Although it was not their intention, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu might have helped advance Shimon Peres’s vision. Removing annexation from the public agenda was definitely an important step in this direction.
Years ago, on my first mission as a diplomat, Joel Singer, then the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser and chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords, answered a question that I still remember. During an event at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy in 1997, Singer was asked what the difference was between the requirement of Netanyahu (who had recently been elected prime minister) to ensure Israel’s security before signing any settlement, and the approach of Yitzhak Rabin, who was also very mindful as an ex-military man of the need to ensure Israel’s security.
Singer replied that although both of them were equally mindful of Israel’s security, there was a difference which could be illustrated with the following anecdote: A father was asked by his son to borrow the car for an evening. The father conditions the loan of the car upon his son doing the homework. Just like that father, Rabin indeed preconditioned any settlement upon ensuring Israel’s security, but he also helped the Palestinians meet this requirement, while Netanyahu is like that father who requires his son to do his homework, but hopes he does not do it so he does not have to give him the car.
The agreement with the United Arab Emirates makes one wonder whether Netanyahu will actually implement Peres’s vision of a “new Middle East,” which for years was ridiculed by the Right. Netanyahu does indeed use the tactics that Peres envisioned, but he does so in order to achieve the contrary result. Peres aimed at achieving an economic peace as a means to reach a regional settlement that included a settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu, on the other hand, sees economic peace and regional normalization as a tactic that allows him to ignore the Palestinians.
The benefits of Israel’s integration with the region could not be overstated. However, in the absence of a settlement with the Palestinians, Israel might become a binational state and yet another Arab state or a Middle Eastern tyranny while moving away from the Zionist vision. Singer’s metaphor is relevant to this debate too.
Peres and Netanyahu believed in leveraging Israel’s economic, security and technological advantages to achieve regional normalization. Peres’s vision, postulating that the Start-Up Nation could help create a Start-Up Region, is now implemented by the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Peres tirelessly promoted Israel’s relations with the Gulf and Maghreb countries, and had he been alive today, he would have been happy to see the signing of Israel’s peace agreement with an Arab state.
Peres, however, believed that these moves must be combined with a political settlement with the Palestinians, which in his view was critical to the democratic nature of the Jewish nation-state.
Peres’s vision has not disappeared, but only recently has the Israeli public become aware of it. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 marks the turning point. In the past, Arab states did not see Israel part of the Middle East, and used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to distract public opinion from civil rights violations and technological backwardness in their countries. The Arab Peace Initiative, however, reflects the understanding that Israel is not going anywhere, and can even help the region prosper.
The Iranian threat and the threat of Sunni al-Qaeda jihadists have reinforced the understanding that Israel and other pro-Western countries in the region are being targeted by the same treats, and that Israel is not the problem, but part of the solution. The Arab Spring, which was perceived as a threat in Israel, actually reinforced these trends.
Had Peres been alive and in a position of influence, he would have leveraged the agreement with the UAE toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than ignoring it. It is to be hoped that Trump and Netanyahu will advance Peres’s vision, even if that was not their intention. Suspending the annexation was certainly an important step in this direction.
**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 16 September 2020.