November 25, 2020

Trump’s Middle Eastern Mirage

It’s fair to assume that Saudi Arabia’s turbulent prince, Mohammed bin Salman, would love to give President Trump an October gift of normalized Saudi relations with Israel. The last thing M.B.S. wants is a Joe Biden victory accompanied by renewed opprobrium over the Saudi murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a more balanced American approach to Iran.

The Saudis clearly gave Bahrain the nod to join the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations with Israel. Trump has said he expects Saudi Arabia to follow the two small Sunni Arab monarchies. M.B.S. is about disruption. Saudi normalization with Israel would be the ultimate Middle East disruption.

Perhaps M.B.S. is trying to persuade his father, King Salman, to go for it next month, in the name of Trump’s “dawn of a new Middle East,” not to mention a second term of intense Trump-Saudi coddling. Come on, Dad, times have changed, Trump’s our man. You want four years of the Democrats shoving Khashoggi and the war in Yemen down our throats?

The king is likely to remain unmoved. Age curtails impetuosity. The U.A.E. and Bahrain don’t have to worry about public opinion. Saudi Arabia, as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, does. Namely, the views of some 1.8 billion Muslims across the world, as well as those of its own population.

Saudi conservatives, jihadis and Iran would jump on any Saudi-Israeli normalization, Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political analyst, told me. The kingdom, as author of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, has a particular attachment to it even as other Gulf States have destroyed its premise: that a statehood deal for the Palestinians should precede any normalization of relations with Israel.

So much for that thought. So much for the Palestinians. They were scarcely mentioned at the White House ceremony. The Palestinians have overtaken the Kurds as the most tired cause in the Middle East, some achievement. The Arab Street, so called, no longer gives a damn.

The Arab Spring, even aborted, put an end to the diversionary tactics of despotic Arab leaders: The problems of Middle Eastern states lay at home — in gross incompetence, brutality and corruption — not with Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Still, there’s something rotten in the peace choreography of Trump, Jared Kushner, Ambassador David Friedman et al.

Yes, it’s a good thing that two more Arab states have normalized relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. They’re small, peripheral, and were never at war with Israel. Still, it’s something positive on Rosh Hashana; the more Jews and Arabs mingle, the better.

It’s also positive that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended plans, widely viewed as illegal, to annex part of the West Bank. That’s where we are: Getting Israel not to violate international law is notched up as an achievement. Netanyahu also did not insist the U.A.E. and Bahrain recognize Israel as a Jewish state — perhaps the most ludicrous demand Israel ever made of the Palestinians.

Yet this cannot mask the fact that Israel’s problems are not with the U.A.E. or Bahrain (normalization surfaced an existing web of relations), but with the Palestinians over the division of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. For all the pious sentiments in the agreement about resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the reality is that Trump, Kushner, Friedman et al. have treated the Palestinian national cause with contempt. Their peace plan released earlier this year made a mockery of Palestinian statehood. It offered near carte blanche for Israel.

The Trump administration has no interest in history. Therefore, it cannot understand that the Palestinian struggle is a historical one, as that of the Jews for a homeland was. The Palestinians will not be bought off, a concept foreign to Trump. No Palestinian leader will accept anything resembling the Trump-Kushner plan.

Talk of the Palestinians being pressured now into folding betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Palestinian psyche. Peace, the one that matters, has not been served by this administration; and some 6.5 million Palestinian Arabs in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank are not going away. The status quo can offer lulls, but not dawns.

The Palestinians have contributed to their own humiliation. You cannot talk about elections and not hold them without being viewed as unserious. The Palestinian Authority, established as part of a defunct peace process, is a collection of undemocratic has-beens.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, sits atop a house of cards that does little or nothing for the Palestinian people. One day it will collapse. Feeble, corrupt leadership has allowed Palestinians to be sold down the river.

There’s another reason for my queasiness at Trump’s Middle East peace show. The Abraham Accords declare: “We support science, art, medicine.” They say, “We seek tolerance and respect for every person,” regardless of “race, faith or ethnicity.”

From an American president who makes a mockery of science and medicine on a daily basis, and whose rule has been an exercise in stirring up racial and ethnic conflict, that’s grotesque.

Trump is about mirages, not new mornings. His October surprise could include an American military clash with Iran that serves to strut Trump’s stuff; and, just maybe, that risky Saudi gift to its benefactor in chief.

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