The Arab-Israel Conflict is Over! Has Anyone Noticed?
By Paul Scham
Pardon me, but has anyone realized that the conflict between Israel and the Arab states, which defined Israel’s life since its establishment in 1948, is over? That there is no serious threat to Israel from any or all Arab states, nor has any (important) Arab leader attacked Israel’s legitimacy for years? Not only did four new Arab states join Egypt and Jordan in establishing full relations with Israel in the last year and a half, but there’s a likelihood that Saudi Arabia will do so when King Salman (currently 85 and ailing) shuffles off this mortal coil and his son, the notorious MBS (Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman), takes over. Not only are we coming up to the 50th anniversary of the last full-scale state-to-state Arab Israel war (which began on Yom Kippur of 1973), but Arab states are now genuinely looking to Israel for protection, rather than calling for its destruction. Who would have thought…?
Of course, no one claims Israel is conflict-free. There is the matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Israel only officially recognized in 1993, which drags on with no end in sight, and also of Iran and its allies, Syria and Hezbollah. And it’s true that if you took a plebiscite in the Arab world, Israel would not prove to be popular. But nothing in the Arab world is decided by popular vote, anyway; it’s the governments that count, and most of them are either actively and openly dealing with Israel, or else have no need to do so but would probably join the party if sufficiently induced.
For 45 years, until it recognized the PLO in 1993, Israel maintained that the only reason for the conflict was the Arab states’ refusal to recognize the reality of Israel’s existence. Two generation of Israelis grew up with that mantra, and many still seem to believe it. The assumption of enmity still seems to inform much Israeli discourse. Micah Goodman’s popular book Catch-67, published in English in 2018 (two years before the Abraham Accords were unveiled), takes the “fact” of absolute and perpetual Arab (and Islamic) enmity for granted, seemingly with no need to devote even a paragraph to proving the proposition.
In 1923, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the sainted father of the Israeli right wing (at least nominally, though he might well disavow his progeny if he came back to life nowadays), in his most famous essay, posited the need for an “Iron Wall” between the future Jewish State and the “Palestine Arabs.” He saw no possibility of persuading Arabs to accept Jewish hegemony but, when they eventually recognized the Jewish state was in the Middle East to stay, would accept that reality. Moreover, he wrote “And when that happens, I am convinced that we Jews will be found ready to give them satisfactory guarantees, so that both peoples can live together in peace, like good neighbours.”
Jabotinsky was gifted with remarkable prescience (he was one of the few Jewish leaders to predict the Holocaust in the 1930s), and he was absolutely right both about the wall and about the Arabs. Israel did build an effective military wall (long before the current physical security barrier was conceived) and gradually the Arab states recognized that not only was Israel not going away, but, rather, it had become a status quo power like them, and eventually many of them wanted, even needed, it to stick around and share in its military, scientific, and technological prowess. The iron wall has served its purpose, but Jabotinsky never dreamed that the inhabitants of the Jewish state in the 21st century would have trouble recognizing that things had fundamentally changed, and that they would refuse to dismantle the “wall,” with respect, at least, to the “Palestinian Arabs.”
Admittedly, much of this realization is new. Until the Abraham Accords were actually signed in August 2020 (the only act I am aware of for which we can and should thank Donald Trump), most informed observers knew that the Gulf Arab states and others were happy to engage in sub rosa trade and intelligence ties with Israel, but were sure that few, if any, Arab states would join Egypt and Jordan to openly normalize with Israel without a fair and consensual settlement of the concurrent and perpetually bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Paradoxically, the only one who championed a peace without Palestine was Bibi Netanyahu, though given his worldview that Israel would always have to live by the sword, he might not have really quite believed it himself. The left, including me, dismissed that claim as a chimera. We were quite sure the Arab states would never openly and formally abandon the Palestinians. We were wrong about that. Bibi was right.
Of course, we on the left are right (i.e., correct) that “The Conflict” writ large won’t be over until there is a fair and consensual settlement with the Palestinians (which I, personally, think will have to involve at least some aspects of Confederation, but I’ll bypass that for the moment). And by no means am I denigrating the seriousness of the Iran-Israel conflict, though no one seems to agree what that war is about (most wars are really about something). So I’m not asserting that Israel can turn its drones into the modern equivalent of pruning hooks. But who can? If Israel is indeed to be a nation “like all the others,” it needs enemies and an arsenal, which almost all nations have, wherever they are located. The claim that Israel is uniquely under threat of extinction expired years ago; attempts to define BDS and anti-normalization as constituting such threats are laughable.
Obviously, recognition that the Israeli-Arab conflict is over doesn’t imply the lion lying down with the lamb or anything of the sort, but doesn’t it deserve to be acknowledged? However, it probably can’t be. The left (rightly) thinks nothing is settled until the core Palestinian basis of the conflict is dealt with, which seems further off than ever, while the right is unlikely to give up its deep-seated belief that “they” (i.e., everyone) will always hate the Jews and, like Micah Goodman, claim that Israel must therefore hang on to the West Bank, perhaps forever. Thus, the present stalemate.
The right is angry to find that that peace with the Arab states isn’t really peace, while the left can’t accept that peace with the Arab states has come (or is coming) through abandonment of the Palestinians.
So, even if the Arab-Israel conflict is over—and I maintain that it is—I don’t expect any cheers or celebrations. Rather, we see a long, hard road ahead, no matter what we call it.
Paul Scham is President of Partners for Progressive Israel and the Director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.