Counterpoint: Israel-UAE agreement shows the value of engagement

September 9, 2020

This op-ed was originally published by JCRC Executive Director Steve Hunegs in the Star Tribune.

Contrary to the sentiments expressed in two recent commentaries denying Israel’s legitimacy — “Admit it: The two-state solution is dead,” Aug. 10, and “More ‘peace’ will mean more land for Israel,” Aug. 29 — this summer’s historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), exemplifies how far we’ve come since Arab leaders gathered 53 years ago in Khartoum to pledge there would be “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, [and] no negotiations with it … .”

Egypt was rightfully the first to break from this self-destructive path of rejectionism by securing peace with Israel through the Camp David Accords. It has lasted for more than 40 years. As Minnesotans, we are proud that President Jimmy Carter was ably assisted at Camp David by Vice President Walter Mondale. By virtue of the indefatigable American spirit, peace was achieved while the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East was significantly reduced.

Following the Oslo Accords, Israel reached an agreement with Jordan in 1994, dealing another blow to the “Three No’s of Khartoum.” Here too, American diplomacy and leadership, which stretches back to Ralph Bunche’s Nobel Peace Prize-worthy mediation between Israel and Egypt in 1948, was essential. (Notably, Bunche was the first African American recipient of that prize.)

This latest accord is another repudiation of the rejectionist mindset and an acknowledgment that most Arab nations consider Iran, not Israel, as the primary threat to regional stability. The civil wars and dysfunction of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, and their harrowing civilian impact, are all worsened by Iran’s hegemonic pursuits. Smaller nations like the UAE appreciate that as Iran threatens to destroy Israel, their own survival is also at stake.

Meanwhile, some Palestinians believe they are again at risk of being left behind.

Ahmed Tharwat’s recent commentary in the Star Tribune shares these concerns, claiming “since 1948, every time there has been a peace agreement or cease fire with Israel, there has been more land grabbing and expansion of settlement.” Ironically, Tharwat’s criticism of the Israel-UAE peace agreement stems from grievances with the Camp David Accords, which resulted not in the expansion of Israel’s borders or new settlements, but in Israel’s vacating the Sinai Peninsula and removing 4,500 settlers.

Perhaps more importantly, Tharwat ignores the fact that the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE is contingent on Israel’s not moving forward with unilaterally annexing/extending sovereignty over additional West Bank land.

Still, in light of the agreements between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and now the UAE, the ongoing impasse between Israelis and Palestinians remains tragic. From Israel’s perspective, the violent trauma of the Second Intifada, which followed Israel’s offer of significant territorial concessions that were rebuffed, dealt a serious blow to Israeli confidence that Palestinians were interested in peace.

Polling of Israelis and Palestinians shows a large gap between what most Palestinians say they would be willing to accept to end the conflict and what most Israelis say they would be willing to risk in a region beset by sectarian conflict and instability.

So how can this zone of agreement be realized? At the highest level, the model of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan and now the leadership of the UAE proves that direct engagement with Israel is more fruitful than the rejectionist approach. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of Israelis say that they favor the agreement with the UAE over the further expansion of Israel’s territorial claims in the West Bank.

Threats of boycott, divestment and sanctions, or the rhetoric espoused by Mary Christine Bader in these same pages in which she argues against the viability of the two-state solution and advocates for Israel’s replacement with a binational state that few Israelis or Palestinians want while castigating Jews as colonists in lands we’ve continuously resided in for thousands of years, only further entrenches Israeli skepticism about the prospect for peace. By contrast, engagement and acceptance by Israel’s neighbors of the Jewish state’s rightful place within the Middle East provides Israelis with the confidence they require to take risks for peace.

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi’s work reaching across the divide offers a promising opportunity for Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs to truly listen and appreciate each other’s narratives. Klein Halevi’s goal is not to convert Palestinians into “Arab Zionists” but to cultivate an appreciation by his neighbors of how Israelis and Jews understand themselves. In exchange, by inviting and publishing Palestinian and Arab letters in response, Klein Halevi is providing his neighbors with a platform to share their narrative.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas is proudly partnering with Klein Halevi through our “Letters Project,” in which members of our community are reading and reflecting upon his “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: With an Extensive Epilogue of Palestinian Responses.” This groundbreaking initiative educates our communities and equips individuals to approach this subject with confidence and a multifaceted perspective. We believe this brave engagement, not demonization and denial of Israel, is the best way to honor the descendants of Abraham who are no less indigenous to the land held sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Oded Balilty/Associated Press)


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