UAE, Bahrain, Israel deals offer chance at peace

Forty years ago this month, when I was  the junior correspondent in Newsweek’s bureau in Bonn, Germany, my boss marched into my office and boasted that he was off to the Middle East to interview Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin on peace prospects after the Camp David Accords.

The magazine’s editors had reserved the cover!

My consolation prize, or so it seemed at the time, would be to cover the unfolding Solidarity strikes in Poland. Yet that story over time would trigger revolutionary changes in Europe favoring freedom, while the Mideast remained mired in extremism, despotism and divisive animosity.

It was worth reflecting on those comparative European and Middle Eastern fates while watching this week’s signing at President Trump’s White House among the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel of normalization agreements. Because of the nature and the timing of these deals, they present the region its best opportunity perhaps ever to bury its bloody, self-defeating past and embrace moderation and modernity.

Yet that will only be true if the parties can work with international partners to protect the so-called Abraham Accords Peace Agreement – named for the common patriarch of Muslims, Jews and Christians — from extremist assault and from Israeli hardliners bent on territorial expansion.

Beyond that, the parties should work to expand the agreements to embrace more Arab countries and eventually spawn rules-based institutions that could become the regional equivalents of the European Union, NATO and an CSCE-like reconciliation process through which they settle economic, political and human rights differences.

A World Economic Forum report this year demonstrated how greater economic integration, reduced regulatory barriers and freer movement of people and capital could result in a doubling of Mideast GDP within a decade – and that was before the notion of including Israel.  

It’s been a safe bet over the last four decades – roughly the time I’ve been following Middle Eastern affairs – to “short” the region, as other parts of the world have moved ahead economically, technologically and politically. Not even historic peace deals between Israel and Egypt in 1979 and fifteen years later between Israel and Jordan did much to change that trajectory.

Even now, it would be naïve to ignore the impediments: historic distrust, religious intolerance and intractable conflicts of the sort unfolding in Libya. Yet I’ve also sensed something more promising in the air in recent trips to the Middle East, particularly among the young: a frustration with the status quo, a hunger for a better future and an impatience for change.

 That and a more pragmatic generation of national leaders makes possible what Anwar Gargash, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, referred to as the possibility of a “warm peace.” 

What Gargash meant by “warm peace,” in part, was that the UAE’s relationship with Israel can be less complicated because “unlike Jordan and unlike Egypt, we have not fought a war with Israel.” Thus a “warm peace” could be less about ending hostility and more about sharing technology, generating investment, closing business deals and exchanging intelligence to more effectively counter threats from Iran and other potential spoilers.

There’s a long road from here to there. However, one could see possibilities for a more lasting breakthrough in the 20-nation Arab League’s rejection of Palestinian efforts to condemn this week’s agreements. Despite the opposition of their leaders, Palestinians in the end could be the biggest benefactor in a two-state solution embedded in a more vibrant and integrated Middle Eastern economy.

Even President Trump’s harshest critics are giving him and his son-in-law Jared Kushner credit for this Mideast achievement, casting aside traditional thinking that no regional breakthrough was possible until the Israel-Palestine conundrum had been solved.

This deal turns that logic on its head.

“When the most technologically advanced and globalized Arab state, the UAE,” writes Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, “decides to collaborate with the most technologically advanced and globalized non-Arab state in the region, Israel, I suspect new energies will get unlocked and new partnerships forged that should be good for both Arab-Israeli and Jewish-Muslim human-to-human relations.”

What’s been less recognized is the geopolitical importance of these agreements.  The UAE timed its efforts to head off Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, but it was also in response to growing uncertainties about U.S. engagement in the region following three presidents who, each in his own way,  have cast doubt on America’s traditional role as security guarantor.

Arab states, already countering Iran efforts to destabilize the region,  have been increasingly concerned by Turkish encroachments from Libya to Syria and from Somalia to Qatar. Both Iran and Turkey have condemned the agreements, and neither is going away anytime soon.

Major powers are also expanding their presence. Russian intelligence, military and diplomats are increasingly present and active across the region. China has become the top trading partner for Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and its recent historic agreement with Iran looks out 25 years.

In this shifting landscape, how better for the UAE and Bahrain to lock in close security relations with the United States than by normalizing with Israel? If Sudan becomes the next country to normalize, as is expected, it could shift its reputation in Washington overnight from state-sponsor of terror to friend. Morocco and Oman could follow – and a modern, moderate coalition could become reality alongside Egypt and Jordan.

The most dramatic shift in the region would be if Saudi Arabia normalizes with Israel, something Saudi diplomats insist won’t happen until the Palestinians get their two-state solution. That said, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman signaled his support for the UAE-Bahrain agreements through opening Saudi air space for commercial flights to and from Israel.

There’s also significance to what some Saudis on Twitter refer to as the “normalization sermon” on September 5 by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and broadcast on Saudi state television. He spoke of how the Prophet Mohammed was kind to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to convert Jews was to “treat them well.”

It took courage, amid considerable risk, among the parties to reach last week’s agreements. It’s time for international partners to weigh in and support this historic opportunity to convert the region’s heartache to hope.                      

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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