The flight path to hope

The Middle East is changing. But how much?

In a momentous development, the first direct commercial flight between Israel and a Gulf state took place today. El Al flight 971, bearing a greeting of peace painted on its fuselage in Arabic, Hebrew and English and carrying White House adviser and First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner,  US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Israel’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, flew from Ben Gurion airport to Abu Dhabi.

For those eagerly tracking the flight, there was a particularly emotional moment when the Israeli plane passed through Saudi Arabian airspace, at one point over Riyadh. 

For so long, Saudi Arabia has been the epicentre of Sunni Islamic hostility to Israel. Until now, Israeli aircraft were denied passage through its airspace. But the normalisation agreement with the UAE which gave rise to flight 971 could not have happened without  the Saudis’ approval. Might one now dare to hope that a new and positive chapter is now opening in the century-old war against Israel’s existence by the Arab world?

On the Ben Gurion tarmac, Kushner said:

I prayed yesterday at the Western Wall [in Jerusalem] that Muslims and Arabs from throughout the world will be watching this flight recognising that we are all children of God and that the future does not have to be predetermined by the past. 

Before the flight, the UAE repealed its 1972 law boycotting products from Israel and economic contacts with Israelis. The proposed full normalisation of diplomatic ties between the two countries is of course highly significant, opening up huge trading and diplomatic possibilities that could potentially transform Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. But the normalisation agreement has not yet been signed, and despite today’s celebrations the path ahead may not be without drama.

The atmosphere already soured last week over the Trump administration’s plan to sell the UAE the ultra-advanced F-35 fighter jet, threatening Israel’s military dominance in the region.

Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, publicly signalled his opposition to the F-35 deal; whereupon the UAE pulled its scheduled high-level meetings with Israel until the matter was “clarified”.

That matter has been parked for now. But hopes that other Arab states would now also normalise their relations with Israel were somewhat dampened last week when Sudan and Oman indicated they might not yet be ready to do so.

Nevertheless, it’s been claimed that the Palestinians have now been abandoned, losing their power of veto over peace between the Arab world and Israel.

The UAE deal does indeed represent the Palestinian nightmare of “normalisation” — Arab acceptance of Israel as a legitimate country enjoying a peaceful and productive relationship with its neighbours.

The question remains, though, whether the Arabs really have decided to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Saudi Arabia said in the wake of the deal that it wouldn’t recognise Israel before a Palestinian state is agreed.

There’s no shortage of experts who say that the Arab world’s thaw towards Israel is merely based on short-term tactical considerations. After all, it continues to pump out a deep, theological hatred of the Jews.

The jury on this is very much out. There’s evidence (although still very small) of hitherto unthinkable sympathy for Jews and Israel among scholars and other public figures in the Arab world, who couldn’t express such thoughts without tacit approval from their rulers.

There can be little doubt that the UAE agreement has confounded those who promote the myth that peace eludes the region because Israel refuses to accept the Palestinians’ demands.

And despite the glitches, it’s unlikely that the agreement will unravel. For the major impulse behind it is the great fear among the Gulf Arabs of the growing power of Iran, which continually attacks and undermines them.

They understand that they badly need both Israel and the US to continue to weaken the Iranian regime. And like Israel, they are terrified that Joe Biden may win November’s US presidential election and reverse this process.

They believe a Biden administration would repeat the nightmare Obama years, empowering Iran through revitalising the 2015 nuclear deal which threatened to allow it to build nuclear weapons under the mere fig-leaf of a delay.

So they want to help President Trump stay in office by giving him the presumed electoral boost of a triumphant “historic peace” signing ceremony between Israel and the UAE on the White House lawn.

What’s actually making the Palestinians irrelevant, therefore, is Iran: the major threat not just to Israel and the Sunni Arab world but also to America and the west.

Yet at the UN Security Council earlier this month, the UK helped Russia, China and others scupper a US proposal, backed by the Gulf states, to extend the UN arms embargo against Iran.

After this defeat, the US proposed to activate the “snapback” provisions in the 2015 deal which would reimpose all previous UN sanctions against Iran. Yet astoundingly, the UK is helping to sabotage this too at the UN, in tandem once again with Russia and China.

This appalling policy drew strong words from Netanyahu last week when he met Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, in Jersualem.

Raab was reportedly in the region to push for a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and to urge Israel to abandon altogether its suspended “annexation” plans.

The UK is therefore still peddling the falsehood that Israel isn’t legally entitled to exercise sovereignty over the disputed territories — a falsehood that helps perpetuate Palestinian rejectionism and hysteria, and which therefore has the blood of Israelis on its hands.

Nor was prime minister Boris Johnson other than mealy-mouthed when, despite hailing the UAE agreement as “hugely good news,” he immediately linked this to his “profound hope that annexation did not go ahead in the West Bank”, and said the suspension of that plan was “a welcome step on the road to a more peaceful Middle East”.

The Middle East is changing, but the Brits haven’t got the memo.

This is an updated version of a piece that was published in the Jewish Chronicle last Friday.

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