More Arab Israeli peace is coming

Gulf endorses prosperous South Korean model, Iran copies North Korean nuclear poverty

Front page of Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat leads with the news of the Israeli Embassy in the UAE, with a picture of Israeli FM Lapid and behind him the Israeli flag. The second headline reports that Palestinians reached out to Israelis with some thoughts on peace.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a historic trip, this week, to the UAE, where he inaugurated the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Bilateral trade between the UAE and Israel has reached half a billion dollars since the two nations signed peace in August, and is expected to hit $7 billion, annually, in the near future. 

Bahrain, which also signed a peace agreement with Israel last year, is on its way to deploy an ambassador to the Jewish State.

The biggest prize for peace, however, remains Saudi Arabia, which has yet jump on the peace train. Until it does, anyone who understands Saudi nuance will have noticed how Saudi media treated Lapid’s visit to the UAE, giving it extensive coverage and treating it as historic as it really is. Breaking with decades-old tradition, Saudi TV channels are now inviting Israeli pundits on live talkshows, often introducing them as experts in Jerusalem, without the usual Arab suffix “occupied.” 

Riyadh is clearly not interested anymore in the 70-year old and futile conflict over sovereignty in the Holy Land. Thanks to its modernizer, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia is now like the UAE, working on weaning its economy off oil rent. This clearly requires peace and an increase in trade of commodities and services.

Building on UAE’s momentum, while keeping an eye on peace dividends, Saudi Arabia is inching very close to peace with Israel. MBS realizes that the Arab side has no solution for the Palestinian conflict with Israel, and that hanging on to the “no peace, no war” stalemate only wastes precious time and resources. 

Smaller Gulf countries, like Qatar and to a lesser extent Kuwait, may be able to survive off oil rent, given their small populations. So long as oil sales pay the bills, Qatar and Kuwait will afford the luxury of not signing peace with Israel, but not Saudi, whose oil income now falls short of feeding a growing population. MBS has publicly pointed out that when oil first started generating profit for Riyadh, the Saudi population was a fraction of what it is today. With oil rent remaining relatively fixed, as the population exploded, the situation started calling for change. MBS is leading such change, which mainly copies that of the UAE: Turning Saudi Arabia into a hub of services, tourism and trade. Such economic model requires minimum conflict and maximum peace.

In the coming few years, two blocs will emerge in the Middle East, one led by Arab Gulf states and Israel, a bloc that endorses peace as the cornerstone of generating wealth and prosperity, and another one that is coerced by Iran, and that produces nukes while its population suffers of famine. The difference between the two Middle Eastern models will be similar to that between the prosperous and peaceful South Korea and its impoverished and nuclear neighbor North Korea.

What will Palestinians choose? Hamas, which represents one third of Palestinians and controls the Gaza Strip, has made its mind. It will stand with the Iran axis and live in misery and poverty. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which also represents a third of Palestinians and governs the West Bank, will not go against Saudi policy if Riyadh ever signs peace. 

On the same front page of the Saudi paper that led its news with a picture of Lapid and behind him the Israeli flag, the paper also reported that the PA has reached out to Israel asking for some concessions that can improve the lives of Palestinians. Such a demand is now emerging as a point of consensus among Israelis and Arabs.

In Israel, in his book Catch 67, Micah Goodman skillfully presents the positions of the Israeli Right and Left, arguing that a two state solution looks impossible at this point. In its stead, Goodman calls on Israel to get out of the hair of Palestinians, withdraw from the West Bank as much as militarily possible, and let the Palestinians govern themselves and reap the economic benefits of such autonomy that can come closest to being a state. No signature on a final status document will be required, since such signature seems politically impossible on both sides. 

Israeli media also reported that the UAE had offered to fund a program that modernizes Palestinian identity cards, hence allowing them to go through Israeli checkpoints like a breeze. 

Palestinians may want also to learn from the Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian lessons, that Palestinian autonomy is much more attractive than national independence, whose biggest challenge these days seems to be the instability to stabilize  the local currency, coupled with corruption that undermines basic government. Autonomy, however, offers Palestinians various perks, including using the strong and stable Israeli currency, the Shekel, without the need to worry about monetary policy or capital controls. Palestinians can also buy basic needs — such as electricity and water — from Israel, instead of setting up national facilities that will almost certainly be corrupt and incompetent.

Arab peace with Israel opens up endless possibilities for a better life for the Arabs, including Palestinians. Tyrannical regimes that live off wars — such as in Iran, Syria and Lebanon — will certainly not support an end to the conflict that makes them relevant. Leaving them behind and pressing forward with peace seems to be the best course of action.