Nixon, Rabin and Trump: Unfinished Business In The Middle East

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Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

U.S. President Donald Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani sign the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House.

What is the hardest part of brokering a peace agreement?

— Sometimes, it’s just getting the two sides to sit down in the same room.

— Other times, the problem is getting the two sides just to talk.

— Even then, there is the problem of getting them to negotiate and be willing to make concessions.

And then there is the problem when you just run out of time.

Following the Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria were nearly victorious, a unique possibility for peace between Israel and Egypt presented itself. Nixon’s airlift of crucial arms during the war was critical to Israel’s victory — and created an opportunity.

Richard Nixon. Public domain

Seeking to take advantage of this opportunity, in June 1974, Nixon became the first US president to visit Israel while in office.

As Rabin explained in a press conference after Nixon returned to the US:

“Ever since the airlift of the Yom Kippur War, the Arabs have come to understand that America will not allow Israel to be weakened. A defeat of Israel is a victory for the USSR. Paradoxically, this is what has raised America’s prestige in the Arab world, and has given Washington leverage. Today in the Middle East, Moscow is a synonym for instability and war, Washington for stability and negotiation.” (Yehuda Avner, The Prime Ministers, p. 270)

Yitzhak Rabin. Public domain

This leverage as an honest broker would make it possible for the US to go beyond being a supporter of Israel’s interests, and show that it was a strong and reliable ally to address the interests of the Arab world as well.

Meanwhile, Nixon began discussing with Egypt’s Sadat the possibility of a final settlement, going step-by-step. On June 25, Nixon wrote to Sadat:

Mr. President, I am convinced that we have witnessed in recent months a turning point in the history of the Middle East — a turning toward an honorable, just, and endurinable peace — and have ushered in a new era in U.S.-Arab relations. A direction has been set, and it is my firm intention to stay on the course we have chartered. (p. 271)

Two months later, Nixon resigned.

The following month, Rabin was meeting with President Ford — and Kissinger — to continue what Nixon had started. The following year, in March, Kissinger came to the Middle East to conduct his “shuttle diplomacy,” bouncing back and forth between Israel and Egypt. Kissinger pressured Rabin on a withdrawal from the Sinai, especially from the Mitla and Gidi passes, while Rabin wanted Sadat to commit himself to a “termination of the state of belligerency” with Israel.

Kissinger’s efforts failed — and he blamed Israel.

In the end, however, another attempt was made, culminating in an interim agreement known as Sinai II.

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The term “honest broker” is overrated.

In any event, Rabin too ended up resigning because of the ‘scandal’ surrounding his wife, who had retained a bank account from the years when Rabin was Israel’s ambassador to the US from 1968 to 1973. After that, the Israeli law forbidding citizens from holding bank accounts abroad came into play. However, another law prevented Rabin from resigning outright once the date for the next elections has been set. Instead, Rabin withdrew from the race as leader of the Labor Party, to be replaced from Shimon Peres to face Menachem Begin.

Begin became prime minister — and it was during his term that a peace treaty with Egypt was signed.

Rabin felt his role in making that peace treaty possible was never acknowledged, but at the same time he understood that was the way of things.

In his memoirs, Rabin wrote:

When President Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem on 19 November 1977 I was no longer prime minister. Yet that visit — and the subsequent moves toward achieving a peace treaty — could never have come about were it not for the course my government adopted in signing the 1975 interim agreement. That our policy provoked the anger of Likud has not prevented Mr. Begin’s government from reaping the fruits of our labors. Of course, that is how things should be, since the quest for peace is not a contest between political parties…The 1975 agreement with Egypt was never meant to be an end in itself. As its title implies, it was designed to advance the momentum toward peace, and in that sense it achieved its purpose. [emphasis added] (quoted in The Prime Ministers, p.302)

Begin benefited from the foundation set by Nixon and the groundwork laid by Rabin, both of whom left their work unfinished.

But that was not the last we heard from Rabin.

After serving as prime minister from 1974 to 1977, Rabin became prime minister again in 1992.

And he was still focused on peace. In 1994, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the Oslo Accords, along with Shimon Peres and Arafat. Rabin also signed a peace treaty with Jordan that same year.

In late 1995, Rabin described to Yehuda Avner his view of the Middle East, a description that 25 years later sounds familiar:

Number one: Israel is surrounded by two concentric circles. The inner circle is comprised of our immediate neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, and, by extension, Saudi Arabia. The outer circle comprises their neighbors—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and Libya. Virtually all of them are rogue states, and some are going nuclear.

Number two, Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalism constitutes a threat to the inner circle no less than it does to Israel. Islamic fundamentalism is striving to destabilize the Gulf Emirates, has already created havoc in Syria, leaving twenty thousand dead, in Algeria, leaving one hundred thousand dead, in Egypt, leaving twenty-two thousand dead, in Jordan, leaving eight thousand dead, in the Horn of Africa—the Sudan and Somalia—leaving fourteen thousand dead, and in Yemen, leaving twelve thousand dead. And now it is gaining influence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Iran is the banker, pouring millions into the West Bank and Gaza in the form of social welfare and health and education programs, so that it can win the hearts of the population and feed religious fanaticism.

Thus, a confluence of interest has arisen between Israel and the inner circle, whose long-term strategic interest is the same as ours: to lessen the destabilizing consequences from the outer circle. At the end of the day, the inner circle recognizes they have less to fear from Israel than from their Muslim neighbors, not least from radicalized Islamic powers going nuclear.

Number three: the Arab-Israeli conflict was always considered to be a political one: a conflict between Arabs and Israelis. The fundamentalists are doing their level best to turn it into a religious conflict—Muslim against Jew, Islam against Judaism. And while a political conflict is possible to solve through negotiation and compromise, there are no solutions to a theological conflict. Then it is jihad—religious war: their God against our God. Were they to win, our conflict would go from war to war, and from stalemate to stalemate. [emphasis added] (p. 707)

The context for this description of the Middle East is Rabin’s response to Avner’s question as to why he shook Arafat’s hand at the signing of the Oslo Accords:

He and his PLO represent the last vestige of secular Palestinian nationalism. We have nobody else to deal with. It is either the PLO or nothing. It is a long shot for a possible settlement, or the certainty of no settlement at all at a time when the radicals are going nuclear.

With the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism, negotiating with secular Palestinian Arabs made sense to Rabin.

Neither he — nor then-President Clinton — saw the potential in negotiating and working with other Arab states within those concentric circles. There’s no reason they would, when all the contemporary thinking was focused on the Palestinian Arabs as a key to peace, a cold peace in line with the peace treaties signed with Egypt and Jordan with no thought of normalization. According to that thinking, it is either the Palestinian Arabs or nothing.

The Middle East achievements of the Trump administration this year took Rabin’s outline and acted on it.

What Rabin might have further accomplished, we will never know.

He was stopped again, this time by a bullet, from pursuing peace.

But like Nixon and Rabin, Trump too will not be pursuing his vision for peace to its full extent.

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