Every serious quest for Arab-Israeli peace is a series of scenes that begin with a step such as the UAE’s recent declaration of intent to normalise relations with Israel and end with a number of politicians receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The first scenario of this sort opened with Anwar Al-Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem and culminated with the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Egyptian president and the Israeli prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin. In the last successful process, which produced the Oslo Accords, the prize was jointly awarded to Yasser Arafat (Palestine), Yitzhak Rabin (Israel) and Shimon Peres (Israel). On the first occasion, Sadat refused to go to the award ceremony. It did not seem right for the prime minister in charge of a territorial occupation that stood in the way of peace to be put on par with the president who had opened the gateway to peace with his unprecedented visit to the Israeli Knesset. On the second occasion, all laureates attended because it had to do with the Palestinian dimension at the crux of the problem and because the award crowned the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, on the one hand, and presaged the fulfilment of its promise in the creation of two states, which has not yet occurred.
If truth be told, King Hussein of Jordan also deserved a Nobel Prize for his efforts to promote peace, in general, and for his success in recuperating occupied Jordanian territory and establishing normal relations with Israel. In like manner, US president Jimmy Carter also merited a Nobel Prize for the part he played in the Camp David talks and afterwards, though he would receive one eventually, in 2002, for his efforts to resolve international conflicts and to advance democracy, human rights and social and economic development.
So, who will get the prize this time around? Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed is the obvious candidate. Not only did he unblock the road to a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he opened the doors to effective confrontation against a range of threats and challenges to peace and stability in the entire Middle East, all requiring a recalibration of balances of power. Benjamin Netanyahu will probably have a share in the award which might come as a surprise to some, but such is the tradition set at the time of Begin. US President Donald Trump would be upset if he was not included as well. This is not just because he spearheaded the “Deal of the Century” that departed from the two-state solution and the Oslo Accords, or because his administration paved the way for the UAE-Israeli announcement, but also because he is determined to get everything Barack Obama had. Even the most complex international issues are interlaced with personal causes and private vendettas. It is sometimes said that this is where the role of the individual in history is to be found.
In all events, we still have some months to go before the Nobel Prize winners are announced. Also, the peace process is only in its first phase after the recent breakthrough which triggered a spate of UAE-Israeli contacts, as well as speculation as to what other states might join the new trend in the Middle East. As events unfold, we will learn more about the details that paved the way to the agreement, such as the UAE aircraft that brought Covid-19 relief to Palestinians via Tel Aviv airport. Generally, aid to Palestinians arrived to the West Bank from Amman and to Gaza from Al-Arish. Another first is the opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth by UAE Ambassador to Washington and Minister of State Yousef Al-Otaiba calling for normalisation in exchange for freezing annexation. Prior to that, the economic conference in Manama was a signpost on the road. But breakthroughs are not made by conferences but by states with the ability and courage to take the necessary decisions of a concrete nature, such as the UAE-Israeli scientific cooperation agreement to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Preludes of this sort occurred before the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement: the meeting between Egyptian prime minister Hassan Al-Tuhami and Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan in Morocco, Egyptian messages to Israel via Romania and Iran, and President Sadat’s speech before the Egyptian People’s Assembly vowing to go to the ends of the earth in order to spare Egyptian bloodshed. In advance of the Palestinian-Israeli agreement there were negotiations, some conducted through backchannels before the official talks in Oslo supervised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Only when all was in place did the parties concerned head to Washington for the signing.
Nothing particularly surprising followed the announcement. As with the previous breakthroughs there were the outpourings of anger and vocal violence from the Palestinians and their allies among the rejectionists and those who benefit from the perpetuation of the conflict in its current state. The Israeli occupation of the whole of Palestinian soil not only continues; it persists in an environment brimming with violent developments that have conspired to force the Palestinian cause to the bottom of the region’s and the world’s priorities. The region and the world have changed. The UAE initiative is an attempt act proactively amidst the hubbub in a manner that could steer the Arab Peace Initiative towards implementation. This time, moreover, the UAE is not facing the pressures and the isolation in the Arab and Islamic world that Egypt had to endure when it signed its peace agreement with Israel. Indeed, others may soon follow in pursuit of the same noble purpose. There are some veteran parties that could contribute to results that merit more than a Nobel Prize.
Sadat, when he acted, used Egypt’s history and influence, the war with Israel in October 1973, his historic visit to Jerusalem and speech before the Knesset, all of which gave him enormous confidence in himself and in Egypt during the negotiations. In like manner, the UAE has entered negotiations with great confidence in itself and its capacities. This confidence derives, on the one hand, from its success in handling regional threats and challenges, including a direct attack, and, on the other, from a record in economic and social development that has elevated the UAE to the highest rankings in human development indexes, surpassing Israel in some areas. More importantly, the UAE possesses many logistical facilities that have won it international renown, whether in port management, international airlines or, more recently, in such scientific fields as solar energy, aerospace and nuclear energy. It was no coincidence that UAE-Israeli normalisation would open with an agreement between their respective scientific communities to work together to produce vaccines against Covid-19 and other communicable diseases.
If you know the UAE well, then you know its ability to order its cards so as to achieve the Israeli decision to freeze the annexation of Palestinian territory first, and to go from there to generate, through normalisation, an Arab demographic reality that offsets many Israeli geographic realities. Peace is a battle that requires both self-discipline and patience.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly