How Trump Proved Experts Wrong on Israel
The Liberal Street, not the Arab Street, is the problem
Last week I wrote about how Israel needed to destroy the idea of a Palestinian state, which is impossible to achieve on acceptable terms anyway, and pointed to evidence from other conflicts to argue that grievance often disappears when a party realizes that a political cause is hopeless. That is true for both the weaker side in a conflict and third party observers who might be inclined to support it.
One might ask whether we can apply lessons from other disputes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue itself. Given the history of the region and the intense focus it draws from the rest of the world, perhaps this conflict is somehow different. While other nations can settle disputes by force alone, Israel can’t in this particular context.
I think the Abraham Accords, signed in the last months of the Trump administration, provided direct evidence that this is not the case. It had been conventional wisdom among foreign policy experts that solving the Palestinian issue was key to achieving a broader Middle East peace. Trump came into office and tested a completely different theory. He showed that if you simply stopped taking Palestinian grievance seriously and worked on other issues, you could cut deals with others in the region. While even some of Trump’s critics felt the need to praise the achievements of the Abraham Accords at the time, since then the lessons of the entire experience have been memory holed, and the Biden administration has gone back to the older failed approach, with predictably disastrous results. Overall, the whole affair is a good demonstration of how elites remember events that accord with their ideological and moral convictions while ignoring those that contradict them. Trump’s successes should give us hope that future administrations not corrupted by partiality towards the Palestinian cause can achieve similar breakthroughs.
A Short History of the Abraham Accords
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been part of a larger dispute between Israelis and the larger Arab world. Israel fought coalitions of Arab states in 1948-49, 1967, and 1973, and governments of the region have often supported the Palestinians through financial and diplomatic means. The Middle East peace process has therefore always focused on not only solving the Palestinian issue but trying to find ways for Israel to live alongside neighboring states. In 1979, it signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and did the same with Jordan in 1994. Before late 2020, these were the only countries that Israel had normal diplomatic relations with in the Arab world.
It had always been taken as given by US foreign policy elites that Israel could not make progress towards a wider regional peace without settling the Palestinian issue. In December 2016, the month before Trump took office, John Kerry adamantly articulated this view.
Where are we going? And let me tell you — let me tell you a few things that I’ve learned for sure in the last few years. There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no, and no.
I can tell you that reaffirmed even in the last week as I have talked to leaders of the Arab community. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.
Given the forcefulness of this statement and the fact that it was coming from the outgoing Secretary of State, one might think that this was a reasonable view well-grounded in an understanding of history and the political dynamics of the region.
Yet in August 2020, Israel signed normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain during a ceremony at the White House. Four months later, a deal was reached with Morocco. Then came Sudan on January 6, although in the midst of all the chaos that country has been facing, the implementation of this particular deal remains in limbo, and it didn’t get much notice given the other events of that day here at home.
These were remarkable diplomatic breakthroughs. We had gone over a 70-year stretch of time in which Israel normalized ties with just two Arab states. Then, in the closing days of the Trump administration, it reached agreements that were implemented with three more, with a possible fourth on the way. There were talks of other countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, eventually joining soon after this happened, but time ran out and after the Biden administration came into office the entire effort got sidetracked.
You would think that foreign policy experts would take a deep interest in what the Trump administration was able to accomplish. To make things even more embarrassing for them, the Abraham Accords were facilitated by Jared Kushner, a man with no previous foreign policy experience whose hiring was treated as a sign of the corruption and nepotism of the Trump administration.
Some on the left tried to downplay the significance of the agreements, arguing that Israel hadn’t really made peace because it wasn’t at war with the nations it had just established relations with. This is true, but across the entire history of the conflict, the goal of normalizing ties between Israel and other countries in the region has always been seen as a self-evidently good thing. It reduces tensions, facilitates communication, makes future wars less likely, and forms the building blocks for greater integration. In May, Israel and the UAE signed a free trade agreement, and economic integration with Bahrain and Morocco are also going forward. None of this would have been possible without normalizing diplomatic relations first. In addition to the more tangible benefits of establishing ties, there is also the symbolic importance of the idea that Arabs and Jews can interact with one another just like people of most other nations do in the international system. Normalization was never not seen as a big deal until foreign policy elites had to give Trump credit for what he had accomplished.
How They Did It
What did Trump do differently than previous presidents? First of all, Kushner deliberately put aside the Palestinian problem and did not let it get in the way of the countries of the region coming together. The Trump administration did not completely ignore the Palestinians. It tried to work on a peace plan and opposed Netanyahu’s efforts to annex parts of the West Bank. But when Kushner and others found, as officials in previous administrations had, that Palestinians weren’t serious about working towards peace, they were willing to stop listening to their grievances and move on.
Aaron David Miller, who worked on the Camp David negotiations under Clinton in 2000, recently said that although Israel at the time made offers that the Palestinians couldn’t accept, they at least put forth something. Meanwhile, he notes that Arafat
couldn’t counter, nor would he offer a proposal, that diverged at all from the Palestinian narrative, which was 100 percent of the West Bank control over everything in East Jerusalem and some solution to the refugee problem that would have not just included the return of Palestinians to a Palestinian state, but to Israel proper.
In other words, the only thing the Palestinians would ask for was that Israel stop being a Jewish state. Note that this was all before Hamas took over Gaza. During the Trump administration, it was clear that Palestinian leaders still could or would not deliver any kind of agreement that would allow Israel to survive. But this time, the US was ready to use Palestinian intransigence to its advantage. As Kushner writes,
A detailed proposal would put Abbas in a tough negotiating position. If he accepted the offer and ended the conflict, he would risk losing billions per year in international aid. But if he rejected our proposal for a pragmatic two-state solution, which included a massive investment plan for the Palestinian territories, he would reveal his true indifference to the wellbeing of his own people. This would strengthen the argument I was making to the leaders of the Muslim countries — that it was time to focus on their national interests and move forward with normalization.
The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid in his book on the Abraham Accords tells the same story, noting that
the unveiling of the Trump peace plan — which envisaged a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty and a capital city in parts of East Jerusalem — and its unequivocal rejection by president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas gave a string of Arab nations the pretext they required for the normalization of relations with Israel.
What this reflects is the fact that, as much as they might go through the motions, many Arab elites had come to realize that the Palestinian cause was hopeless. While Hamas is a terrorist movement that rejects the existence of Israel on religious grounds, Fatah itself is not a credible partner for peace either. Regarding Abbas, Ravid writes that “Kushner grew increasingly convinced that the Palestinian president had no genuine interest in changing the status quo, and that he had elevated trips to foreign capitals to raise money into an art form.” Neither ideology nor self-interest compels Palestinian leaders to strike a deal with Israel. By the time of the Trump administration, this had become common knowledge in the region, and making the point salient helped get Arabs to move towards establishing relations with Israel despite the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue.
The second important thing that the Trump administration did was take a more hawkish stance towards Iran. During the Obama administration, the Israelis and most of the Gulf Arab states opposed the negotiations leading to and the ultimate signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain felt threatened by Iran in a way they did not feel threatened by Israel. They were thus willing to build closer ties with the Jewish state in the service of standing up to a common adversary. The approach of the Obama administration had been to blur the line between friend and enemy in the region, trying to find ways to work with Iran while being quicker to criticize traditional partners.
The Liberal Street, Not the Arab Street
Although the Trump administration proposed a peace plan, it also unquestionably took the side of the Israelis on many important issues. It moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, and allowed settlements in the West Bank to expand. As Ravid puts it, the Trump administration was for Netanyahu an “all-you-can-eat buffet.”
According to the way foreign policy elites had traditionally thought about the region, this should have made peace between Israel and the Arabs much more difficult to achieve. The Palestinians warned the Trump administration that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem in particular was a “red line” for the whole region. Instead of witnessing an eruption of violence, however, the Trump administration soon went on to sign more peace agreements between Israelis and Arabs than every previous administration combined.
For decades, the term “Arab street” has been used to refer to mass sentiment in the Middle East and the pressure it puts on leaders. The idea is that governments in the region generally cannot take a more accommodating view towards Israel because they would otherwise see riots and mass unrest, and the US must similarly walk on eggshells.
Somehow, the Arab street went to sleep when Trump and Netanyahu were both in power. Some leftists have argued that October 7 actually proved that the approach of the Abraham Accords was mistaken and you couldn’t expect Palestinians to take their mistreatment lying down. In response, one has to note how the terms of the debate have shifted. The left used to argue that we had to address Palestinian grievances for the sake of peace across the Middle East. That position is untenable after the Abraham Accords. Trump being more unambiguously pro-Israel than previous presidents not only did not make the Arab Street erupt, but coincided with historic improvements in Arab-Israeli relations. Leftists have now moved on to arguing that while other Arabs don’t care, the Palestinians themselves will at least fight back against their own dispossession.
What’s become clear after October 7, however, is that, as I’ve argued before, Israel has the capability to destroy Hamas. The only chance Palestinian militants have is to hide among civilians and hope that they get bailed out by the United States. The Biden administration, facing pressure from the left, appears to be trying to save Hamas even as it claims to want them gone, although this might be a ploy to allow it to continue supporting the Israeli war effort.
What we can conclude from all of this is that the threat coming from the so-called Arab street is largely a mirage. What actually matters is the behavior of Western leftists, who care about the Palestinian cause precisely because it is so hateful and dysfunctional, just as how they romanticize the most anti-social elements of the criminal underclass at home. In 2021, Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he said that State Department officials sought to undermine the Abraham Accords in order to maintain the delusion that the Palestinian issue was the key to regional peace.
The idea of the Arab Street serves as an excuse for liberals to justify what they want to do anyway. Most Americans naturally lean towards Israel, and have no attachment to the Palestinian cause. The only way to convince them that the US should take Palestinian grievances seriously is by referencing the wishes of the wider region. From this perspective, the Abraham Accords are a huge embarrassment, because they prove that the Arab Street either doesn’t care that much about Palestinians, or can be repressed by leaders who are tired of the entire conflict and simply want to move on. It is for that reason perhaps unsurprising that members of the Biden administration refuse to even say the words “Abraham Accords,” as the term must remind officials of how Trump and Kushner succeeded in an area where they have constantly failed. Haaretz is now reporting that while Arab countries have been publicly calling for Israel to not fight such an aggressive war, behind the scenes they are encouraging it to not stop until it destroys Hamas.
People talk about the fact that young people in America are becoming more sympathetic to the Palestinians. While this is true, I believe there’s a good chance that this conflict will be for all practical purposes over before that even matters.
Due to differential birthrates, every generation of Israelis is more right-wing than the one that came before. If you believe, like I do, that neutralizing the Palestinian threat is a matter of having the will to ignore human rights concerns, then this means that the odds of Israel doing what it takes to settle the conflict increase each year.
When it comes to international pressure, people talk about Israeli dependence on the West, but the only country that really matters is the United States. And as with everything else, on this issue we’re seeing more polarization between the two parties. Future Democratic presidents are probably going to be less pro-Israel than in the past, but I expect future Republican presidents to go in the opposite direction. Trump and Nikki Haley might differ on some things, but being skeptical of the Palestinians and their capacity to make peace is one area where they agree. Perhaps by 2050 the most likely next Republican president will have started out as a young groyper, but I don’t expect that to happen for at least a generation or two, if ever.
I think that if you're Israel, it’s arguably better to have one party that encourages you to do what you want and another that is more skeptical than to have both parties giving you lukewarm support. The important thing is to create new facts on the ground. Biden would not have transferred the US embassy to Jerusalem or recognized Israeli claims to the Golan Heights, but no president is likely to ever reverse those moves. And while Democrats and even some Republicans might pressure Israelis regarding new settlements, it’s a completely different dynamic to try and get those that already exist to be dismantled. I expect Israel to keep creating new faits accomplis, which can contribute to Palestinians losing hope.
Within a few weeks, Israel cleared one half of Gaza, and the main thing that is stopping it from dominating the rest is American pressure. West Bank settlements increased under Trump, that increase hasn’t declined under Biden, and even more Palestinians have been getting displaced since October 7 as the world pays attention to Gaza. It’s an open question how much the US can restrain Israel, though it certainly can to a certain extent. But whenever Republicans are in charge going forward, there will be no desire to, and, as we saw during the Trump administration, that will probably lead to more peace with other countries in the region.
In the long run, some trends are working against the Israelis. If they let the conflict drag on for another half century, they may find themselves under existential threat. But there is a good chance that this whole thing will be over well before there has been enough generational turnover in the US to significantly influence American foreign policy.
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