Two years ago next month, August 13, 2020, I received a call from a government source. “Get ready for 6 p.m. in Jerusalem,” the official said. A big announcement was coming out that morning in Washington.
The official refused to provide more detail, so we didn’t have much opportunity to prepare for that night’s edition of the paper. We speculated in the editorial office what could be the announcement, wondering whether Israel was annexing the West Bank. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised to do so earlier that year. It was a natural possibility.
What came was unexpected. At about 11 a.m. in D.C. – 6 p.m. in Jerusalem – president Donald Trump announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates had agreed to normalize diplomatic relations. It was the beginning of what would become known as the Abraham Accords, which would later include Bahrain and Morocco.
In the two years that have passed, ties between Israel and the three countries have flourished. There have been moments of tension and disagreements, but for the most part, relations have grown with the support of all governments. Israel and Bahrain signed a security agreement in February, Israel and the UAE signed a free trade agreement in May, and this week, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi was in Morocco.
Yet with all the success over the past two years, there has been one blatant missed opportunity: translating the triumph of the Abraham Accords into progress in Israeli relations with the Palestinians.
The Abraham Accords showed what is possible between Israel and Arab nations. They showed what can happen when countries put aside their differences and decide to work for the benefit of their people. At the same time, the success has been difficult to replicate not only in the wider region, as no country has joined in the last two years, but also closer to home for Israelis and Palestinians.
It is something to think about when listening to the argument that Likud members have been using for the past two weeks to attack Prime Minister Yair Lapid. MK Yuli Edelstein, for example, accused Lapid of “bringing the Palestinians back to the world’s agenda.”
A few days earlier, the Likud Party put out a statement in response to Lapid’s phone call with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “After a decade in which Netanyahu removed the Palestinian issue from the world agenda, Lapid and [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz are bringing Abu Mazen back to the center of the world stage,” said Netanyahu’s party.
In the week since President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, the attacks have continued. Likud members are spreading unverified reports that Lapid is planning another Oslo Accord, and that the current prime minister is on a mission to make concessions to the Palestinians.
These Likud members know that party leader Netanyahu implemented the Oslo Accords and later signed the Hebron Agreement. Nevertheless, they pretend he didn’t, and instead take misplaced pride in removing the Palestinians from the world’s agenda.
The Palestinian issue is not a problem for the world; it is a problem for Israel. It is not a conflict that the world needs to solve; it is a conflict that Israel needs to solve. And pushing it off the world’s agenda is not some success; it just means that we have kicked the can down the road.
Ignoring a problem is not a strategy. It might feel good in the short term and appear like some sort of victory, but it does not mean that the problem has gone away. It hasn’t. And while it might not be seen, it is, indeed, just around the corner.
Israel is now at a unique moment in time when it can take steps that can improve its security, improve its relations with the Palestinians, and even improve the chances for a long-term resolution when one will be possible (with the current leadership in Ramallah, there is little chance right now for a resolution).
Why? Here are three reasons.
1) The accords that were signed two years ago.
These alliances in the region can serve as models for what is possible and what can be created with the Palestinians. A tangible example is the deal signed in November to create a power plant in Jordan that will send electricity to the Palestinians and Israel, and then a desalination plant in Israel that will send water to Jordan.
The funding is coming from the UAE.
That is just one manifestation of how the accords can be used to leverage relations with the Palestinians. There are more opportunities, but Israel needs to want to use them.
2) Israel today is strong.
While some of our political leaders want to scare us about futuristic supposed existential threats, there is nothing today that directly threatens the existence of the State of Israel. Is there more that could be done to improve Israeli security? Always. But when you look out at the region, there is little doubt which country is the most powerful – in the Middle East and beyond.
Does it not make sense to take steps toward a lasting resolution from a position of power? I would think so. That would be better than at a time when Israel is weak, under attack and diplomatically isolated.
3) Now is a unique time in history.
Now is a unique time in history because even knowing that a full resolution is not in the cards, Israel can still focus on attainable objectives that are far from constituting any kind of painful territorial or security concession.
Take the policy instituted by the Bennett-Lapid government to allow Palestinians from Gaza into Israel for work. Last month, with little publicity, Israel increased the number of Gazans allowed into Israel by 2,000, up to 14,000 on a daily basis.
The idea to let in workers had been on the table for years but was consistently rejected by Netanyahu. Bennett and Lapid decided to take a calculated gamble, and so far it has paid off, providing people in Gaza with income, improving their quality of life, building relationships, and creating more pressure on Hamas when it considers its future terrorist activity.
Israel can also take steps in the West Bank to improve the economy, quality of life, help create jobs, and more. Will this end the conflict? Of course not. But it does have the potential to make it easier when that day finally arrives, something worth keeping in mind in a few weeks when Israel celebrates the two-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords. Those accords have changed the region, but their full potential has yet to be realized, not just between Israel and the Gulf but also with the Palestinians.
On Wednesday, a former IDF general tweeted the following: “The Northern District Police chief Shimon Lavi is an example and role model of a fighter and senior commander who knew how to take full responsibility after the Meron disaster and step down at the right time. He took responsibility, saluted the flag and left. Thank you.”
It was quite a shocking tweet. Lavi, if you don’t recall, was commander of the police Northern District who oversaw preparations, force deployment, and operations during the Lag Ba’omer disaster in April 2021 that caused the deaths of 45 participants. He was direct commander over everything that happened that terrible and tragic night.
To what was this former IDF officer referring when he said “thank you” is unclear. For 15 months Lavi remained in office, likely thinking that he could somehow survive the fallout. For the most part, he did: he was not fired, was not ordered to quit. He remained in his lofty police position.
What happened this week that he finally stepped down? According to reports, it seems that the commission of inquiry set up to investigate the disaster is close to finishing its hearings, and will be sending out letters reprimanding certain officials. Lavi is likely to be one of them. So he got out ahead, fooling even former IDF generals who are supposed to know something about accountability and responsibility.
That people like this former IDF officer are so easily fooled highlights the cultural problem we have in Israel: our accountability deficit.
Taking responsibility is simply against Israeli social norms. People don’t step down when they make mistakes or are caught doing something wrong. They hang on, fight for survival, and tie their fate to the organization or institution they run. Think about some of our political leaders.
This is not something to applaud – as the former IDF officer foolishly did – but rather something we need to denounce. When people like Lavi are allowed to remain in their position after a disaster that saw 45 people buried is a sign of something wrong with the way Israel is being run.
Now that Lavi has stepped down, the question is not why. Instead, we should be asking something far more important: what took so long?