Jake Wallis Simons

The Arab-Israeli conflict may finally be over

The Arab-Israeli conflict may finally be over
(MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
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The dawn of the new year is rising on a world that would have been unrecognisable 12 months ago. The scourge of Covid, the fall of Trump, the resolution of Brexit; all have carved history in unpredictable ways. But nowhere has seen greater changes than the Middle East, where, for the first time, people are daring to believe that the Arab-Israeli conflict is over.

In January 2020, Israel was as isolated as ever in the region. Its ‘cold peace’ agreements with Egypt and Jordan, which were not matched by affection on the street, were as good as it got. The Arab League’s notorious threefold rejectionism — no to peace, no to recognition, no to negotiation — seemed unmovable.

Trump’s peace plan was dismissed out of hand by the Palestinians in February, and things hit a new low in May. When a new Knesset considered annexing parts of the West Bank, an impotent Palestinian Authority suspended all security co-operation. Then, with unprecedented masochism, it refused to accept more than half a billion pounds of Israeli tax revenues. Overnight, the Palestinian Authority deprived itself of 60 per cent of its budget, setting it on a course for self-imposed bankruptcy and impoverishing tens of thousands of its own citizens.

The act of self-harm brought to mind Mohamed Bouazizi, the despairing Tunisian street vendor who burned himself to death on the streets of Sidi Bouzid as a desperate act of protest. But the Palestinian Authority's immolation did not trigger an Arab Spring. Instead, a different kind of regional revolution was already underway, one that would put the Palestinians and Israel in closer proximity to reconciliation than they had been for a quarter-century. 

For years, Benjamin Netanyahu — that caricatured bogeyman of the western left — had been quietly pursuing an ‘outside in’ strategy for peace. The first stage was to build bilateral links with countries outside the region, like India, Brazil and Japan. The second was to achieve normalisation with the Arab world. Finally, the theory went, with the Palestinians boxed in on all sides by cordiality, the last piece of the puzzle would slot into place.

The strategy dovetailed with the Arab Spring, which sounded the death knell for regional Arab unity. The uprisings were rooted in rage at the corrupt, inept leaders who had left the youthful population of the Middle East impoverished and with little hope. The ensuing crisis of the Levant — Syria a human abattoir, Lebanon collapsed under insoluble financial woes, Iraq riven by bloodshed and factional conflict — erased the last allegiances to the old pan-Arabism. The dream of Arab nationalists building successful, modern and cohesive states across the region had failed, and spectacularly at that. New answers were needed for new problems.

Slowly, Arab rulers became more open about the fact that it wasn’t Israel that was keeping them awake at night. Instead, it was the meddling of Iran and its proxies, the rise of a neo-Ottoman Turkey, the spread of ultra-Islamism and myriad economic woes. Normalising relations with the Jewish state would naturally ease these problems. Not only would they gain a powerful military and intelligence ally against a common enemy, but there would be significant economic advantages — Israeli tourists for Dubai, Israeli agricultural experts for Sudan — and enhanced ties with the United States.

For years, the Palestinians had held an effective veto on Arab relations with Israel. But where had it got them? Israel’s economy has boomed while the corrupt and incompetent Palestinian leadership, a victim of its own disunity and intransigence, had become a black hole for international aid dollars. Arab leaders had no wish to abandon the Palestinians, but they were no longer prepared to have them to dictate policy. The time was ripe for a new approach — one that would benefit the Palestinians as much as the rest of the Arab world.

Fast forward to the dawn of 2021, and the Abraham Accords have changed the face of the Middle East. The UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco are on board. Arab League states like Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritania, Djibouti and the Comoros are poised to make the jump, as is Somaliland. There is even talk that Qatar, despite its links to Turkey and fondness for Hamas, may eventually join the accords rather than be left isolated in the Gulf.

There are signs that the Palestinians may come to accept this new reality. The protests and burning of UAE flags that accompanied the signing of the Abraham Accords were brought to a sudden halt, I understand, by a telephone call from Saudi Arabia. After that, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned on a sixpence. In November, he offered to reinstate the ambassadors he had withdrawn from UAE and Bahrain. Abandoning his policy of self-harm, he agreed to accept his half a billion pounds of tax receipts and resumed security co-operation with Israel. All of a sudden, the mood music was much improved.

The most stunning development has been the change of feeling on the Arab street. Traditionally, levels of anti-Semitism have soared across the Middle East, with a seminal 2014 study finding that 74 per cent of adults across the region harboured anti-Semitic beliefs. But as country after country has made peace with Israel, these attitudes have softened significantly. Recent polls report that about 80 per cent of Saudis are now in favour of normalisation, and 40 per cent of citizens across a range of Arab countries (excluding the Palestinian territories) want their leaders to take an active role in encouraging peace. This is a remarkable and rapid cultural shift.

Significant obstacles remain, of course. Foremost of these is Gaza, where Hamas continue to run the enclave as a belligerent outpost of Islamist extremism. There is also uncertainty over whether the incoming Biden team will build on Trump’s successes, or revert to the old model exemplified by John Kerry, who insisted on scotching regional peace unless a Palestinian state existed first.

But there are greater reasons for hope. With even the Palestinians showing less venomous opposition to the Abraham Accords, it would be very difficult for Biden to eschew them. Moreover, in some ways the normalisation deals have put the Palestinians in a stronger position. It is true that their concerns may become irrelevant as peace continues to break out around them. But at the same time, Netanyahu has effectively removed the most aggressive Israeli policies from the table himself; he will be unable to pursue annexation, or major settlement expansion, without risking the relationships with his new Arab allies. This time, the Palestinians may have a decent chance of a deal.

When the beleaguered Palestinian leadership sees the economic benefits enjoyed by other Arab states through co-operation with Israel and absorbs the idea that it now has friends as well as foes sitting across the negotiating table, the incentives will be hard to resist. The Emiratis and Bahrainis will make the point emphatically. And now that Israel has been elided into regional Sunni Arab interests, there can surely be no doubt that Jerusalem is a serious partner for peace.