Two weeks have passed since the announcement of an historical peace agreement made between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and celebration in both countries continues. Senior officials from both Israel and the UAE made passionate statements highlighting the historic opportunity and encouraging others in the region to follow suit.
More recently, excited journalists pushed for the privileged position of boarding the first commercial flight from Tel Aviv to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi along with the official Israeli and US delegations for talks formalizing the deal to normalize relations between the countries.
One aspect that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to emphasize since the deal was announced is that the historic peace deal shows that “peace for peace” instead of “peace for concessions” has proven to be the correct model for peace. The ‘peace for peace’ model is what Netanyahu has been personally pushing for his entire political career. He describes it in detail is his book entitled, “A Place Among the Nations.”
The central premise is that peace must be achieved from a position of strength, without the need for forfeiting concessions. In addition, peace is to be obtained in exchange for peace instead of receiving more violence in return. Israel’s history of negotiations with the Palestinians has at times taken place amidst periods of violence and terror. During the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, after the signing of the Interim Agreement in Washington, suicide attacks and bus explosions still occurred, subsequently undermining public trust in the viability of peace with the Palestinians.
It is this experience of negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which PM Netanyahu is mostly addressing. For years, he has passionately preached that it is through Israel’s strength that it will make peace not just with the Palestinians, but the wider Arab world as well. After a consecutive decade of Netanyahu’s tenure in office, this position, sometimes referred to as the ‘Netanyahu doctrine,’ has served as the compass of Israeli foreign policy.
However, while this model is likely to work in some instances, its limitations should also be recognized.
First, it certainly has served Israel’s interests well by opening the path to normalizing relations with Arab countries in the region. Israel’s strength, stemming from its strong economy and highly advanced technological innovations in security, medicine, agriculture and more, significantly increases interest for normalization throughout the region. Thus, for many of these countries, the only stumbling block preventing normalized diplomatic relations with Israel is the Palestinian issue.
Throughout recent years, there has been a clear trend among several Arab countries that finding a permanent solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is becoming a far less important issue on their agenda. This has been made evident by increased contact and cooperation between Israel and countries such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Bahrain without having official relations with one another and despite Palestinian opposition. The climax of this trend occurred during the formation of the agreement between Israel and the UAE. The creation of a Palestinian state is no longer a condition for normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, there is something unique about these countries that differentiates them from Israel’s immediate neighbors whom have yet to sign a peace agreement—Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. In these cases, ‘peace for peace’ has significant limitations.
These are countries that have deep histories of direct conflict with Israel since its inception in 1948. Until today, Israel copes with the threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon, orders airstrikes into Syria in order to defend itself against an encroaching Iran and its proxies, and foils terror attacks regularly in the West Bank intended to be carried out against Israeli citizens and soldiers.
Furthermore, unlike the UAE and other countries like it, Israel controls what is viewed by its immediate neighbors as disputed territory. Lebanon sees Israel as unrightfully controlling the Shebaa Farms; Syria still sees the Golan Heights as occupied Syrian territory; and the Palestinians view all of the West Bank including East Jerusalem as the future Palestinian state.
All negotiations that have taken place between Israel and these countries have either included or been conditioned on territorial concessions. Disputed territory constitutes a serious hindrance to peace for all of these countries—including Israel—whereas it isn’t even a factor to be considered with other Arab countries such as the UAE.
All opportunities available to normalize relations with any country in the region should be praised and pursued. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind when thinking about peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors—especially the Palestinians—that the conditions for and the context of peace are vastly different. A simple ‘peace for peace’ model might be too optimistic. There is more at stake, greater history, and deeper complexity in the issues on the negotiating table.