Israel’s Separate Peace with the Arab World: How We Got Here and Where We Go Now

by Jacob Laufgraben

With a raging pandemic, severe economic downturn, intense racial strife, and a tumultuous presidential election all captivating the attention of the American public, they might have been remiss in some of the most consequential agreements to come out of the Middle East in decades. For better or worse, America has played a crucial role in building the social order of the modern Middle East, so it’s important that the public is informed on what happens there, especially considering that these new agreements were brokered by the United States and involve some of our closest allies and partners in the region. 

Over the past couple of months, three Arab countries that had previously refused to normalize relations with Israel came to agreements to do just that. These countries, in chronological order of their peace deals, are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Sudan. Up until now, they practiced a policy of hostile non-recognition of Israel that had existed since the country’s formation in 1948. It was solidified at a 1967 summit of the Arab League, an international organization of Arab countries. At this summit in Khartoum, ironically the capital of Sudan, the infamous resolution containing the words “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it” was passed.

 The resolution and summit came in the wake of the Six Day War, the result of which was a swift victory for Israel against Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. This was actually the third major war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, and miraculously the tiny nation beat back their enemies, many times their size, each time. Yet between the Khartoum resolution and 2020, two other Arab countries have recognized the state of Israel, both of which Israel spent much of their early history at war with. The first to make peace with Israel was Egypt, the largest and most powerful of Israel’s adversaries. 

After the Six Day War Israel came to occupy many of the territories of their enemies, including the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt. Israel and Egypt went to war once again in 1973 in an attempt by the Egyptians to retake the Sinai. After an initial stalemate, the Israeli forces eventually crossed the Suez Canal and came within striking distance of Cairo. Following a UN brokered ceasefire, Israel agreed to retreat it’s army back into the Sinai. They would occupy the peninsula for another four years until the Israeli and Egyptian leaders, in an attempt to end the near constant state of war between their two countries met to begin negotiations. 

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Israeli Prime Minister in 1977 and addressed the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, calling for permanent peace. Following intense arbitration, mediated by United States President Jimmy Carter, a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was drafted and signed in 1979. In addition to normalizing relations between the two countries, it mandated that Israel withdraw from the Sinai. The treaty also called for the establishment of autonomy for Palestinians, and laid the groundwork for the Oslo Accords, which would create the Palestinan Authority.

The second Arab country to recognize Israel was Jordan, who Israel had wrestled East Jerusalem and the West Bank from following the Six Day War. The peace treaty between them, signed in 1994, settled disputed land and water boundaries and established mutual relations between the two countries. 

Both of these treaties faced fierce criticism from the rest of the Arab League, but they were greatly beneficial for Israel, as their longest borders are with Egypt and Jordan. But the more recent peace agreements also didn’t come out of nowhere. And as much as President Trump might like us to think, he doesn’t deserve most of the credit for these historic agreements.

The official normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel in 2020 was the culmination of a series of steps the two countries took to come closer together in pursuit of their shared interests. In 2019, Israel and the UAE announced that their militaries would be cooperating. This occurred amidst rising tensions between both countries and their mutual enemy, Iran. Bahrain similarly decided to establish ties with Israel, largely because of their adversarial relationship with Iran. Meanwhile Sudan normalized relations under persuasion from President Trump, who had agreed to remove Sudan from a list of terror-sponsoring states as part of the agreement.

These countries had for a long time refused to acknowledge Israel, at least nominally, because of Israel’s occupation and relations of the Palestinian people. But while five Arab states have now made peace with Israel, they remain no less committed to fighting for the rights of Palestinians. And now because they actually have a relationship with Israel, they’re in a better position to do so. This is evident in the fact that as part of their agreement with UAE, Israel agreed to halt their plans to annex the West Bank.

These peace deals have brought us closer to a permanent peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Most members of the Arab League still subscribe to the Khartoum Resolution. So the next logical step for Israel is to come to similar agreements with other Arab countries.

Experts think Oman is the next country to seek detente with Israel, but the most important country for Israel to secure peace with is Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose government subscribes to a fundametalist interpretation of Islam, but they are also involved in a large scale proxy conflict with Iran.

These two Muslim countries have been engaged in different sides of armed conflicts in the Middle East for years, including the Syrian Civil War and the conflict in Yemen. So it’s only natural that Israel aligns themselves with Saudi Arabia, as Iran, and their proxies, have promised to wipe Israel off the map. Additionally, Israel and Saudi Arabia are both close partners of the United States, who can serve as a mediator between the two countries.

America certainly has something to gain from bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia together. US presidents have long recognized the threat that Iran poses to the world order, as well as stability and peace in the region. President Obama oversaw the signing of the Iran Nuclear Deal, an agreement between Iran, the United States and our Western allies which sought to diplomatically halt Iran’s creation of nuclear weapons.

Even Trump, less tactfully though, imposed sanctions on Iran to try to mitigate their power. Iran is one of America’s as well as liberal democracy’s greatest threats. So by negotiating a peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia we can corner the Ayatollah and his fundamentalist mullahs, and increase our soft power in the region.

If Israel and Saudi Arabia do make peace, they can work together to inhibit the Iranian threat and fight their terrorist proxies. The future of a region that has for so long been consumed by conflict is being written before our eyes. No one can be certain what is to come, but three countries making peace with their previous enemies in the matter of months is encouraging, and worthy of celebration.