In a momentous announcement on Thursday, President Donald Trump revealed that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. This is not merely a dramatic victory for the region’s peace-loving peoples but a political coup for the Trump administration, though they must share this success with their predecessors in the Obama White House. If the 44th President’s efforts to isolate Israel and reconfigure geopolitics in the Middle East hadn’t backfired so spectacularly, none of this would be happening.
The deal that makes the UAE only the third Arab state to make formal peace with Israel seems at first glance to be wholly agreeable. The UAE agreed to the re-establishment of diplomatic ties in advance of a framework for direct, bilateral relations. Dubai will invest in Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine project, and both countries will welcome direct passenger flights. In exchange, Israel has dropped Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign trail promise to unilaterally annex Palestinian territories in the West Bank—a project that he was unlikely to pursue in the absence of a broader peace deal anyway. Nevertheless, the fig leaf provides Dubai with something to show for its troubles, paving the way for its Arab allies to follow suit. This paltry concession also underscores the reality of the situation: This agreement was less the result of a diplomatic breakthrough than an acknowledgment of the facts on the ground.
The Arab and Muslim-dominated states around Israel have been warming to the Jewish state for several years. In 2018, Netanyahu visited the state of Oman—the first trip of its kind since 1996. That same year, Saudi Araba terminated a 70-year-old ban on Israel-bound flights from entering its airspace. Last October, Israel announced that it would participate in the 2020 World Expo scheduled to take place in Dubai. This past January, Israel reestablished diplomatic ties with Chad.
The Trump administration has made it a priority to nurture this budding thaw in relations between Jerusalem and the Muslim world, and they’ve enjoyed much success. But the fact is that it was the Obama administration that showed the region’s Sunni Arab capitals that there were greater near-term threats to worry about than Israel.
Over the course of Obama’s presidency, Iran and its Shiite proxies in the region—particularly in Iraq—were empowered and emboldened by Washington amid the White House’s pursuit of a nuclear deal. In Obama’s haste to withdraw from the region, the unready Iraqi Security Forces were bolstered by Iran-backed Shiite militias, and Baghdad became a de facto proxy for Tehran. This, in concert with the regularization of contacts between Washington and Iran for the first time in 40 years, convinced the Saudi Kingdom that it had better hedge its bets—Washington could no longer be counted on to guarantee its security. This realization was followed by another: Israel is not an imminent threat to the security of the Sunni states, but Iran is. The enemy of my enemy…
The Trump administration has done what it can to roll back Iran’s influence in the region and restore relations with Washington’s historic partners, but Israel’s new ties with its erstwhile Arab adversaries survived this reversal. The durability of this new set of relationships demonstrates that there is no going back to the Obama-era status quo.
Within the Democratic Party, a grassroots and highly ideological effort is underway to sever the party’s ties—whatever remains of them—to the state of Israel. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who easily survived a well-funded challenge from a more pro-Israel Democratic candidate, has claimed that American lawmakers who support the Jewish state have been bought off by Jewish money. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has warned that Israel risks becoming an “apartheid state.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib has objected to Israel-related legislation that does not savage the Jewish state for presiding over an “illegal occupation” of Palestinian lands.
Cori Bush, an activist who defeated the relatively pro-Israel Rep. William Lacy Clay in their Missouri primary race, campaigned explicitly on her support for a boycott of the Jewish state. “Cori Bush has always been sympathetic to the BDS movement,” a campaign statement read, “and she stands in solidarity with the Palestinian people, just as they have stood in solidarity with Black Americans fighting for their own lives.” Elliot Engel, another longtime Democratic congressman who was ousted by an insurgent progressive challenger, will be replaced by a candidate who campaigned on “conditioning” aid to Israel because it is actively “committing human rights violations.”
Indeed, even before the rise of The Squad and their allies, a contingent of progressive congressional Democrats sought to bar the disbursement of U.S. military aid to Israel under the guise that its treatment of Palestinians was “inconsistent with the values of the United States.” These lawmakers aren’t going out on a limb—they are responding to the demands of the Democratic base. In 2019, A Gallup survey found that, while most Americans maintained favorable views toward Israel, “liberal Democrats” had become more sympathetic toward Palestinians overall.
Joe Biden does not appear eager to cater to this wing of their party. He has said that he will preserve the U.S. embassy’s new home in Jerusalem. He would return to the Iran nuclear accords only if and when Iran is no longer in violation of its terms—an unlikely prospect. He has even praised, albeit obliquely, the work the Trump administration did to yield today’s achievement. “The UAE’s offer to publicly recognize the State of Israel is a welcome, brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship,” Biden said in a statement. “A Biden-Harris Administration will seek to build on this progress and will challenge all the nations of the region to keep pace.”
Perhaps Joe Biden is friendlier to Israel than his party’s progressives, but these statements are not the product of an abiding affection for Israel. They are acknowledgments of the world as it is. There is no going back to the status quo circa 2015. The United States cannot abandon its strategic commitments to the region and its partners in pursuit of the fanciful idea that Iran will suddenly become a responsible actor, or that the Sunni states it is currently at war with by proxy will acquiesce to their own defeat. If he becomes America’s 46th president, Biden will have to govern—and preserving America’s interests in the Middle East involves maintaining its alliances and partnerships.
Biden’s left flank remains committed to the hidebound notion that Israel is the true obstacle to peace in the region, but the region itself has moved on. What seems to look like progress to progressives would, in fact, be regression.