On Monday afternoon, a day before the Israel-UAE-Bahrain peacemaking ceremony at the White House, US President Donald Trump’s adviser Avi Berkowitz posted a quite beautiful photograph on Twitter. It shows Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, handing a Torah scroll to His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain, to be used in a synagogue in the kingdom.
The moment is tender and moving — with the gazes of both men focused on the velvet-covered scroll rather than each other, respectful of it. It is a picture of transition and of trust — an American Jewish official entrusting an Arab monarch with the Jewish people’s most sacred text, for his safekeeping, to convey to a Jewish community free to practice its religion in his country.
Kushner has called the process of peacemaking we are now witnessing between Israel and, so far, the UAE and Bahrain, “the beginning of the end of the Israel-Arab conflict.” If that proves to be the case, this photograph may come to symbolize it.
There is no end of realpolitik in the new alignments. Israel has gradually impressed upon the neighborhood that it has millennia of roots here, that it is not going anywhere, that it is no pushover, and that it is well capable of defending itself. Its emerging new partners share a common concern about the Iranian regime’s rapaciousness and aggression, and recognize that Israel can be a critical ally against Tehran. The deals also open opportunities for warmer ties with Israel’s dependable US ally, and likely arms sales as a direct consequence. Also, decades of the Palestinians’ intransigence have reduced sympathy for their cause in at least parts of the Arab world — or at least reduced the readiness of parts of the Arab world to subjugate their own perceived interests to those of the Palestinians.
Still, Israel’s new partners did not abandon the Palestinians. A central element of the UAE deal was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to indefinitely suspend his plan to unilaterally annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank — the Biblical Judea and Samaria — including all the settlements. Trump had indicated early in his presidency that he was no particular supporter of settlement expansion; Kushner made explicit last week the concern that Israel, via the settlement enterprise, “would have eaten up all the land in the West Bank” if the administration hadn’t put out its January peace vision. And Netanyahu, laudably and politically problematically, chose the historic opportunity of a wider circle of peace for Israel over a unilateral push for wider Israeli sovereignty.
The Middle East is in constant flux, and geopolitical interests can rapidly change. The Saudis are carefully calculating how forthcoming to be in this new era, having taken the first public step of opening their airspace to Israel and no doubt privately given their backing to the UAE and Bahrain. Nonetheless, for all the region’s change and unpredictability, even Israel’s “cold” peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan have held firm for decades.
Where the latest partnerships, with these two Gulf states, give additional cause for optimism, however, is captured, again, in that photograph.
Throughout Israel’s modern history, the Arabic-speaking peoples of this region were inundated with vicious propaganda against the Jewish state… and had no direct opportunity to gain a more honest picture for themselves.
The early signs, at least, are that these are not grudging peace agreements but celebrations of normalized ties — in which our peoples will have the chance to interact and, as consequence, to learn about and better understand each other. Hosting their small Jewish communities, the UAE and Bahrain have already started to discover a little of Judaism, the Jewish people, and by extension the Jewish state.
These agreements offer the prospect of dialogue and understanding at an unprecedented level — interaction that is central to any genuine Israeli-Arab peace. When Jared Kushner, the Jewish son-in-law of the president of the Jewish state’s vital ally, handed that Torah scroll to the King of Bahrain, he was symbolically offering a partnership. And when the king carefully received it, he signaled his acceptance.
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