Arab-Israeli Peace Takes Shape, One by One

Israel stood alone in the Middle East when I served there as a journalist in the 1970s, frightened covering a war on two fronts and a deadly series of Palestinian terrorist attacks that symbolized an Arab hatred that kept the Jewish state on edge.

Israelis, an anxious lot for good reason, never knew who would strike next or where as they struggled like any people to make at least a middle-class life for themselves, their bank accounts often overdrawn. National politics were mayhem, as they are today. The Labor party was in control.

Peace was elusive, at least until Egyptian President Anwar Sadat remarkably showed up in Jerusalem in November 1977, four years after Israel’s October war with Egypt and Syria. And now Arab states from Morocco eastward to the Persian Gulf seem to be lining up to normalize relations with Israel, aggrieved Palestinians shoved aside.

They’re left in the cold as Israelis build and expand more Jewish settlements and carve tunnels and pave roads throughout the occupied West Bank, shrinking land for a yearned-for Palestinian state. As president, Joe Biden won’t be able to reverse that. And he’ll need leverage to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, if that’s possible.

Donald Trump gets the credit for breaking barriers, changing the face of the Middle East by solidifying relations among Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. Saudi Arabia stands warily in the wings but not objecting to the Arab-Israeli ploughshare.

Israel is a country forever at odds with itself, not only against Jew and Israeli Arab but between Jew and Jew. One reason:  As the old saying goes, put two Jews in a room and you get three opinions. Even asking for directions on a crowded street corner was a committee exercise; everybody had to chime in. It was a fun place, if you were in the mood.

But the mood after that two-pronged Yom Kippur surprise attack against an unprepared Israel was sour, depressed for many years afterward because of the shock of an unexpected strike against a Jewish state overconfident because of its 1967 victory in six days over Egypt, Syria and Jordan. A small country with a population then of 3.5 million, Israel lost 2,569 dead and 7,500 wounded in that 18-day 1973 war.

The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in Washington the same day in March 1979 as the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster closed Israel’s backdoor in the Sinai Peninsula to another invasion across the Suez Canal. It remains a cold peace but better than a hot war.

“The October war will be the last war,” Sadat said in English about the treaty.

“No more war, no more bloodshed,” Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin chimed in, also in English.

Jordan followed in 1994, but with less drama from King Hussein.

The breakthrough with Morocco, which long has had low-level relations with Israel because hundreds of thousands of Israelis can trace their heritage to that country, came when the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Spanish Sahara. Morocco has wanted that recognition for years. The price for peace.

“This is something that’s been talked about for a long time . . . something that we think advances the region and helps bring more clarity to where things are going,” Jared Kushner told reporters. Trump’s son-in-law, he has helped put these normalization deals together.

“This will be a very warm peace,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “Peace has never – the light of peace on this Chanukah day has never – shone brighter than today in the Middle East.”

Israeli Nadav Eden, 38, a technical account manager with a wife and two young kids live in coastal Rishon Lezion, about a 20-minute drive south of Tel Aviv on the Ayalon highway. He believes strongly that these agreements with far-flung Arab states is good for Israel.

“It actually means a lot,” he emailed in response to my asking his reaction to the peace initiatives. “It gives us a glimpse of normalcy in the midst of the chaos in the Middle East. It gives us the ability to say not all Arabs hate us, that there’s a chance for that word that people do not say anymore: peace.

“Judging from the amount of traction these agreements have in the media, especially the one with the UAE – in radio, TV, the internet, podcasts – from all sides, it looks as if this feeling [of mine] is not unique to me.”

Eden singled out the UAE because connections with that Persian Gulf country have been immediate, including 10 weekly flights between them, business delegations visiting from both sides and an emir who bought half of one of Israel’s most famous soccer clubs, Beitar Jerusalem.

Additionally, he said, giant billboards have popped up on the Ayalon highway urging investment in the UAE.

And there reportedly has been an invasion of Israeli tourists sweeping into Dubai. Better an invasion of tourists than soldiers.

War is horror, not glory. Images of that conflict 47 years ago stick like no other, mostly of the dead and wounded.

Like the Syrian soldier, clean shaven, probably not even out of his teens. He lay dead stretched out on his back on the dusty chocolate-colored road leading to Damascus, his lips parted, legs below the knees crushed by the wheels and treads of Israeli vehicles, flies buzzing. His green uniform was mostly clean, as if he never had a chance.

Staring at him wide-eyed, I thought of his life not yet lived, about how his mom and dad would feel about their boy’s end. For he was only a boy. He should have been home, maybe kicking a soccer ball.

Also in Syria, the Israeli soldier, possibly in his late 30s early 40s, also flat on his back, on a table in a one-room hut built of gray cinder block. His right arm clutched his left or his left side. He suffered in pain. “Ima, ima,” he groaned. (Mother, mother.)

Damned war.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.