By Paul Scham
Palestinians and the Israeli left, as well as their sympathizers abroad, have a choice to make – and so far I haven’t seen indications that they are handling it well. That choice is whether to support and build on the so-called “Abraham Accords,” signed on September 15, 2020, which seemed to be part of the now-defunct “Deal of the Century” when announced but now appear to be the only (arguably) positive part of Trump’s Middle East legacy. The alternative is to ignore them, which would be a serious mistake.
I was scornful of the Abraham Accords when they were rolled out, seeing them (rightly, I still think) as a baldly transparent effort to avoid dealing with the real issue in the conflict which, since 1967, has always been primarily about Palestinian national rights and the occupation. What I didn’t expect was that the UAE and Bahrain, and subsequently Sudan and Morocco, were so ready to ignore the stigma of “normalization” and establish full and open diplomatic relations with Israel. Obviously, the sweeteners the United States offered were integral to their acceptance of the Accords: permission to purchase F-35’s in the case of the UAE and, for Sudan, its removal from the U.S. list of supporters of state terrorism. Morocco received perhaps the greatest prize: U.S. endorsement of its bitterly disputed annexation of Western Sahara, where it has battled fierce indigenous resistance since Morocco occupied it in 1974 (that irony is clear).
We also shouldn’t forget that in July and August of 2020, we were anticipating that then Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared ready to go ahead with annexing some portion of the West Bank, having been given the go-ahead by Trump’s “peace plan.” When the UAE announced it would recognize Israel, it claimed that its action headed off the bruited annexation. It’s still not precisely clear if that explains why Bibi didn’t annex as we expected, but he has never been an ardent annexationist, while acquiring diplomatic relations with Arab countries has always been a major objective of his, at least as trophies. And I, unlike some others on the left, hew to the traditional view that annexation is always bad and preventing it is always good, barring unusual circumstances.
Almost two years on, to all appearances, the Accords are thriving. The UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco have established full diplomatic relations with Israel. Sudan is currently embroiled in the aftermath of a military coup and, at least at this point, its stance toward Israel is unclear.
Of course, the biggest diplomatic prize for the Accords would be endorsement by Saudi Arabia. Public recognition of Israel by his kingdom is a step too far for King Salman, the latest and almost certainly the last of Ibn Saud’s sons to rule the Kingdom. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (the notorious “MBS”), however, has shown he recognizes few constraints—and my guess is that recognition of Israel is likely to be one of his first acts when he becomes king. King Salman is currently 85 and has been reported to be in poor health ever since he began his reign in 2015. MBS’s succession seems assured. It is a potent signal of how things have changed that President Biden is coming to the Middle East in July to repair badly frayed relations with Saudi Arabia, while Saudi-Israeli relations are (seemingly) always getting better. Biden may arrive in an Israel whose governmental coalition is about to collapse, which is not really too bad, as he doesn’t seem to have much that’s new to discuss.
Should progressives support this process, given our recognition that every new step along this road is one seemingly away from any settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or, as some argue, should it be accepted because it is a step further towards the one-state solution that increasing numbers of Palestinians and leftists maintain has, in fact, all but arrived?
Personally, I believe that we on the left are obliged to actively support the reality of Israel’s relations with increasing numbers of Arab states. Acceptance of Israel in the Middle East is a desirable goal, even if Israel is not the state we wish it to be, nor is the Middle East’s political climate anything resembling democratic. Thus, to repurpose the already clichéd statement of David Ben-Gurion at the beginning of World War II, we should accept Arab recognition of Israel as if there was no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we should fight for Palestinian national and civil rights despite the apparent withdrawal of many Arab states from that cause.
One recent example of the good that is flowing from the Accords is the agreement in Dubai announced last November between Israel, Jordan, and the UAE, brokered by John Kerry, for a massive deal involving Jordanian use of its solar resources to produce electricity, which will be traded to Israel in return for significant amounts of desalinated water, badly needed by Jordan. The UAE will finance, probably do the construction for (and profit from) the deal. My understanding is that Palestinian participation would be welcome, but Ramallah is refusing because of its antipathy to the Abraham Accords, under which umbrella the deal was formulated, which is understandable but regressive and ineffective. Palestinians have a long history of refusing to recognize and act on political realities in a timely manner, thus missing any number of boats over the last century. There is every reason to believe that the Abraham Accords will continue—and even flourish. Why wait until Palestinian refusal is part of the landscape—and eventual Palestinian participation will come with little leverage?
And what about the one-state debate that is au courant? Is one state now inevitable—or already here, as is increasingly maintained by Ian Lustick and many others? Can anyone really believe that a two-state solution is even conceivable, much less viable? Both sides are currently thoroughly stalemated; Israel by its anti-Bibi coalition agreement of strange bedfellows and now elections, with no idea when a government may be formed, and the Palestinians by their institutional incapacity in the face of the entrenched occupation. What should progressives look towards, if they’re not willing to give up in utter frustration?
I agree that the same old same old two-state solution (2SS) is almost certainly dead but, in my view, 2SS 2.0 is concurrently being unveiled. It’s called confederation, but it corrects some of the flaws in the old two-state model that most of us have shut our eyes to for the last 30 years while we thought that it was possible in its conventional form—or even imminent. Eretz l’Kulam (A Land for All) is the primary organization comprising Israelis, Palestinians, and others to publicize, explain, and advance confederation as a politically viable option.
We can recognize now that the first nail in the conventional two-state solution’s coffin is Ariel Sharon’s revenge from the grave. In his role as The Bulldozer, he openly sought to build so many settlements that the two-state solution could never be implemented. He—and others with that goal—have succeeded, and that needs to be acknowledged. Whatever you count as a “settlement” (French Hill? Gilo? Neve Yaakov? Ariel? Hebron?) and however many settlers you can keep in their homes by artfully arranging borders, at least 100,000 will have to be moved out. That will never be politically possible for any imaginable Israeli government and, for me, that is a practical and irrefutable argument against a conventional, hard-bordered two-state solution. The fact that it may be technically possible is thus irrelevant. Confederation’s premise is that settlements would remain, contingent, of course, on their inhabitants recognizing Palestinian sovereignty.
There is also the increasingly powerful ideological argument, which shades into the theological. Neither the Jewish nor the Palestinian/Muslim attachment to the “Holy Land” can be limited by the Green Line or the border wall, wherever it may be placed. Even apart from religious Zionists, few who are alive in Israel today can remember the day-to-day reality of being hemmed in by an impassible and largely arbitrary armistice line before 1967 or would be happy to have that reinstated. In addition, the demographic and political reality of Israel’s and Palestine’s increased religionization must be recognized. There is, again, no border that could be drawn to contain it.
However, neither can the solution of “no borders west of the Jordan” resulting in “one democratic state” succeed in the Israeli-Palestinian reality. Jamming together two peoples in approximately equal numbers who have fought each other all their lives in conditions of extreme power disparities and expecting them to adjust expeditiously to treating the “Other” equally cannot work, even over time. Two peoples, both suffering from inflamed nationalisms since the death of Oslo, who are forced together in a single polity, are unlikely to be able to create, much less maintain, a functional government.
There is no doubt that confederation appears somewhat utopian given the current reality, but so is every solution that posits a consensual, functional, and peaceful end to the conflict. More so than any other solution, though, confederation is inherently flexible and can be configured to fit different degrees of separation and integration. It is certainly no harder to imagine than it is to posit Jewish Israelis giving up on any form of a Jewish state, which is the only reality most have ever lived under.
Both of these positions—accepting the Abraham Accords and confederation—involve pills that are difficult for the Israeli left, and even more so for Palestinians, to swallow. The Accords emanated from the most anti-Palestinian U.S. president, Trump, and were specially designed to diminish the Palestinian cause in the eyes of Arab states, taking advantage of so-called “Palestine fatigue,” combined with what were, in essence, bribes. Confederation, for its part, requires both the Israeli left and Palestinians to accept the permanent presence of the settlements, which we have rightly regarded as enemies of peace and coexistence since 1967. Realities change, however, and political movements that do not adjust find themselves on the margins—or even in the dustbins—of history. Both the Israeli left and the Palestinian national movement—facing existential crises as they are—need to come to terms with that historical truth.
Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Palestine-Israel Journal earlier this year. Reprinted with permission..
Paul Scham is President of Partners for Progressive Israel and the Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.