The 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination has set off a bit of nostalgia in some precincts for the euphoria that affected many in Israel and the United States after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. At the time, Shimon Peres’ book, The New Middle East, symbolized the pie-in-the-sky expectations about the peace process. Though all of his predictions proved absurdly and tragically inaccurate, Peres still holds onto his faith in a process that was flawed from the start by placing his trust in a terrorist. He still foolishly blames Prime Minister Netanyahu and not Yasir Arafat for the collapse of his dreams. But while Peres’ idiotic vision of the region turning into a version of the Benelux nations (tell that to Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah), the truth is that there are some things about the real Middle East today that benefit Israel and are every bit as extraordinary as Peres’s fanciful scenario. More importantly, they were achieved by a so-called right wing government staying strong and making common cause with Arabs who share Israel’s fear of Islamists.
This week in a move that stunned the Arab world, Egypt voted with Israel in the United Nations for the first time in its history. Days before that, reports told of Jordanian combat pilots participating in a joint military exercise with Israel and the United States. Neither event is by itself of great significance. But taken together and put in the context of the conflicts in the Middle East that have nothing to do with the Palestinians, they show that that although Israel’s critics harp on its isolation, Israel is no longer completely surrounded by enemies but can, in fact, look at Egypt and Jordan as nominal if not entirely friendly allies.
The vote at the UN was over something relatively minor — membership on the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Affairs — but the mere fact that it was the first time it ever voted for Israel for something is historic. After an avalanche of criticism from the Arab world, the Egyptian government claimed the move was really just a tactical move that might ensure the election of some Arab nations to the committee, too. But that excuse doesn’t hold water, and there’s no denying the symbolism here. After 67 years of fervent opposition that continued even after a peace treaty was signed between the two countries in 1979, the vote indicates just how far the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has moved towards cooperation with the Jewish state since the military toppled the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. Cairo now correctly views Israel as a fellow combatant in the struggle against the Islamists of the Brotherhood, Hamas, and its Iranian allies.
That’s the same view held by Jordan’s government, though, to be fair. King Abdullah and his father, King Hussein, always understood that Israel was a covert ally in the Hashemite regime’s struggle for survival against Palestinian and other radical Muslim foes dating back to the 1970s. The only difference is that, with ISIS on the march and Iran (with the tacit acceptance of the Obama administration) extending its influence across the region, the need for close cooperation with Israel on security matters is now more important than ever.
What this means is that, although Israel’s enemies are still legion, and Palestinians remained mired in a culture of hate and rejectionism, two of the nations that posed the most potent military threat to Israel’s existence in the first decades of its life are now more or less allied with it. Indeed, their governments see eye-to-eye with Netanyahu on all major security matters, including their justified concerns about the implications of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Even as we celebrate these developments, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that anti-Semitism and hate for Israel are still endemic in both Egypt and Jordan. The rising tide of global anti-Semitism that has its roots in the Muslim world still constitutes a potent threat to Israel’s future and requires it to, as Netanyahu correctly noted, “live by the sword” for the foreseeable future.
Would it have been nice if Peres’s vision had come true? Of course, it would have. But as I noted last week, the counter-factual scenarios that are mooted about what would have happened if Rabin lived are as nonsensical as they are anachronistic. Oslo had already started coming apart in a maelstrom of Palestinian terror before his murder. That was way polls showed Rabin being defeated by Netanyahu in the next election at the time of his death. And there is nothing that Rabin could have done to offer a fair settlement to the Palestinians that wouldn’t later put forward by Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert. It is also fair to point out that at the time of his death Rabin was still fervently opposed to an independent Palestinian state or the division of Jerusalem, let alone unilateral withdrawal from the territories.
All of which is to say Peres’s idea that all the spears would be beaten into plowshares didn’t take into account the fact that Palestinian nationalism is inextricably tied to the struggle to eradicate Israel, no matter where its borders would be drawn. Its failure had nothing to do with Netanyahu and everything to do with the Palestinians.
But while we might lament this reality, the situation that Israel now finds itself in is actually far stronger than the one Rabin left behind. Moreover, though not all of his moves or statements have been wise, Netanyahu deserves a great deal of the credit for the Jewish state’s strong economy and a strategic situation that is rooted in a wise refusal to trust in the goodwill of vicious enemies.
President Obama’s disastrous outreach to Iran is partly responsible, and Netanyahu’s new Middle East isn’t the utopia of Peres’s book. But the notion of a Jewish state that can look to Egypt and Jordan as tacit military allies is something that David Ben Gurion could only have dreamed about. And that is something very much worth celebrating.