Barak Ravid (photo from Twitter)
An end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be nowhere in sight, but the Israeli-Arab conflict may be coming to an end, says a leading Israeli diplomatic journalist.
Barak Ravid spoke virtually Feb. 20 in a presentation organized by the Jewish National Fund of Canada. Ravid, who reports for Axios from Israel, was formerly with Ha’aretz, where he worked for a decade as diplomatic correspondent and columnist, and is also a familiar face on Israeli TV. He was interviewed by Cynthia Ramsay, publisher and editor of the Jewish Independent.
Ravid spoke about his new book, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, which is currently available only in Hebrew but should be out in English this summer.
Ravid acknowledges that Trump is a controversial figure and that the book’s title has received some pushback. “Peace is not the first thing that comes to mind when you say the word Trump,” he said. “I chose that name because it happens to be true.”
The author maintains that the Abraham Accords and the expanding normalization between Israel and Arab states would not have occurred under any other president.
“At the end of the day, Trump’s policies in the region closed down the trust gap that was open between the U.S. and the Israeli government … a gap that was opened during Obama’s term in office,” he said. “Whether it was warranted or not doesn’t matter. The gap was there. Trump’s policies in the region, mainly on Iran, closed down the gap and brought Israel and the Arab countries closer together.”
Trump’s decision to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to deal with peace in the Middle East was key, according to Ravid. In interviews with Israelis and Arabs for his book, Ravid found that both sides viewed the appointment as proof of how central this issue was for Trump and served as an assurance that, when they spoke to Kushner, they were speaking to the president.
The ultimate reason the Abraham Accords were cinched, said Ravid, is that Trump did what he always claimed as his strength – he made deals. In return for normalizing relations with Israel, each party to the accords got something they wanted.
“For the United Arab Emirates, it was the arms sales, the sales of the F-35 fighter jets,” he said. “For Bahrain, it was an upgraded trade deal [with the United States]. For Sudan, it was removing them from the [U.S.] state department’s terrorism list. For Morocco, it was the U.S. recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara…. Without those tangibles, those countries would not necessarily agree to take those steps.”
Ravid contends that Trump is not the only leader who deserves credit – Binyamin Netanyahu, who was Israeli prime minister at the time, was pivotal to the success. Ironically, he noted, the decision by most Arab politicians in Israel to reject the accords led Mansour Abbas to break away from the Joint (Arab) List and form a new party, Ra’am, whose participation in the new coalition government ultimately brought Netanyahu’s reign to an end.
“For the first time in history, an Arab party is a part of the coalition in Israel,” Ravid said. “In a strange way, the Abraham Accords enabled this change in Israel where Jews in Israel feel more comfortable towards Arabs and Arabs feel more comfortable joining the coalition and, therefore, Netanyahu’s biggest foreign policy achievement created the political conditions to get him out of office.”
It has long been an assumption that peace between Israel and Arab states would come only after a resolution of the Palestinian issue. When Netanyahu earlier tried to bypass the Palestinians and make friends in the neighbourhood, he was publicly shunned, said Ravid. But he kept plugging away behind the scenes, building relations in the region.
“It’s hard to go from zero to 100 in one step,” said Ravid. “You need to get to a situation where you narrow this gap and Netanyahu managed to take Israel and the Arab world from zero to, let’s say, 70. So, when the decision for the Abraham Accords came, the Arab countries didn’t have to go zero to 100, they needed to go 70 to 100.”
A third crucial contributor – who Ravid said deserves perhaps the most credit and who wants the least recognition – is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates. Bin Zayed has been trying to modernize his nation and he saw normalization with Israel as advantageous to his project. At the time, Netanyahu was threatening to annex about 30% of the West Bank into Israel. According to Ravid, bin Zayed saw a way to manoeuvre.
“He decided to be the most vocal opponent of annexation,” Ravid said. Bin Zayed told the Trump White House that, if Netanyahu dropped the annexation initiative, he would be ready to sign a peace deal with Israel.
For the White House, the annexation issue was a huge headache, said Ravid, and bin Zayed’s offer solved that problem while delivering a generational diplomatic breakthrough at the same time.
The big question is, what’s next? What about Saudi Arabia?
“That’s the crown jewel,” Ravid said. U.S. President Joe Biden sent his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to Riyadh and received a list of demands from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. All the demands were on the United States, not Israel, including that the Saudi monarch be invited to the White House.
Bin Salman has been an international pariah since the Washington Post commentator and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2017. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
“Biden will have to take a very hard decision if he wants to move ahead with the Abraham Accords,” said Ravid, walking the fine line between rewarding a foreign leader who American intelligence has dubbed a murderer of a journalist and seeking to advance peace in the Middle East. But, if it works, the dominos will almost certainly fall into place, said Ravid.
“If Saudi comes in, then Indonesia comes in, then Kuwait comes in, then Oman comes in, then Muslim countries in Africa join, Pakistan,” he said. “It’s literally the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict – while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue, obviously.”
In this regard, Ravid said, “The Palestinians decided to boycott the Trump administration in December 2017 after Trump announced he is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the embassy there. While I can understand Palestinian frustration and anger, and it makes complete sense to protest, the decision to boycott Trump until his last day in office, I think, was counterproductive to their goals, and didn’t get them anything in the end.”
On the flip side, Ravid argued, Netanyahu’s annexation of a big chunk of the West Bank would have put another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.
“I think the Abraham Accords, even though the Palestinians won’t admit it, saved the two-state solution, at least for now,” said Ravid. “Some people think it’s gone already, but if you think the two-state solution is still alive, the reason it’s still alive is that the UAE normalized relations with Israel and stopped Netanyahu from annexing the West Bank.”
Bernice Carmeli, president of JNF Canada Pacific Region, opened the event, and Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, closed it. Lance Davis, chief executive officer of JNF Canada thanked Ravid.