In September 1993, Arab and Israeli leaders met on the south lawn of the White House to open what they hoped would be a broad avenue to peace. Bill Clinton, then US president, beamed as Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, and Yassir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, shook hands. He saluted their “brave gamble that the future can be better than the past”.
That gamble — the Oslo peace accords — seemed a milestone in conflict resolution. But Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli premier, was elected the following year. Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank continued to expand.
What happened last week on the south lawn, when President Donald Trump played host to Mr Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for the signing of their “normalisation” accords with Israel, is hardly in the same category.
“This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace,” Mr Netanyahu said. But the UAE, much less Bahrain, have never been at war with Israel. So far, this is an upgrade in a discreet but growing relationship based above all on mutual enmity towards Iran.
The grandiosely named Abraham Accords may be a boon to Mr Trump as he enters the final stages of a difficult re-election campaign. It is a boost to Mr Netanyahu, beleaguered by his trial on corruption charges, handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and failure to honour election pledges to annex up to a third of the occupied West Bank. Bahrain’s move was probably prompted by its patron, Saudi Arabia, even though Riyadh is not ready to jump on this bandwagon.
Mr Trump keeps hinting more Arab states are rushing to open relations with Israel, in vindication of his Middle East policies. These are framed to benefit Israel at the expense of the Palestinians and to cripple Iran and its regional proxies with sanctions. The US is renewing attempts to persuade Sudan, for example, that it can be removed from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terror if it follows the UAE and Bahrain and opens relations with Israel.
There is certainly a wind of change blowing through the Gulf. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for many Arab leaders eclipsed by their shared antagonism towards Iran and hostility towards Turkey. Iran’s construction of a paramilitary axis across the Levant through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, and down into Yemen and the Gulf, is seen as a Shia Muslim incursion by new Persian imperialists.
Antipathy at Ankara’s military interventions in Arab countries from Syria to Libya, and towards President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s support of Islamist challengers to the status quo such as the Muslim Brotherhood, is rife from Cairo to Riyadh.
That is one reason the Trump administration is working to end the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, the maverick, gas-rich emirate. The Qataris are allied with Turkey, and have open lines to Iran, with which they share a vast gasfield. But they were pioneers in opening contact with Israel in the 1990s. One way to end the ostracism of their neighbours would be to be so again.
Yet how much of this tentative new dispensation will survive if Mr Trump is defeated by Joe Biden, his Democratic opponent, in November?
Mr Biden is a pro-Israel Democrat. But he wants to go back into some form of the nuclear restraint deal Iran signed in 2015 with the US and five world powers, from which Mr Trump has withdrawn. A President Biden, moreover, may not be as indulgent of Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who has retained Mr Trump’s support despite his recklessness and ruthlessness.
Yet for many new Arab leaders the cause of a Palestinian state is a past overshadowing the future. Many Palestinians have mostly given up on their ossified, faction-ridden and corrupt leaders.
Mr Netanyahu (or a successor) may postpone a de jure incorporation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank inside Israel’s expanded frontiers, while de facto annexation proceeds with the incremental expansion of occupied land.
Taken together, this means the two-state solution — the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — is over, along with the diplomatic formula to end the conflict by trading land for peace. That will gradually force the Palestinians in the occupied territories to seek equal rights within an enlarged Israel.
As Daniel Levy, president of the US Middle East Project and a former peace negotiator after Oslo, put it: “Israelis may, over time, discover that the alternative to ‘land for peace’ with the Palestinians is not ‘peace for peace’ but ‘equality for peace’.” In that event, the present diplomatic breakthroughs with Arab states will provide no shield against a stormy future for Israel.
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