repetition of a lie result in both widespread conviction of truth but indifference to the moral horror of it all? Further, some lies are unequivocally obstructions of justice, such as denying he tried to fire Mueller and giving instructions to the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to rewrite the narrative of what actually happened. (201-203)

Thus, although the book is an excellent recounting of the disastrous and unexpected loss of the presidency by Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in the last ten days of the presidential election in 2016 followed by one act of malfeasance by Trump or one of his enablers and then another and another, in the end we learn very little about matching revelations to the public with proper timing and technique of releasing information on the scandal. What we are offered instead is a series of moral tales.

In James Comey’s interactions with Donald Trump prior to Comey’s firing we learn that it is a huge mistake to try to appease a bully.  From Trump’s misuse of Rod Rosenstein in firing Comey, we learn the huge cost of naivete in dealing with a president with the character of a mobster reverberating on Rosenstein by turning a taciturn superb professional into a conflicted paralyzed individual torn between “grim foreboding and manic despair.” (65)  When Jeff Sessions as Attorney General told Donald Trump that, unbeknownst to himself since he had recused himself from the Russian probe, Rod Rosenstein had appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Russian involvement in the 2106 American election and any matters related thereto, his deep and longstanding loyalty to Trump was not reciprocated as Trump turned on him for recusing himself, even though it was both the proper and only thing he could do. With Trump, loyalty was not a two-way street. Further, though the specific reference was to Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s lawyer, Sessions “suffered the fate of nearly everyone who became identified with the president, public humiliation.” (94)

Mueller never responded to Trump’s characterization of himself as motivated by resentment and revenge (a clear projection by Trump), including his alleged grievance concerning his request for a fee refund when he resigned from the Trump National Golf Club. Mueller’s insistence on a total blackout also on news of his progress meant that he lost the advantage of both drip-drip and of splash when he provided such an equivocal conclusion on the issue of obstruction of justice. When probity confronts perfidy, probity seems to lose. Silence also invited misinterpretation. Mueller “was always doing a narrower job than Trump’s adversaries hoped and the president’s allies feared.” (107) However, if Mueller preferred silence instead of public relations, why did he indict Putin’s Russian allies if they would never be tried and it was just a public relations exercise? (154) Toobin never reconciles when silence and when public relations is to be used as a technique.

Issue after issue illustrates the duplicity and dishonesty of Donald Trump. Robert Mueller was summoned to the White House by Donald Trump to proffer advice on a replacement for James Comey as head of the FBI. (Mueller held that position for 12 years prior to Comey whom Trump fired.) Mueller went to the Oval Office out of a sense of responsibility to the office of the president. When Mueller accepted the position as special counsel the next day, Trump in a rage of resentment claimed that Mueller had come to him to get his old job back but Trump had declined. Mueller never came to the office for that purpose. According to Trump, Mueller agreed to head the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election because of his ire over his rejection and determined to participate in a vendetta against Trump. (2)

Trump never managed to get Mueller fired as hard as he tried. Instead, according to Toobin, when Mueller ended up testifying before Congress, he “did not look good. The grind, the pressure, the criticism of the previous two years had taken their toll. The seventy-four-year-old who testified in 2019 was a different, diminished man from the seventy-two-year-old who became special counsel in 2017.” (324) Trump had outwitted him. He never appeared to testify on the advice of his lawyers that ran contrary to Trump’s pugilistic instincts. Mueller, because of time constraints and perhaps a latent respect for the office, never issued a grand jury subpoena. Why? “He couldn’t bring himself to launch a direct legal attack against the president of the United States.” (197) The same reticence did not allow him to draw a clear conclusion that Trump had been guilty of obstruction of justice but only a convoluted conclusion that the inquiry could not exonerate Trump given the evidence.

If Mueller was not fired, a myriad of others were. The Trump presidency appeared to be a continuation of his television show, The Apprentice, as the declaration “you’re fired,” was repeated over and over again unless the individual quit first, although Trump always claimed to have fired the individual first. The great virtue of Toobin’s book is not only that it is well written, that it includes numerous illustrative anecdotes (the series of Comey meetings with Donald Trump; Trump’s use and abuse of Rod Rosenstein in firing Comey), but that it brings together what we have listened to over the last almost four years and reveals clearly and explicitly the character of the Trump presidency.

We may not learn anything particularly new of substance, but bringing the whole tale together has a cumulative effect, not as drip-drip or one big splash, but as a continuing tale of perfidy, incompetence, lack of empathy, cruelty, ignorance, focus on loyalty to himself rather than mastery of policy issues, and certainly not adherence to principles and concern for others. It also throws light on the character of the emergence of celebrity politics.

Part V: Israel and the UAE: The Realists

Realists have the most reason to gloat. They operate in terms of international politics as a conflict and congruence of national interests. The Israel-UAE deal marks the largest shift away from the centrality of issues like justice, transparency, and self-determination to focus almost exclusively on national interests. For them, in earlier regimes, the serious consideration of moral issues gummed up the prospects for peace. After the Israel-UAE deal, the dynamic has radically shifted in favour of self-interest as the exclusive reference point for advancing the reconciliation of Israel and Arab states.

Except for the Palestinians. Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based business consultant and political commentator, who participated in the Foundation for Middle East Peace webinar, is a Palestinian realist focused on the European states rather than the protest movements. He urged European governments to recognize Palestine as a state before it was too late. The UAE-Israel deal merely allowed Israel to escape from the dead end of annexation and America to escape the embarrassment of a peace proposal that totally flopped. For Bahour, now was the time for Europe to use its political clout with Israel, given that the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The Eu must intervene in the peace process to which it has heretofore taken a back seat.

Basour’s standpoint is not the same as the perspective of Marwa Fatafta and her colleagues. That may reflect Bahour’s business perspective (with partners he formed the Palestine Telecommunications Company and the PLAZA Shopping Center), his computer technology expertise and his more traditional state power centered analysis. Like many other Palestinians, he benefitted from the tertiary educational system in Israel, earning a part-time joint MBA from Northwestern University and the University of Tel Aviv. Further, he is an American born in Ohio who returned to the West Bank (his father was Palestinian) following the signing of the Oslo Accords and was deeply disappointed and disillusioned about the Oslo route. It is unclear whether he shares Jared Kushner’s view that what Palestine lacks is a good system of governance as a basis for expanding the economy. “The thing that was inhibiting all the investors from going into the West Bank and Gaza was not Israel; it was the fact that there’s not a strong system of governance. There’s not a judicial system where they can feel comfortable making investments. And there’s not a security regime where they feel comfortable making long-term capital investments.”.

Unlike Fatafta, he believes that the failure of Oslo is pushing Palestinians back towards confrontation and likely armed struggle. Instead of an appeal to the street, he is more focused on a re-balancing of state power, that is, using the Europeans to offset the new alliance between the Americans, the UAE and eventually all the Arab Gulf states and Israel. Without real powers as partners, the Palestinians are in deep trouble in achieving their goal of a viable independent Palestinian state.

There is another route which the PA seems to be taking. Though Abbas originally tried to forge a common front with Hamas and Fatah, the latter two are now on their own working together to confront Israel and launch joint resistance. In the meanwhile, the PA has clearly greatly softened its criticisms of the Israel-UAE deal. The PA also announced its readiness to open talks with Israel. It is noteworthy that Arafat’s widow came out and supported the deal.

Palestinians have to accept the following realities:

  • The Palestinian issue has lost much of its currency in Arab world
  • The Right-wing Israeli and American outside-in vs inside-out strategy now appears to be on top
  • The Palestinian leadership has very little support
  • The prospect for change within the Palestinian community is very limited in contrast to the views of Marwa Fatafta
  • The chance of marrying the interests of the Palestinian people with those of the populace in authoritarian Arab states seems limited
  • Arab regimes do not represent their people but are more akin to Petro-Republics
  • There is a reasonable prospect of mutual solidarity with the people of Yemen and Iraq
  • Palestinians do have to count on a younger generation
  • Palestinians having lost all leverage with America during the Trump administration are unlikely to claw back more than token victories if Joe Biden wins and are destined to lose all influence in America if Trump wins
  • The only real leverage on Israel to change course depends on Europe which is Israel’s largest trading partner and that is the potential that must be exploited.

Otherwise de facto annexation will continue – Gantz just authorized 5,000 new settler homes – by restricting building permits to Palestinians, land seizures, imprisonment of Palestinians who challenge either the current Palestinian leadership or Israel. Using European and international linkages is the only realistic route for Palestinians to achieve self-determination on a reasonable and fair size of Palestinian land.

For Arab realists in the Gulf States facing the threat from Iran, a very different realignment is necessary, a growing partnership with Israel and a move to the side of the Palestinian problem. There is not only the issue of border security for the UAE, but the purchase of F-35s and other advanced military equipment. There is also the issue of cyber-security, an area in which Israel is a world leader. The UAE would benefit from closer cooperation with Israel on the use and perhaps even development of this technology. Finally, there is the issue of the Yemen proxy war in which the UAE hopes to learn from Israel how to manage such conflicts.

The Trump White House has advertised itself as the “deal-maker,” but it did not have a single successful deal to its credit until the UAE-Israel agreement came along. Trump needed a diplomatic achievement to present to voters since his foreign-policy gambits vis-à-vis China, North Korea and especially the Israel-Palestinian conflict have failed thus far. The achievement of driving Iran further to the ground seems to have provided only a temporary respite.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had promised his right-wing base annexation of parts of the West Bank. However, he was forced to acknowledge that without U.S. support – that would not be forthcoming unless he recognized a Palestinian state – any concrete move towards that goal placed Israel’s national security at risk. It would certainly publicize that he was burying President Trump’s peace plan and not simply setting it to one side. Netanyahu seems to have had no genuine interest in the efforts of the Bahrain conference and the $50 billion dollar plan for the Palestinians to double their GDP, create a million new jobs, decrease the poverty rate and cut the Palestinian dependency on handouts. Further, if Joe Biden wins the upcoming election, even de facto annexation will re-emerge as a bone of contention between the Israelis and Americans. Bibi needed an off-ramp.

The UAE has much to gain through the agreement, not least by being able to take credit for halting annexation. It also believes that a peace deal with Israel can solidify its standing in Washington and help to deflect criticism regarding a variety of activities which future administrations might find problematic: its involvement in the war in Yemen, its close ties with China, and its outreach to Iran to reduce tensions in the Gulf. In addition, the Emirates may be taking such steps to better protect itself from regional threats in the event of Washington’s continued retrenchment from the Middle East—by enabling its ability to buy more advanced weaponry from the U.S. and seeking closer security cooperation with Israel, a leading regional military power.

Other countries that follow suit will gain as well. Sudan hopes that in return for a deal it will be removed from America’s terror list. Malawi plans to locate its embassy in Jerusalem in return for Israeli technological assistance. A whole series of transactional quid pro quos are expected to follow this initiative.

Looking ahead, Israel can now focus its efforts on the more pressing national-security challenges it faces. At the top of Jerusalem’s agenda is preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons. In the end, however, it means abandoning the premise for peace built into UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in return for all states in the area to respect one another’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Dore Gold, now President of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, wrote, “If there is a new diplomatic doctrine at work here it comes from a realistic understanding that the Jewish state can reach peace with its neighbors if it can address their most vital concerns. Israel is not the regional policeman, nor should it attempt to take on such a role. But it must make its contribution to upholding the regional order along with its Arab allies.” The Emirates played a leadership role in shifting the frame of Middle East relations from pro-Palestinian plus anti-Israel by focusing on Jews and envisioning a politics of plus Palestine and plus Jews, thereby displacing the up/down binary.

The UAE sponsored and publicized interactions between rabbis and imams. One of the grandsons of a very close friend had the second Bar Mitzvah in UAE history. All this is being done without outside interests demanding internal reform and remake of Arab potentates in their own liberal image. Further, this revised globalism is paired up with strengthening national borders and national sovereignty in opposition to either pan-Arabism or pan-Islam.

As Jared Kushner wrote, “We tried to change the paradigm of how people viewed the objectives in the Middle East, to show that there was much more alignment. Instead of using the historical context, we started shifting it around common interests.” Versus the experts and the risk-averse, take risks. Disrupt. Then mitigate the downside. Lubricate the upside. That is the Trump realist philosophy for making change. It often produces chaos.

There are five strategic factors in play:

  • The threat of a militant Iran
  • The increasing threat of radical Sunnis: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS
  • The rise of the street with democratic expectations and demands
  • The impending expected full withdrawal of America from the region
  • Israel’s economic, technological and military clout.

What is on offer is a doctrine of Peace Through Strength rather than peace through the spread of liberalism and democratic ideas and ideals. Further, the Arab states have to move from a dependency on oil revenues to a post-fossil fuel economy by developing their own technological capabilities. That can be accomplished much easier if they are partners with Israel. That will also strengthen the opposition to Iran, the country with ambitions to be the regional hegemon. Thus, the Obama doctrine (and my own) that Iran’s polity and policies can be moderated through relationships and exchanges while putting in storage the nuclear program, was replaced by a strategy of undermining Iran’s economy to undercut its ability to support its satraps. Hence, the Israel-UAE agreement marks a radical transformation in the Middle East from its pan-Arab nationalist as well as pan-Islamic phases to a realignment marking the birth of a new political order.

I’m Thinking of Ending It: A Retraction

I wrote a review of Charlie Kaufman’s latest film a week ago. I have just deleted the review from my WordPress web site. Last night my youngest son watched the film. Early this morning, very early for him since he lives on the west coast, he phoned me to discusss the film and my review. Bottom line: I missed it. I did not understand the film. We have been discussing it off and on all day. We both read different prominent reviewers. If there is any solace for me, they did not get it either.

There is no way to tell you what the film says and means without introducing spoilers. If you get it, you know you have understood it. If you watch it, read the reviews on YouTube by film critics who did get it which my son found, only afterwards. They are well done.

The film is a real donwer. But it is a great film.

Morality and Politics: – Repentance versus Shame

Parashat Nitzavim VaYelekh: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:30

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are almost upon us. We will soon face the Day of Repentance and Atonement (teshuvah). In Deuteronomy 29:11-14, God promises to enter into a covenant with the people of Israel, not only with those who stand before Him, but with all future generations. There is one major condition. Israel must repent of its sins. Those who repent are contrasted with the one who would “follow his willful heart,” (29:18), one who will insist on I rather than We. The egocentric individual will not be forgiven by the Lord.

What is the consequence? The land will be devastated. The pessimistic portrait pictured in the Charlie Kaufman movie that I reviewed on Monday, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will emerge supreme. Misfortune shall befall you with soil devastated by sulfur and salt. What is the consequence? The I’s will be uprooted and thrust into an alternate space like that portrayed in the TV series Counterpart. We have a choice. Repent and receive blessings. Act from a willful heart and be cursed. Ten verses in Deuteronomy (30:10-20) uses the root, shuva or repent, seven times. We are invited to return. We are invited to take responsibility for the error of our ways.

It really sounds like the old-time religion. And one should not be surprised if paragraphs like these turn a reader off. But I suggest that this is because the message is not heard; the language that has become clichéd obscures. Yet the message is simple and direct, neither too baffling nor beyond reach. (30:11) The meaning is not in the heavens of idealism where we can go up and observe it. Nor can we find it elsewhere on earth where the grass grows greener. We are face to face with the message in all that we hear every day. More significantly, the message is in your own mouth and your own heart. (30:14)

My last blog was on Idealists who analyze politics and insist political transactions should be led, not by self-interest, but by ideals, by goals of transparency that foster democracy and liberty and the rule of law. My next blog on the Israel/United Arab Emirates deal will take up the perspective of the Realists who would drive morality out of politics and make all politics a matter of power and self-interest. Is that the choice before us? Must we choose between being Idealists or Realists?

God instructed us to choose life over death. But both the Idealists and the Realists claim to have the handle on life. Which group is correct? Or is neither? There was a webinar this past Tuesday with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I love reading and hearing Rabbi Sacks, perhaps because we read the same secular thinkers and philosophers as our mentors, though he gives the greatest credit to three rabbis: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch. However, he studied under secular thinkers like Bernard Williams who wrote such influential books as Problems of the Self (1973) and Shame and Necessity (1993).

Jonathan Sacks has a new book that came out at the beginning of this month, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. I tried to point out that, from any political analytic perspective, all time is divided. There is always a Before and After. We are living in such a divided time. For Sacks, the time is divided between the present and the immediate past when morality has been driven out of politics, when politics has been turned into transactional exchange and the self-interest of enhancing one’s power. Monday’s blog will offer an example in the Realist examination of the Israel/UAE Agreement even though it is called the Abraham Agreement in order to stress the unity of the monotheistic religions rather than the beliefs and practices that divide them. The UAE insisted that it is about “We” but, as you will see, the Realists analyze the pact as rooted in I.

I published a long essay a long time ago called, “Power, Influence and Authority.” It dealt with two versions of each of those concepts – power as creative energy versus coercive power; influence as persuasion of ideas and arguments versus  material influence – bribes, pay-offs, incentives; and authority, authentic versus the formal authority of a position in a hierarchy. Sacks has a thesis that coercive power and moral influence must be kept separate. Religious leaders who trade in morality should stay out of politics, though they should certainly try to influence the polis. Politicians should stay out of religion. The function of those in judicial authority, the function of judges, is to apply morality to the political realm rooted in both their authentic and formal authority, both founded in the rule of law.

There are other themes which Sacks does not take up – such as why material influence must be bracketed when dealing with political issues and why coercive power must be excluded from the material economic realm. His focus was on the binary separation of morality and power politics. The function of religion is to exclude considerations of coercive power and material influence to attempt to shape the ideas and values of a polis. The function of politicians is to make decisions that take full consideration of the interests of constituents, but by placing those interests within a moral frame. Realists fail to do the latter; idealists would make morality dictate political policy rather than frame it and would thereby turn morality into a coercive force rather than an influential source.

It is one thing to try to guide the I to serve the We, to serve the common good. It is quite another to let the common good dictate to the individual how he or she should behave. The latter is the character of a shame culture. The use of morality to guide and influence the polity is a property of a guilt culture.

The Torah begins with a description of a shame or cancel culture in the story of Adam and Eve and how they are made to feel ashamed when they engage in sex. They were told that if they ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree of a moral order, there would be consequences. They ate and were thrust out of the Garden of Eden and had to spend their lives in the pain of living, the pain of labour both as work and in giving birth. What had they done wrong? Were they punished for disobedience?

That is not how a shame culture works, it distracts from the core moral issue. Adam and Eve were punished for hiding. They were punished for not owning up to what they did. The moral failure has to be separated from the consequences of their act. For that failure followed and did not precede the act. What preceded the act was desire and neither Adam nor Eve were forbidden from expressing their desires. Having sex was not the sin. The original sin belonged to Adam who thought he was God, who saw himself as God’s man on earth responsible for bringing things into being by naming them.

Adam was an isolate. He was your archetypal nerd. He had no friends. He had no companions. When God saw he was alone, he introduced him to Eve. But Adam never saw Eve as anything but an extension of his physical self. And he also othered his own body, for he thought of himself as primarily immaterial like God. He othered his body while, at the same time, viewed Eve as an extension of that body. His penis was a separate independent erect agent with its own voice. That is why he took no responsibility for the seduction. And Eve participated in the cover-up. And they were both expelled for failing to assume responsibility for what they did, for trying to hide it.

In a shame culture, what we now call a cancel culture – more on this in a future blog – there is no distinction between an agent and his or her act. A person is branded with a scarlet letter for what he or she did. Since there is no separation of agent and act, a person cannot be forgiven for what was done. The sin belongs to the sinner and not the behaviour. And the sinner cannot repent since the sin is viewed as having become part of his or her DNA.

As Rabbi Sacks said, the story of Adam and Eve is about appearances and that is why there is the effort to hide something from vision, to make it invisible. Out of a shame culture, an ethics of the eyes emerges. But Judaism is an ethics of the ear. The exit from the Garden meant that the heirs would go on to develop a morality of the ear and then a polity rooted in freedom and finally a nation with laws and land for that people. But in order to survive, in order to thrive, that covenant must be renewed regularly. Because Jews belong to a guilt culture even though they increasingly live in a secular shame culture, One can ask to be forgiven for one’s sins. What a person does and who that individual is are separable. An individual can accept the consequences of his or her acts. Ask for forgiveness, accept one’s punishment and return to be accepted as a full member of the community.

If we allow moralists to dictate our politics, we end up with a shame culture. If we allow politics to discard any reference to or guidance by morality, we end up with a cursed culture, a polis of corruption and dissolution. That is why we must live as realists but within a moral world. Only then can the I serve the We. Only then can every I retain the possibility of personal redemption through behaviour that takes back the sin of the act. That is why we must engage in charitable acts, why we must help the stranger, why we must reach out to the other with acts of loving kindness, why we must visit the sick and welcome those in need with acts of hospitality.

And that is why we must laugh. That is why an ironic tale, a big fish story of Jonah and the whale, is read on Yom Kippur. It is a joke. It is a satire. The sociologist Peter Berger wrote a book called Redeeming Laughter. We laugh because otherwise we would have to cry. Look at any evening of television news. CBC revisited the devastation caused by the explosion in Beirut and one had to cry.

I watched a TV series called Derry Girls focused on four teenaged girls from Derry, Northern Ireland and an English cousin of one of them. The series was proof positive that Irish humour can compete with Jewish humour any day of the week. The series is set against the catastrophic and violent conflict in Northern Ireland between the IRA and the British, with the ordinary Catholic and Protestant caught between and with virtually no knowledge of one another. That tragedy, until reconciliation and peace comes at the end, is held well in the background. In the foreground we see the Catholic girls driven by jealousy and pettiness acting out, belittling one another, dissing everyone in sight, getting into trouble and making themselves into more ridiculous, but loveable, beings in every episode. You watch and your sides will ache with laughter.

And laughter is the source of redemption. Confession, yes. Own up to what you do. But make fun of yourself in so doing. Make yourself the object of laughter because that is the best way to separate your stupid and ridiculous actions from who your really are.  Rejoice and hug God. You can ignore COVID-19. Be happy that you and God are together again.

Go to Yom Kippur services and then have a good chuckle. If you are not a Jew, watch Derry Girls instead. If you are Jewish, watch the series twice.

Shona Tova.

Part V: Israel and the UAE: The Realists

Realists have the most reason to gloat. They operate in terms of international politics as a conflict and congruence of national interests. The Israel-UAE deal marks the largest shift away from the centrality of issues like justice, transparency, and self-determination to focus almost exclusively on national interests. For them, in earlier regimes, the serious consideration of moral issues gummed up the prospects for peace. After the Israel-UAE deal, the dynamic has radically shifted in favour of self-interest as the exclusive reference point for advancing the reconciliation of Israel and Arab states.

Except for the Palestinians. Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based business consultant and political commentator, who participated in the Foundation for Middle East Peace webinar, is a Palestinian realist focused on the European states rather than the protest movements. He urged European governments to recognize Palestine as a state before it was too late. The UAE-Israel deal merely allowed Israel to escape from the dead end of annexation and America to escape the embarrassment of a peace proposal that totally flopped. For Bahour, now was the time for Europe to use its political clout with Israel, given that the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. The Eu must intervene in the peace process to which it has heretofore taken a back seat.

Basour’s standpoint is not the same as the perspective of Marwa Fatafta and her colleagues. That may reflect Bahour’s business perspective (with partners he formed the Palestine Telecommunications Company and the PLAZA Shopping Center), his computer technology expertise and his more traditional state power centered analysis. Like many other Palestinians, he benefitted from the tertiary educational system in Israel, earning a part-time joint MBA from Northwestern University and the University of Tel Aviv. Further, he is an American born in Ohio who returned to the West Bank (his father was Palestinian) following the signing of the Oslo Accords and was deeply disappointed and disillusioned about the Oslo route. It is unclear whether he shares Jared Kushner’s view that what Palestine lacks is a good system of governance as a basis for expanding the economy. “The thing that was inhibiting all the investors from going into the West Bank and Gaza was not Israel; it was the fact that there’s not a strong system of governance. There’s not a judicial system where they can feel comfortable making investments. And there’s not a security regime where they feel comfortable making long-term capital investments.”.

Unlike Fatafta, he believes that the failure of Oslo is pushing Palestinians back towards confrontation and likely armed struggle. Instead of an appeal to the street, he is more focused on a re-balancing of state power, that is, using the Europeans to offset the new alliance between the Americans, the UAE and eventually all the Arab Gulf states and Israel. Without real powers as partners, the Palestinians are in deep trouble in achieving their goal of a viable independent Palestinian state.

There is another route which the PA seems to be taking. Though Abbas originally tried to forge a common front with Hamas and Fatah, the latter two are now on their own working together to confront Israel and launch joint resistance. In the meanwhile, the PA has clearly greatly softened its criticisms of the Israel-UAE deal. The PA also announced its readiness to open talks with Israel. It is noteworthy that Arafat’s widow came out and supported the deal.

Palestinians have to accept the following realities:

  • The Palestinian issue has lost much of its currency in Arab world
  • The Right-wing Israeli and American outside-in vs inside-out strategy now appears to be on top
  • The Palestinian leadership has very little support
  • The prospect for change within the Palestinian community is very limited in contrast to the views of Marwa Fatafta
  • The chance of marrying the interests of the Palestinian people with those of the populace in authoritarian Arab states seems limited
  • Arab regimes do not represent their people but are more akin to Petro-Republics
  • There is a reasonable prospect of mutual solidarity with the people of Yemen and Iraq
  • Palestinians do have to count on a younger generation
  • Palestinians having lost all leverage with America during the Trump administration are unlikely to claw back more than token victories if Joe Biden wins and are destined to lose all influence in America if Trump wins
  • The only real leverage on Israel to change course depends on Europe which is Israel’s largest trading partner and that is the potential that must be exploited.

Otherwise de facto annexation will continue – Gantz just authorized 5,000 new settler homes – by restricting building permits to Palestinians, land seizures, imprisonment of Palestinians who challenge either the current Palestinian leadership or Israel. Using European and international linkages is the only realistic route for Palestinians to achieve self-determination on a reasonable and fair size of Palestinian land.

For Arab realists in the Gulf States facing the threat from Iran, a very different realignment is necessary, a growing partnership with Israel and a move to the side of the Palestinian problem. There is not only the issue of border security for the UAE, but the purchase of F-35s and other advanced military equipment. There is also the issue of cyber-security, an area in which Israel is a world leader. The UAE would benefit from closer cooperation with Israel on the use and perhaps even development of this technology. Finally, there is the issue of the Yemen proxy war in which the UAE hopes to learn from Israel how to manage such conflicts.

The Trump White House has advertised itself as the “deal-maker,” but it did not have a single successful deal to its credit until the UAE-Israel agreement came along. Trump needed a diplomatic achievement to present to voters since his foreign-policy gambits vis-à-vis China, North Korea and especially the Israel-Palestinian conflict have failed thus far. The achievement of driving Iran further to the ground seems to have provided only a temporary respite.

Prime Minister Netanyahu had promised his right-wing base annexation of parts of the West Bank. However, he was forced to acknowledge that without U.S. support – that would not be forthcoming unless he recognized a Palestinian state – any concrete move towards that goal placed Israel’s national security at risk. It would certainly publicize that he was burying President Trump’s peace plan and not simply setting it to one side. Netanyahu seems to have had no genuine interest in the efforts of the Bahrain conference and the $50 billion dollar plan for the Palestinians to double their GDP, create a million new jobs, decrease the poverty rate and cut the Palestinian dependency on handouts. Further, if Joe Biden wins the upcoming election, even de facto annexation will re-emerge as a bone of contention between the Israelis and Americans. Bibi needed an off-ramp.

The UAE has much to gain through the agreement, not least by being able to take credit for halting annexation. It also believes that a peace deal with Israel can solidify its standing in Washington and help to deflect criticism regarding a variety of activities which future administrations might find problematic: its involvement in the war in Yemen, its close ties with China, and its outreach to Iran to reduce tensions in the Gulf. In addition, the Emirates may be taking such steps to better protect itself from regional threats in the event of Washington’s continued retrenchment from the Middle East—by enabling its ability to buy more advanced weaponry from the U.S. and seeking closer security cooperation with Israel, a leading regional military power.

Other countries that follow suit will gain as well. Sudan hopes that in return for a deal it will be removed from America’s terror list. Malawi plans to locate its embassy in Jerusalem in return for Israeli technological assistance. A whole series of transactional quid pro quos are expected to follow this initiative.

Looking ahead, Israel can now focus its efforts on the more pressing national-security challenges it faces. At the top of Jerusalem’s agenda is preventing Iran from producing nuclear weapons. In the end, however, it means abandoning the premise for peace built into UN Security Council Resolution 242 calling for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in return for all states in the area to respect one another’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Dore Gold, now President of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, wrote, “If there is a new diplomatic doctrine at work here it comes from a realistic understanding that the Jewish state can reach peace with its neighbors if it can address their most vital concerns. Israel is not the regional policeman, nor should it attempt to take on such a role. But it must make its contribution to upholding the regional order along with its Arab allies.” The Emirates played a leadership role in shifting the frame of Middle East relations from pro-Palestinian plus anti-Israel by focusing on Jews and envisioning a politics of plus Palestine and plus Jews, thereby displacing the up/down binary.

The UAE sponsored and publicized interactions between rabbis and imams. One of the grandsons of a very close friend had the second Bar Mitzvah in UAE history. All this is being done without outside interests demanding internal reform and remake of Arab potentates in their own liberal image. Further, this revised globalism is paired up with strengthening national borders and national sovereignty in opposition to either pan-Arabism or pan-Islam.

As Jared Kushner wrote, “We tried to change the paradigm of how people viewed the objectives in the Middle East, to show that there was much more alignment. Instead of using the historical context, we started shifting it around common interests.” Versus the experts and the risk-averse, take risks. Disrupt. Then mitigate the downside. Lubricate the upside. That is the Trump realist philosophy for making change. It often produces chaos.

There are five strategic factors in play:

  • The threat of a militant Iran
  • The increasing threat of radical Sunnis: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS
  • The rise of the street with democratic expectations and demands
  • The impending expected full withdrawal of America from the region
  • Israel’s economic, technological and military clout.

What is on offer is a doctrine of Peace Through Strength rather than peace through the spread of liberalism and democratic ideas and ideals. Further, the Arab states have to move from a dependency on oil revenues to a post-fossil fuel economy by developing their own technological capabilities. That can be accomplished much easier if they are partners with Israel. That will also strengthen the opposition to Iran, the country with ambitions to be the regional hegemon. Thus, the Obama doctrine (and my own) that Iran’s polity and policies can be moderated through relationships and exchanges while putting in storage the nuclear program, was replaced by a strategy of undermining Iran’s economy to undercut its ability to support its satraps. Hence, the Israel-UAE agreement marks a radical transformation in the Middle East from its pan-Arab nationalist as well as pan-Islamic phases to a realignment marking the birth of a new political order.

Part IV: Israel and the UAE: Idealists

When Canada gaveled the Palestinian refugee talks and I served as an adviser, a senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs once pulled me aside during a recess in the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “Howard,” I was told. “You will never be a diplomat.” You were trained as a philosopher to think in clear and distinct ideas. Diplomats work with equivocation. That is how peace deals are made.”

I may not be good at equivocation myself, but I can spot it. I see at least four areas of equivocation in the Israel-UAE deal, the first of which is what to call it. The formal name is the Abraham Accords. However, few refer to it by that title. It is either called the Israel-UAE Peace Agreement, the Normalization Framework or the Normalization Agreement. Israeli diplomats tend to use the first name, UAE diplomats the second and American diplomats the third. What is the difference?

Observers point out that it cannot be a peace agreement since Israel and the Emirates were never at war. Further, preceding the agreement, the two sides had been in negotiations on a number of topics. Defenders of the name want to contrast it with an Israel-Palestinian deal, such as the Oslo Accords, which was an inside-outside peace agreement directly between the parties involved. Peace deals include provisions for a cessation of (violent) hostilities. However, this deal marked a new era, a new beginning and a break from the old paradigms by working from outside-in. Instead of Arab states waiting to make agreements with Israel until after the Palestinians did, giving Palestinians a veto on agreements, Arab states, which were not frontline states but eager to trade peace for peace, would make Israel-Arab agreements and change the dynamic of Israel-Palestinian negotiations.  

For the UAE, not wanting to step on Palestinian toes even as they cross the Rubicon towards a new relationship (excuse the mixed metaphor), the deal is more accurately referred to as a Framework Negotiation, that is, one within which a large number of largely transactional agreements can nest. But what about the agreement to remove annexation from the table? What about the desired agreement by the UAE to have Israel set aside its veto on any Middle Eastern government purchasing the most advanced and highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States? Since they are at the heart of the agreement, American diplomats prefer the term a “Framework Agreement,” one that sounds more conclusive than a “Framework Negotiation.”

Thus, the Abraham Accords in terms of language treads across the marsh of different interpretations, any one of which can sink the negotiations in quicksand. Further, an agreement marks a dividing point between before and after. The UAE seems to want the deal to stand simply for a step up the ladder of cooperation rather than a radical shift in the dynamics of war and peace in the Middle East.

There is a second area of equivocation, one that is being fought behind the scenes rather than in the open. America and the USA have an understanding that the U.S. will ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative edge in military equipment compared to any government in the region. UAE has asked to purchase F-35s, primarily to be used to execute its part in the war against the Houthis in Yemen. The F-35 Lightning II supplied by Lockheed Martin (as well as its principal partners, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems) is a single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft  intended to engage in strike missions, ensure air superiority and provide electronic warfare, intelligence and surveillance capabilities. 

The issue of sales to the UAE can be settled by the US supplying the aircraft, but with not as much of the technical wizardry on board so that Israel retains its technical edge. More easily said than done. Which F-35: a) the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A supplied to the US Air Force and first used in 2018 by Israel; b) the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B supplied to the Marine Corp; and c) the carrier-based F-35C supplied to the American navy? What technological differences since the key to the high performance is how loaded the aircraft is with advanced technology? This will involve very detailed technical negotiations for which Israel will have a significant advantage since it probably knows the performance of the aircraft, specifically the Air Force version, probably better than the Americans. Further, Israel, in contrast to the UAE, has the technical and scientific capability of adding further modifications to improve performance in all areas of its operations. If you are an idealist, you want clarity and transparency so there will not be any sources of dispute later. In this case, fat chance!

Clearly, Israel is also deeply divided on this issue. Israel’s intelligence minister insists that there will be no F-35s sold to the UAE in return for entering the deal. (But could they be sold, not as a condition, but as a separate arrangement.) On the other hand, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Tel Aviv demanded compensation in return for the US-UAE arms deal, such as advancing the provision of technology by one year.l

But reasonable equivocation and ambiguity to make the deal work is also required. However, instead of Bibi merely insisting that whatever weapons America supplies to the UAE, Israel will maintain its significant technological edge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly denied reports that he gave the okay to US arms sales to the UAE. That may, in fact, be true. He may not, as yet, have signed off on such deals, but repeated assertions of that kind do little to prepare the Israeli public for the most probable outcome.

A third area of equivocation is whether annexation is suspended, off the table (Donald Trump) or stopped. Netanyahu claims he agreed to the first while the UAE insists on the last. “We’ve shut the door on annexation,” stated UAE Ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba. Clearly, this is a serious bone of contention. Netanyahu insisted that annexation has merely “been postponed” and “is very much on the table.” The issue will boil down to the length of the suspension. Is Bibi willing to grant suspension for a year or for five years or indefinitely? Is the UAE willing to accept an indefinite suspension instead of a clear cessation?

Language easily covers this difference since, depending on the term of cessation, it can mean effectively stopping new settlements. But what about expanding existing ones? And if you are willing to accept indefinite cessation, why not accept the terms of the American peace plan, accept the existence of a Palestinian State and get a U.S. imprimatur on the lands on which Israel already has settlements? As usual, however, Netanyahu is more interested in the immediate rather than the long-term political benefits. For him, it was sufficient that he escaped the blind corner in which he had gotten himself trapped by delaying annexation of parts of the West Bank. Such a move would have imposed considerable political and economic costs on Israel. Ensuring the long-term future of a secure, Jewish, and democratic state could be bracketed without disturbing most Israelis who had little interest in annexation at this time.

Here, the problem is not so much the UAE but the position of Bibi’s competitors from the right and especially from the Yesha (Yehuda Shomron, Aza, lit. “Judea Samaria and Gaza) Council. How does Netanyahu get language that satisfies the UAE, America and his right-wing coalition partners?

There is a fourth issue easily settled – the location of the UAE embassy. No equivocation will be involved. UAE will not and Netanyahu will not insist that the UAE locate the embassy in Jerusalem. However, the UAE has been very clever in also deciding not to locate it in a Jewish-Israeli city like Tel Aviv but in an Israeli city with a large Palestinian population. However, Washington is pressuring other allies to relocate to Jerusalem while the EU warns Serbia and Kosovo not to do so lest it endanger their bid for membership in the EU.

However, the larger issue is the demand for clarity and transparency by idealists to forestall problems in the future (cf. Nimrod Novik, a foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a veteran of track-two diplomacy, “Pitfalls to Avoid in the Pending UAE-Israel Agreement 27 August 2020). Nimrod’s position stands in stark contrast to the experience of diplomats who are content to use equivocation to solve negotiations in the present and postpone contention to a future time. I am not the only adviser that has been stuck on the use of clear and distinct language and terms in agreements.

Simply put, there are problems in whatever way one resolves the issues of clarity with respect to before and after and which continuity to reinforce – almost certainly the transactional one of mutual interests. But this should not lead to complacency. Henry Kissinger was a master of equivocation or what diplomats call “constructive ambiguity”. In the case of the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement, Aharon Barak, later Chief Justice, pointed out that Egypt’s draft in Arabic, Israel’s in Hebrew, and the United States’ in English differed on important points and these differences later proved detrimental when it came to signing the agreement and even more so in its implementation.

What about the synchronic frame – the inside versus outside and the above and below? The big advantage of this agreement is that all parties, even critics, agreed that an outside-in approach had replaced the former inside-out paradigm. Further, since the UAE and Israel had never actually been in a shooting war, there did not need to be losers or winners. The agreement could be presented by all sides as a win-win situation – except for the strategic position of the Palestinians. It should be no surprise that all the parties, to minimize misunderstandings, agreed to only use an English draft of the agreement.  

It was also clear that neither party saw any large need to satisfy the street, whether the street referred to ordinary Palestinians or to citizens of the UAE. Netanyahu was only concerned with his fellow politicians rather than any protesters. This was a top-down deal.

Further, it was easy to live with since almost all the issues were transactional rather than going to the heart and soul of either culture. Nothing to live and die for was being surrendered by either side. In fact, that was precisely why the Palestinian were so disturbed by the deal. Their ability to use Arab state recognition as leverage had been pulled out from under them. The UAE had indeed sacrificed the Palestinians as agents in the process even if they might argue that it was for their own good. Effectively, identity politics were set aside for a new Abrahamic vision allowing motives, interests and intentions all to be realigned.  There need be no fundamental differences on law and defining the legitimacy of either party, no substantive differences over administration since coordination was enabled without any element of coercion, and, since issues of justice and democracy were totally ignored, the deal did not offer any opportunities for those advocating social change.

What about the charges of Palestinian idealists who viewed the agreement critically as simply opportunistic? Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow in the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argued in The Conversationalist that the deal vindicated the Israeli right’s “long-held narrative” that if Israel maintained its military strength and refused to compromise, “the international community and the Arab world would ultimately accept Israel on its own terms.” Yet the settlers’ Yesha Council condemned the agreement because it suspended the annexation process. They were far less interested in how Arabs looked at Israel than in any obstacles put in the way of their maximalist ambitions.

Netanyahu had used the agreement to escape from the corner in which he had taken himself with an inability to satisfy his base, his right-wing critics or the Americans. The UAE Agreement offered an end run around the problem. Therefore, Israeli domestic politics proved to be the determining factor in forging the agreement and explains why it had wide support among Jewish Israelis.

Look at the way the Americans played it when the deal they had worked on for three-and-a-half years was so easily shuttled to the sidelines. President Trump’s Senior Adviser, Jared Kushner, turned it into a positive outcome. President Trump “was able to get Israel to agree to have a two-state solution with the Palestinians — and, for the first time in history, to agree to a map that outlined the territory that they would be willing to work with.” There was no such spin by Netanyahu, his government or the Knesset. In fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu explicitly denied that he had accepted a Palestinian state and a definition of Israeli borders. But facts have never counted for much in the Trump regime.

The question, however, for the UAE, is why they get no credit from the Palestinians for preventing Israeli unilateral annexation of West Bank territory — a critical accomplishment. Do the Palestinians not see this as a gain possibly worthy of bargaining leverage? The answer is simple – by and large they do not. As a result, one can expect the breach between the UAE and the Palestinians to grow further.

Similarly, Netanyahu and his followers seem to be much more concerned with short-term political gains by retaining as wide as possible support for the deal and minimizing the ammunition given to opponents, putting challenges to Bibi’s leadership once again on the back burner, and offering a distraction to the COVID-19 crisis that has been so badly handled. At the same time, he retains the much larger victory of the paradigm shift of focusing on peace for peace versus peace for land. Given that, what does it matter if he does not satisfy the idealist interest in clarity and transparency, especially when the deal in itself weakens the Israeli Left and the peace camp even further.

Part III: Israel and the UAE: A Palestinian Perspective

I begin with the Palestinians since they are so greatly outnumbered by the positive support the deal has received. It is a perspective many if not most readers probably have not encountered. Though I refer to other voices, I focus primarily on one Palestinian, Marwa Fatafta, who appeared on a Foundation for Middle East Peace Webinar on 1 September with Sam Bahour and Elizabeth Tsurkov whose views I will discuss in two subsequent blogs.

Various rival Palestinian factions appeared to be united in their objection to the deal, one of the few items on which they were united. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting with those factions, including both Fatah and the PLO along with (through video-conference between Ramallah and Beirut) Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ziyad al-Nakhalah, presented a united front against the Israel-UAE deal to normalize ties. Ironically, very soon after, Palestinian Authority officials expressed a desire to renew security coordination with Israel, in spite of the apparent united opposition to the deal.

Critics come from many different directions and include other states which condemned the deal. Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, attacked the UAE government for normalizing ties with Israel, accusing the country of “committing treason against the Islamic world, the regional nations and Palestine.” Tehran’s foreign minister described the agreement as a “dagger … unjustly struck by the UAE in the backs of the Palestinian people and all Muslims.” “The deal will pave the way for Israeli influence in the region” and will throw into oblivion the Palestinian question” when Palestine is a country that has been “usurped by Israel.”

Turkey also called the deal “unforgivable” and “hypocritical.” The Middle East “will never forget and will never forgive this hypocritical act by the UAE,” declared Turkey which threatened to withdraw Turkey’s envoy from the UAE. “The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pronounced.

What a statement of blatant hypocrisy!  Turkey retains its embassy and ambassador in Tel Aviv even though, at a time when Israeli-Turkish relations were much friendlier, Turkey had previously downgraded its relations with Israel following the 1956 Sinai War and after the Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law in 1980. Erdogan personally visited Israel in 2005, admittedly with the ostensible purpose of advancing the peace process.

Turkey signed and ratified an agreement on reconciliation with Israel in 2016. Among its terms, Turkey cancelled all appeals against Israeli soldiers involved in the killing of the nine “unarmed” volunteers bringing assistance on the Mavi Marmara to the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Israeli soldiers being dropped by helicopter were attacked by those on board the ship with clubs, iron rods and knives, resulting in nine soldiers being wounded, two allegedly by bullets from those on board. 2010 was the low point in Turkish-Israeli relations. In the reconciliation agreement, Turkey agreed to prevent terrorist or military activity against Israel on Turkish soil, including stopping all funding and aid to organizations advocating terror. Turkey also agreed that all aid for Gaza would pass through Israel.

Iran was not hypocritical since Israel is its intrepid foe. Iran insisted that Palestine replace Israel and not simply that Palestine be recognized as a state alongside Israel. The foreign minister of Turkey, in contrast, affirmed the two-state formula and called for East Jerusalem to be the capital of the independent Palestinian state. If Turkish charges were hypocritical and hysteric, Iran’s claims were contradictory. If the UAE agreement with Israel would soon fall apart, how could it throw into oblivion the Palestine question? It is difficult to detect a pattern in such irrational responses that seem to be made far more to express outrage and for public consumption than as articulations of policy and thought-out positions.

Though the Palestinians were also outraged at the agreement, some articulated clear positions which they defended with arguments. Their claims fit within an historical context beginning with the historical presumption that the swath of land through the Middle East was the exclusive territory of Arabs and, for many, Muslim Arabs. There is a standard explicit or implicit trope behind the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in Arab countries, Jews are a foreign ethnic group engaged in systematic and conspiratorial efforts to undermine the mystical union between the people and their fatherland. The arrival and ideology of the Zionists when they came to Palestine disrupted the natural historical process of self-determination for the Arabs in Palestine.

Within this context, Palestinian nationalism was conceived that eventually emerged as the central Arab signature cause. The Arab states’ loss in 1948 and their even more devastating and demoralizing 1967 defeat by Israel forced the revolutionary Arab nationalist movements and republics to accept a measure of coexistence with the traditional Arab monarchies. That served several purposes. First, in the face of the imperial aggression and Arab victimization, pan-Arabic nationalist sentiment was aroused among the masses and pan-Arabic nationalism became the guardian of what it meant to be an Arab. It also meant that identification as an Arab, even for the anti-nationalist monarchies, became intricately tied to hostility towards Israel and Jews more generally. Historic religious antisemitism in the Middle East, to the degree that it existed, morphed into ethnic antisemitism.

Marwa Fatafta insisted that the Israel-UAE deal marked another turning point in the long saga of Arab and Palestinian oppression and victimization in the pursuit of Palestinian self-determination which emerged in the 1960s to partner with pan-Arab nationalism. Corrupt and sclerotic Palestinian leaders in the Palestinian Authority had betrayed their own people. Within this continued tale of woe and despair, Fatafta called for a resurrection of the moribund PLO, a militant organization theoretically pledged to confront Israel and one which linked Palestinians not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but those living in both Israel and the diaspora. Surprisingly, instead of putting forth a doctrine that the Middle East needed a new and more sophisticated political consciousness (and the death of the old one), Fatafta went back to resurrect the old one that was central to the claim of Arab (and Muslim) predominance through all of the Middle East.

Marwa Fatafta is no fanatic. She was a Fulbright scholar. She holds an MA in International Relations from Syracuse University and an MA in Development and Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen. She is a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network, and an expert on digital rights. She had worked in Jerusalem as the Communications Manager for the British Consulate-General. In light of changing events, of which the UAE-Israeli Agreement was but one prominent instance, she has pushed for reclaiming the PLO and resurrecting its legitimacy as a basis for re-engaging Palestinian youth and directly confronting Israel. Though she is not always clear whether she intends that confrontation to be non-violent, her MA thesis explicitly advocated non-violence. The Israeli-UAE agreement marked a switching point for the resurrection of the PLO.

She asks: How can the PLO maintain accountability as both a national liberation movement and governing body? How might Hamas and Islamic Jihad be integrated after decades of exclusion? What models of Palestinian youth leadership can be further developed? It is quite clear that she voices the view of many Palestinians who have given up on the peace process with Israel. In her program, she joins Nijmeh Ali who holds a BA from Haifa University and an MA from Hebrew University in calling for a return to resistance as the only way the powerless can express power and oppressed groups can create change. Both work and share beliefs with Dana El Kurd, also a Shabaka member with a PhD in Government from The University of Texas at Austin specializing in Comparative Politics and International Relations.

These are no slouches. They oppose the authoritarianism of the Palestinian and Arab state leaders, the assaults on freedom of expression, press freedoms and civil society, but also what they view as the oppression of Israel. The UAE-Israel deal marks a clear dividing line when it became clear that Palestinians could not count on the support of any Arab authoritarian leader to achieve their freedom. Further, they see a continuity in Palestinian history from the time Palestinians were under the heels of the corrupt and authoritarian Ottoman leadership, the colonial might of Britain and then the Israelis who usurped Palestinians lands, evicted Palestinians who became refugees and reduced Palestinians in Israel to second class citizens and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to third class non-citizens. It is a tale of continuous disenfranchisement that will only end when Palestinians acquire their own state.

Their diachronic vision of before and after and from here to there is complemented by a synchronic view shared in part by all observers that the deal marks a dramatic shift from negotiations of land for peace to one of peace for peace, from an inside-outside peace process to an outside-inside one. On the other hand, they clearly have the view that they belong to those below and that those above, whether in the Palestinian government, Arab authoritarian states and in Israel that have their knee on Palestinian necks, need to be changed. The Palestinians need to rise up and their preference seems to be through the use of non-violence, though unrest in the streets so easily turns into violence.

This fits in with a long held assumption in the region that if the leaders of Arab states in the region betray the Palestinians, if they undercut their effort to get a state of their own, if they fail to stand against Israel, they would face serious domestic problems. Further, the appeal of these Palestinian critics was not only to youth and the street, but to an alliance with all people who are oppressed around the world, whether active in Black Lives Matter or other movements of protest against their governments and the ruling class. That is their struggle. That is what they express a willingness to die for, though it seems more cerebral and driven by reflection rather than fear. They view all the issues discussed as merely transactional, none having to do with morality or justice, and not one in service of ordinary people, whether the matters are ones of financial and technological cooperation, flights or security.

This connection is, ironically, supported by Prime Minister Netanyahu who connects strategy and diplomatic foreign policy successes with commercial, entrepreneurial and military strength at home. Palestinians point out that the other correlate is corruption that is pervasive through the whole region. Political systems in Arab states, and in Palestine, are controlled by ruling elites who abuse their power to the disadvantage of the ordinary citizen. The institutions lack accountability mechanisms, anti-corruption laws and regulations, at least none that are enforced. The crackdown on political dissent, free speech, independent media and civil society organizations has intensified.

This past year, however, the UAE had the best score on the corruption, oppression and anti-freedom index than ever before. “This may be due to good and efficient management of public finances, improved public procurement and better access to public services and infrastructure. However, despite their high ranking, these monarchies place severe restrictions on civil and public freedoms and suppress any form of political dissent or criticism placed on the ruling families.” For these critics, civic space has to become more open, has to become free.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no longer the Middle East’s primary geopolitical fault line as Gulf regimes in fear of Iran’s growing regional power and hegemonic ambitions, to one degree or another, quietly or more openly, align with Israel without necessarily fully normalizing ties as Egypt, Jordan and the UAE have done. The cold and proxy hot wars between Iran and most Arab states is a distraction from the needs of the oppressed in all the countries of the region. Hence, the UAE-Israel deal is but a key building block in cementing the position of the two opposing Middle East camps, neither of which represents the man in the street.

For Palestinian critics, the so-called peace deal is but an arrangement to reinforce the hot and cold wars and to shift the balance of power in Yemen, Libya and Syria away from insurgents in theatres where the UAE for one has stumbled badly. These Palestinian critics want to shift attention back to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but only by linking a reborn Palestinian nationalism with encouraging rebellion in the Arab surveillance states. The UAE, and other authoritarian Arab states in the region, have purchased Israeli spyware. UAE did so to attack the IPhone of human rights activist, Ahmed Mansour, using a rare, zero-day, Israeli exploit of Apple’s iOS.

Palestinians have been the guinea pigs in this dismal record of human rights violations and the orchestrated campaign to dehumanize and delegitimize them. Therefore, it is no surprise that the head of Mossad led the Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi. Israeli spies and businessmen would no longer need to use foreign passports for travel to the UAE. The deal was, as Iran and Turkey both declared, a stab in the back. It was an arms deal, a diplomatic deal, a financial deal and anything but a peace deal. For that reason, though it was a course-changer, it remained peripheral to the central issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The Israel-UAE agreement offered proof positive that all previous agreements, especially the Oslo Accords, were null and void. The ancient Palestinian leadership clings to the still-born child of Oslo and offer verbal declarations and no action. Changes have been facilitated by a marriage of Israeli and American lies that unite the authoritarian trends within each country to the reality of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.

The young Palestinian leaders within a renewed PLO offer a consensus-building mechanism, elections, accountability and transparency, empowered because Palestinians are a crisis-oriented people characterized by resilience, solidarity and a refusal to be turned into victims. Instead of surrendering to anger, disappointment, and despair, they are committed to mobilization and constructive activism.

Part II Israeli and the UAE: The Frame

As a simple commentator on its contents and apparent benefits and shortcomings, the initial blog (Part I), slightly edited, depicted the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Republic (UAE). In the following series of blogs, I want to re-examine the pact in more depth and at several steps removed, not simply because a few weeks have passed since the parties signed on and Israeli and American delegations have visited Abu Dhabi, but I want to rise above the fray and examine the conflicting interpretations and responses to the agreement.

First, a few basic facts. The UAE, the Emirates, is a federation of seven absolute monarchies ruling seven political entities – Abu Dhabi (the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ros Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. They are combined into a federation that was created in 1971 when the polities emerged from their status as British protectorates. Qatar and Bahrain declined to join the federation; neither will follow the UAE in entering an agreement with Israel at the present time in spite of the ballyhoo to the contrary.

Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani reiterated to Jared Kushner in Doha on 2 September that Qatar, which itself has been the target of an embargo by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt (denying Qatar access to their air space), remains committed to a two-state solution as a condition of a peace deal with Israel and that his country backs the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, calling on Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders (the Green Line) in exchange for diplomatic recognition from Arab states. Bahrain, which is an ally of the UAE, followed with its own announcement that there would be no deal until Palestine was recognized as a state, but this did not stop the country (as well as Oman) continuing negotiations on trade and security arrangements.

Given the Trump Peace to Prosperity proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is based on a spaghetti configuration of borders, the UAE, in contrast to Qatar or Bahrain, can easily identify with that situation given its own past struggle with its internal and external borders. Unlike most states which envisioned the enclave idea and borders in the proposed Trump peace deal that were three times as long as the existing borders as a supposedly impossible mishmash, the Emirates were not discombobulated by the complexity of the plan, even as they continued to insist that the Green Line had to be the reference point for resolving the border between an Israeli and a Palestinian state. The UAE also had its own struggles with external as well as internal borders.

The UAE is a Sunni regime that borders Iran to the north, a Shiite regime with hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. Qatar lies to the west, Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south and west. Iranian ambitions go back long before the current religious regime for Iran has long claimed territory it once controlled during the Safavid empire. The day before independence in 1971, an Iranian destroyer group took the Tunb islands that had been part of the UAE, forcing the population to flee. Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammed Qasimi was also forced by the Shah of Iran to cede the island of Abu Musa to Iran for $3 million a year. The UAE border with Oman was not settled until 2008. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have never formally settled their dispute over the Buraimi Oasis.

The UAE is also a minnow in a sea of political whales with a population of only about ten million (the UN estimates the 1 July 2020 population at 9,890,402), roughly a similar size to Israel (UN estimate 8,655,535). However, in the case of the UAE, just 15% are Emirati citizens; the rest are ex-pats.

Perhaps the most important comparison of the UAE and Israel is in their respective ambitions. Israel is a research gold star. It has more Nobel Prizes per capita than the United States, France and Germany. Israel has eight universities and a host of other post-secondary institutions. It is recognized as the “start-up nation” with more hi-tech start-ups per capita than anywhere else and second only to the U.S. in absolute numbers, an astounding performance for a country of less than nine million. Look at this sample list of a myriad of innovations:

  • The USB drive
  • The Firewall, a cornerstone of cyber security to protect against malware
  • The SniffPhone that can detect cancerous tumours, Parkinson’s dementia, multiple sclerosis and other diseases
  • Re-Walk, the battery pack exoskeleton for paraplegics to enable them to walk
  • The PillCam, the swallowable miniature camera to diagnose infection, intestinal disorders and cancers in the digestive system
  • The flexible stent used to open up arteries to treat coronary heart disease and blockages
  • Azilect, a drug for Parkinson’s disease
  • Copaxone immunomodulator to treat multiple sclerosis.

These are but a few of the many discoveries in mathematics, computer science, chemistry, biotechnology, physics, robotics, optics, economics, agriculture and, of course, defence, including the iron dome system to protect Israel from missile attacks. The UAE has for years admired Israel’s education and research accomplishments, It recognizes that this is not because it is populated by Jews, for Druzim teenagers now perform the best on competitive Israeli examinations. Sheikh Zayed, ruler of Abu Dabai, developed the UAE into a transportation (both aviation and maritime) and business hub and used the country’s oil and gas revenues to develop first class educational and health systems as well as infrastructure. The rulers of the UAE envision many possible synergies between the two countries, including tourism that, until the COVID-19 crisis, has expanded so much in Israel.

I now offer an intellectual frame for analyzing the agreement and the different perspectives on it, a framework that goes back to my work as a graduate student. I then called it the dialectic of correlative coherence, but kept this title hidden as too pompous as I utilized parts of that frame to undertake analyses. If you are put off my abstract theory, a reader can skip the rest of this blog and simply go directly to the analysis that begins with the next blog tomorrow.

At its most basic level, there are diachronic and synchronic elements. The two diachronic dimensions are: a) a divided one of before and after; and b) a uniting one of from here to there, say from birth to death or from independence to collapse. The first is a clear point of division in time. The second is a continuity over time flowing from past to future.

There is a general consensus that the UAE-Israeli accord  is a game changer, that for Palestinians totally upset at the agreement, it is the trigger in a development long underway and under the radar that has awoken them up to an over-reliance on Arab states and Arab initiatives in the peace process. They themselves have to change course. For Israeli peaceniks, it is an important milestone after 26 years since the Jordanian and the 42-year-old Egyptian peace agreement. It is the first peace agreement between a non-belligerent non-frontline Arab state and Israel. Further, instead of just grudging acceptance of Israel, the UAE-Israel Agreement envisions a much broader and deeper relationship. For Israeli (and American) realists, it is proof positive that peace can be advanced by end runs rather than trying to get butting heads to back up and take a different route.

The diachronic dividing line can be correlated with a birth of a nation out of conflict and moving towards peace, either as a result of the demonstration of strength (Netanyahu) or a substantive change in attitude toward Israel by Arab regimes, or, in the case of Palestinian critics, away from the sidetrack of the fruitless negotiations of Oslo, that brought them no nearer to a state of their own, towards a renewal of resistance and possible violence. Thus, the analysis is supplemented and complemented by a synchronic analysis. The first is an inside/outside frame. Normally, in conflict analysis, there are allies (the inside) versus enemies (the outside). In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the inside refers to the core of the conflict over land and the outside to relations between Israel and other Arab states with which Israel has no dispute over territory. The inside meant pursuing a land for peace deal and the outside, now that Jordan and Egypt have made deals long ago, a peace for peace deal without any land being exchanged.

On the synchronic side, we have the above identical view various groups examining the deal – it represented a switch from an inside/outside approach to an outside/outside one. But there is another synchronous frame that reveals the greatest difference among different commentators. As above, I have taken only three groups: Palestinians who are severe critics of the deal; peaceniks (Israeli and diaspora) presumably detached but who offer qualified applause for the agreement; agents (Israeli, Arab, American) that pushed the deal and offer their enthusiastic support. All three groups analyze the deal in terms of winners and losers, who came out on top and who appear to be losers. 

The synchronic dimension that focuses on inside/outside has universal agreement; this is a peace for peace deal that inverts the discussions of the last 75 years of agreements based on land for peace. Previously the core of the debate was how much land, including possibly all of it for extremists on either side, needed to be traded for peace. We now have an agreement that required no land to be surrendered. But each group of commentators has a different view of the winners and losers.

In sum, as the base of the frame, we have:

Diachronic:  a) before/after – a point of divide

                   b) beginning and end – a lineal connection

Synchronic: a) inside/outside, a process of inversion – peace for peace versus land for peace

              b) above and below as the parties are torn between a cause to die for, to sacrifice for (desire) and an end to live for (life) in terms of which winners and losers can be determined.

The next level of analysis operates on the political plane in terms of the key players. For Palestinian critics, it is the street, whether the Palestinians in the street who are angry and distraught distinguished by their inept and ossified undemocratic leadership, or the ordinary disenfranchised Arab citizens in the UAE as distinct from their absolute monarchs, the weak Left in Israel as distinct from the imperialistic deceiving Right leadership, or the wider global protest movements – e.g. Black Lives Matter – with whom the Palestinians must ally and to whom they now believe they must appeal in order to emerge victorious.

Then there are those who are neither in the street nor in their posh governing offices. They are ordinary citizens in every case who go about their business largely indifferent to politics, but among them are cohorts that must and can be aroused to join one side or the other. There are also the literati, the journalists, the academics as well as the judicial and administrative observers and assessors of the political dynamic underway who are supposed to be detached from the passions but are determined to influence the average citizen. They bring one type of cerebral approach to their work, but one which is very different than a third group, the political executives, their advisers and cheerleaders who see opportunities and challenges and calculate possibilities as committed agents in the fray. The latter if they are to lead, must combine passion with calculation.

These are the players. But what drives them? What are the end goals of each group and what are their motives? What are their fears and what are their passions? We are not talking just about their hearts and minds, but their guts and, in the end, the thymos or thumos, that for which they are willing to sacrifice, that for which they are willing to live and die. It is the desire for recognition. In the words of the Emirati national anthem, “long live my nation, my country, which I serve sincerely. Long live the flag, we sacrifice our souls for our country.”

Finally, in addition to the political realms within a polity and the socio-psychological analysis of what drives each group, there are the specific issues. I have already indirectly discussed the financial issue and the expected cooperation on tourism, high-tech production, education, research and capital investment. Just before the plane took off to return the Israeli delegation, both sides announced a deal aimed at joint investment and removal of financial barriers, including the recognition of Israeli credit cards in the UAE.

At the most basic level for a polity, there is always territory and access to it. However, this is a case of post-WWII agreements in which once again territory was not the key factor. But didn’t Israel plan to annex parts of the West Bank? Didn’t the initiative by Netanyahu frighten the world that this could be a prelude to war? Did not the Emirates insist on and get a deal in inverse, peace in return for no territory – that is, for Israel? That depends on the interpretation that itself has to be assessed. For how long has annexation been suspended? Was there a side agreement, an exchange of letters? Did the U.S. offer guarantees? Halting and suspending the annexation, taking it off the table, is not the same as cancelling. Most significantly, the English and Arabic accounts of the Israel-UAE agreement differ, the former referring to the “suspension” of the annexation and the latter to the agreement “being stopped.”

If giving up annexation has to be evaluated, the physical linkage between Israel and the UAE was there for everyone to see. An Israeli airline flew over Saudi Arabian air space for the first time to land in Abu Dhabi. Clearly an agreement over landing rights as well as the use of Saudi air space, had to be part of the deal, even if Saudi Arabia was not ostensibly a signatory to the agreement. And it was not. Nevertheless, on 1 September, Saudi Arabia announced that all flights to and from the UAE to Israel will be permitted to use Saudi airspace. Bahrain followed. Was the UAE a stalking horse for a Saudi initiative? Will Oman, Sudan and Bahrain follow in UAE’s footsteps?

At least not very soon, though Bahrain had been expected to be the next state to sign a peace agreement with Israel before the UAE deal was announced. King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa of Bahrain told Jared Kushner that Saudi Arabia was the regional power and that Bahrain would follow, not precede, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman then told Jared Kushner that Saudi Arabia would not make an agreement with Israel until the Palestinians have their own state. But that evidently does not prevent Saudis from engaging in a number of economic partnerships and projects with Israelis, including the creation of a high-tech hub northwest of the Neorn region in Saudi Arabia.

There is another interesting note about that first flight. The plane was named Kiryat Gat. Kiryat Gat was the spot where Israel and Egypt signed an armistice agreement on 24 February 1949. Further, Kiryat Gat was built on the site of the destroyed Palestinian village of Iraq al-Manshiyya from which Palestinians fled to become refugees.

There is another issue concerning place and space. Where will the UAE embassy be located? Everyone, or almost everyone expected it to be in Tel Aviv, but the UAE surprised most observers by announcing that the embassy might be in Haifa or Nazareth with a large Arab-Israeli population. Jerusalem Mayor, Moshe Lion, would not stop pushing Jerusalem. He lobbied to get the UAE to put the embassy in Jerusalem, where he claims, with Israeli incentives and UAE partners, Israel can turn East Jerusalem into a high-tech hub. One additional issue concerns East Jerusalem – access to the Temple Mount.

The Vision for Peace contained a provision that: a) all Muslims who come in peace may visit and pray at Al Aqsa Mosque, and b) Jerusalem’s other holy sites, presumably including the Temple Mount, will remain open to worshippers of all faiths. That means that if Israel decides a Muslim visitor to the mosque poses a threat, that individual can be denied entry. Further, Jews who come in peace are guaranteed access to the Temple Mount.

There is the fourth and most important space issue, that of Iran which borders the UAE and for which Israel is the only formidable rival in the Middle East standing in the way of its hegemonic ambitions. For most observers, that is probably the most important reason that the UAE entered into the deal. We will have to see how various parties interpret the importance of this factor. It seems evident that the UAE is attracted to making a deal to obtain the value of Israel’s nuclear umbrella.

Part I Israel and the UAE: An Introduction

In the following series of blogs I want to analyze the Israel-UAE deal from a number of different perspectives, but within a common analytical frame. By way of introduction, I am recirculating the blog below, very slightly edited, that I sent out just after the announcement of the deal on 13 August 2020. If you remember it, you can avoid a reread. I am repeating and writing at a greater depth into the Israel-UAE Agreement because I think it is one of the most significant agreements of the last two decades. In the words of Nimrod Novik, it is a “pioneering step of historic proportions.” I will try to make that point through my analysis.

Just over three weeks ago, President Donald Trump, with Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) online, announced that they had reached an agreement called the Abraham Accord in open acknowledgement of a thesis pushed by the Abu Dhabi leadership that Jews and Muslims are brothers since they are all children of Abraham. There are two synagogues in Abu Dhabi. The newly erected Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi contains a mosque, church, and synagogue. One of my close friend’s grandsons recently had the second Bar Mitzvah ever in the UAE.

Donald Trump was given credit for brokering the deal as the agreement was announced following the three-way conversation between Netanyahu, Crown Prince bin Zayed of Dubai and U.S. president Donald Trump. However, his credit goes back further, to the fact that his first foreign trip was to the Gulf (perhaps also for his own self-interest) at a time when Congress was considering limiting military assistance to Arab states and even imposing sanctions.

The Israel-UAE deal is the third peace agreement between Israel and an Arab state. There has been a long gap, almost twenty-six years, since the last one between Jordan and Israel, the Wadi Araba Treaty, signed in 1994. The latter agreement has been under extreme stress following Israel’s announced plans to extend sovereignty into parts of the West Bank.

The Israel-UAE agreement is really a game changer for both critics and cheerleaders, and in spite of Jared Kushner making the same claim. It will not lose that status even though a game changer in the very opposite direction took place the very next day. The United States suffered a totally humiliating and unprecedented defeat in the United Nations Security Council when the U.S. could only muster one additional vote, that of the Dominican Republic, and only after a great deal of personal diplomacy expended by Mike Pompeo in his visit to America’s one supporter. The Security Council refused to support America’s resolution to extend the arms embargo against Iran that expires in two months.

Israel’s negotiations had been underway with the UAE for some time. (For a record of the long history of contacts preceding even these negotiations, see Steve Hendrix, “Inside the secret-not-secret courtship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” The Washington Post, 14 August 2020.) Actual negotiations over the last few years were kept highly secret lest Iran try to sabotage the deal. UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, have been engaged in secret negotiations for over a year. The discussions were accelerated in June when Israel announced its plans to extend its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank and when, at the end of June, al-Otaiba proposed to Jared Kushner and White House envoy Avi Berkowitz that, “the UAE would agree to normalization with Israel in return for an Israeli announcement that West Bank annexation was off the table.”

Recall al-Otaiba’s unprecedented front-page op-ed in Hebrew in Yediot Ahronot on 11 June. He wrote that Israel was an opportunity not an enemy. The only obstacle to better relations between the UAE and Israel was the planned annexation of the occupied West Bank. This was a clear signal to influence the Israeli debate on West Bank annexation while creating the opening for a UAE-Israel deal. Annexation would upend warmer ties with the Gulf states, al-Otaiba had warned.

In the oval office electronic hook-up, the two countries stated that they had agreed to exchange embassies and ambassadors, establish direct air flights between the two countries and enhance trade. As a quid pro quo for recognition, as described by Israel, Israel agreed to suspend, but not renounce, its plans for annexation as a concession to the United States and the Trump administration. Bin Zayed claimed that Israel had agreed to stop annexation. Al-Monitor erroneously opined that, “The announcement yesterday on normalizing ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s realization that he must abandon his annexation plan.” Though both depictions described the same action, each party gave it their own twist. Further, Trump reinforced bin Zayed’s position by insisting that annexation was now off the table.

The UAE agreed to invest in the Israeli initiative to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Citizens from the UAE would also be allowed to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. Over the past year, the two countries had already been engaged in direct negotiations over water and energy. Shared interests in security and economic cooperation had provided the foundation for the agreement. However, bin Zayed referred to the deal as a “roadmap” rather than a full agreement on normalization.

Nevertheless, Trump said that he expected the final agreement will be ready and signed in Washington three weeks from the date of the announcement. That time is up and there is still no published agreement. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen lead the delegation the following week to Abu Dabai to meet with Gulf leaders to fill in the agreement. Trump also observed that, “opening direct ties between two of the Middle East’s most dynamic societies and advanced economies” would spur growth and forge “closer people-to-people relations.” Bilateral agreements in tourism, security, telecommunications, technology and healthcare can be expected to follow.

Though Trump received overall credit, three individuals in the administration were acknowledged for special credit in advancing the deal – Special Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations, Avi Berkowitz, and US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Jason Greenblatt and Brian Hook also probably played a part. Trump announced that this was but the first in a series of breakthrough events forthcoming. The implication was that Bahrain was likely to come next followed by other peace agreements between Israel and Gulf States, such as Oman, and Sudan suggested other White House voices, although Bahrain explicitly denied that claim and insisted that Bahrain would not enter any deal until recognition of a Palestinian state took place. However, soon after, the government also announced that all states would henceforth be entitled to use its airspace. Oman has already cheered the agreement. Egypt joined the cheerleading squad.

The right in Israel has trumpeted the success. Instead of peace for land they had negotiated peace for peace. Peace with the Palestinians even as a goal had not been made a condition of the agreement. The Palestinian veto over any deal had been removed. Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom, claimed that the deal, “takes away one of the key incentives for Israel to end its occupation — normalization with the Arab world. It basically tells Israel it can have peace with an Arab country in return for postponing illegal theft of Palestinian land.” 

Certainly, the Israelis had not conceded to moving back to the Green Line and evacuating settlements. Jerusalem was not divided nor had the Israeli government agreed even to recognize a Palestinian state as called for in the Trump Peace Plan. Except the other side claimed that Israel, in taking annexation off the table, had indeed exchanged land for peace. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett of Yamina, while welcoming the agreement as a great success and breakthrough, denounced the concession of suspending plans to extend Israeli sovereignty. Netanyahu was accused by the Israeli extreme right of trading Judea and Samaria for flights to Abu Dabai. At the other end of the spectrum, left wing critics of Israeli occupation and supporters of Palestine criticized the agreement and claimed that de jure annexation may be suspended but de facto annexation would continue.

In fact, the prospect of a deal has been on the horizon for over a year. Since 2015 when the Iran nuclear deal had been signed, the Gulf States had been engaged in national security cooperation with Israel against their Iranian rival and perceived threat. The Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan also fear radical Sunnis such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and ISIS.

Iran, of course, renounced the deal as a betrayal of the Palestinians. Turkey announced that the peoples of the region “will never forget and will never forgive this hypocritical behavior” by the UAE. Both the Palestinian Authority and Mk Mtanes Shehadeh of the Joint List joined in the criticism. Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the tripartite US-UAE-Israel agreement “a crime by the UAE against Palestinians.”  Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Mubadara party, called the Israeli-UAE agreement a “stab in the back of Palestinians.” Surprisingly, even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, self-described as a “passionate defender of Israel,” also criticized the deal.

However, the deal explicitly fit in with Netanyahu’s policy of creating a precedent for setting aside the Palestinian veto on making peace in the region with other states. Almost all of Donald Trump’s American critics and opponents welcomed the breakthrough without qualification while trumpeting the concession on annexation. Joe Biden said that, “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave and badly-needed act of statesmanship. Annexation would be a bloody blow to the course of peace, which is why I oppose it now and would oppose it as president.” For the UAE, this might have reinforced their fears that an imminent Biden presidency might mean a restoration of the Obama doctrine of balance and re-opening ties with Iran, thus possibly explaining the push to complete a deal before the November election.

Strong critics of Netanyahu also praised the deal. The Israel Policy Forum applauded “the historic announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates will be normalizing relations. Israel’s broader acceptance in the region is good for Israel and good for American interests in the Middle East, and we hope that other countries will follow suit. We also applaud the announcement that, in return for normalized ties, Israel will be suspending its plans to annex part of the West Bank, as envisioned by the Trump initiative. Annexation remains the single biggest threat to Israeli peace with its neighbors and its full acceptance in the region, and we call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to remove annexation as a policy option entirely rather than temporarily suspend its implementation.”

IPF went on to insist that as welcome as the agreement was, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained the major issue. A peace for peace that simply maintained the status quo was inimical and unjust to Palestinian interests. However, acknowledging that annexation had been an obstacle to peace was itself progress. Nevertheless, sidelining the Palestinians, making them observers rather than actors in forging peace, was itself a blow to the status of the PA. It was also certainly a clear defeat for the forces that demonize and would destroy Israel as a state in the Middle East. Instead, Israel has been increasingly recognized as an integral and recognized state in the region.

The biggest winner appears to be Benjamin Netanyahu. He conceded not one of his basic positions. He demonstrated unequivocally that peace with the Arab world did not depend on resolving the Palestinian issue and certainly not on promising a state for the Palestinians. The outside-in approach was the winner versus the inside-out strategy of the Oslo Accords that started with the central issue, the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps Netanyahu had been correct all along – namely that, given Israel’s strategic capabilities, economic might, scientific and technological know-how, success as the upstart and start-up nation, and the shared interests of Israel and the Sunnis, regional peace with most states in the region is inevitable.

Further, in only suspending annexation plans, he accomplished two goals at once. He found a route out of his inability to deliver, not simply on the 1 July date, but in the immediate foreseeable future. For Benny Gantz would not agree to annexation without a U.S. imprimatur. And the U.S. had made it abundantly clear that they would not approve the annexation plans unless Netanyahu agreed to recognize a Palestinian state on the remainder of the West Bank lands. Netanyahu found a back door to escape an international as well as domestic embarrassment. As Ben Caspit commented, “The agreement with the UAE is a candy to dispel spreading bitterness, a pain relief tablet to ease the hangover plaguing Netanyahu’s electoral base since the heady White House event in late January at which the upcoming annexation was declared.” At the same time, Netanyahu did not concede or acknowledge the possibility of a two-state solution. Annexation remained a goal but not an achievable one for the present.

Others gave the credit to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defence Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. “Without them, there would not have been any official agreement with the UAE for the simple reason that they both took pains to block the annexation plans.”

Will annexation remain “an impenetrable impediment to normal and open relations between Israel and Arab states as Michael Koplow contends? Or by simply suspending and not renouncing annexation, did Netanyahu drive another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution. After all, if Israel could not be induced to declare annexation dead, the likelihood of relocating the 450,000 living on the West Bank became even more problematic. The status quo of de facto rather than de jure annexation would remain.

Unfortunate as this may be, Netanyahu could mark up another victory for the Right, one that could be supported by most of the Left.