US President Joe Biden faces a dramatic choice in planning his upcoming, awkwardly timed visit to an Israel facing yet another election (because we love democracy soooo much). He can phone it in, following the conventional playbook as though he were visiting the old Middle East, or he can think outside the box and make a bold, game-changing visit to the New Middle East.
Biden should put his personal stamp on the Abraham Accords, making Israel’s new multidimensional ties to many Arab countries a bipartisan, all-American, achievement. He and Prime Minister Yair Lapid should be gracious, and acknowledge Donald Trump’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s singular contributions to orchestrating this breakthrough. Then, by extending the network of peace to include Saudi Arabia – and perhaps other countries thereafter – Biden and Lapid can share ownership of the greatest leap toward Middle East peace in decades, rescuing it from the partisan crossfire.
If, as a politician, Biden must put his mark on things, why not push the Saudis to join the accords fully, renaming them the Abraham-and-Sarah Accords? This will emphasize the move from the tired 1970s cry of “Peace Now” to Peace More – the more peace we have involving more neighbors, the more every Middle Eastern man and woman benefits.
In an important analysis posted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, its executive director, Robert Satloff, urged Biden to treat Saudi Arabia’s leaders warmly, respectfully. Beyond securing the oil America needs to lower inflation, Biden should try fueling the two most dramatic changes sweeping the kingdom: “a dramatic sociocultural-economic reorientation of domestic Saudi life designed to unleash the human resources of the Saudi population – female and male,” and a “foreign policy shift away from supporting” all the extremist Islamists the Saudis funded for decades.
The best way to advance human rights is by looking forward, not backward, encouraging these moves – along with a genuine peace with Israel.
ONCE IN Israel, please, please, Mr. President, spare us another useless, counterproductive lecture about “the” settlements.
First, when you say “settlements,” Palestinians and Bash-Israel-Firsters hear “all of Israel.” Your admonition only validates their rejectionism and violence.
Second, when you say “the,” you also enable the extremists who don’t distinguish between, say, a reunited Jerusalem – forcibly ripped from the heart of the Jewish people in 1948; a restored Gush Etzion – brutally overrun by Jordanians as Israel was established; suburban settlements – which we call “communities” well within the Israeli popular consensus; and outlying outposts that even Netanyahu distanced himself from and many Israelis might sacrifice for a genuine peace.
If Biden sincerely believes in a two-state solution, he must abandon the rhetoric treating the artificially improvised “West Bank” as one organic entity, wholly belonging to the Palestinians. That implicitly denies Israel’s legitimate claims to land so central to the Jewish national heritage. To respect the complexity of two peoples in love with the same land, Biden must reject the Palestinians’ false, all-or-nothing narrative negating the Jewish ties there.
Starting from a different place, appreciating Jews’ deep ties to the Jewish homeland, need not negate Palestinian nationalism. It could, however, lead to a deeper conversation and more creative yet realistic solutions.
In that spirit, Biden should learn two key lessons from the Abraham and Sarah Accords. These accords work so effectively as people-to-people, bottom-up agreements, reinforced culturally, economically and personally, not just diplomatically.
Biden should consult with democracy experts and experts at bridge-building – including the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act activists who note that 30-times more money was invested in facilitating Catholic-Protestant dialogue before the Northern Irish peace progress.
He should advance people-to-people programs and champion civil society, to build trust and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. America should develop joint economic projects – starting with the Palestinian hi-tech types from Silicon Wadi. And yes, admit that each initiative is intended as a nail in the coffin of the Palestinians’ Jew-hating, peaceaphobic, boycott and anti-normalization strategy.
At the same time, start leveraging the Abraham and Sarah accords – using Emirati, Bahraini and Saudi investors for certain initiatives Palestinians might otherwise reject from Jewish investors.
For example, rather than viewing current Israeli plans to develop Givat Hamatos in south Jerusalem and E1 to Jerusalem’s east as obstacles to peace, turn them into opportunities to boost quality of life. Speak to Palestinians and Israelis on the ground in Jerusalem, not the Israeli, American and Palestinian Perennial Peace Processors addicted to yesterday’s Oslo-addled thinking, who can’t think new thoughts, because they’ve built their careers around their stale ideas facilitating stalemate.
Real Jerusalemites will describe how crunched people feel by the housing shortage and how worried they are that their own kids cannot afford to move into their parent’s neighborhoods. Rather than demonizing Israel for building, why not have Arab investors fund parallel housing projects for Palestinians? Such win-win creativity will use Abraham and Sarah Accords money to improve conditions for everyone, while proving how cooperation can be mutually beneficial.
That’s the Peace More message. Deprive the extremists of oxygen by suffocating them with love and investment, joint ventures and genuine improvements. And change the focus, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, from an unhealthy all-or-nothing obsession with boosting “my” symbols at “your” expense, to building our region and bettering our lives together, creatively, constructively.
President Biden knows that for decades America has been stuck in yesterday’s paradigm. Here’s his chance to embrace a vision for tomorrow, that has already started paying off today.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.