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The politics of peace

How long does it take to announce a Middle East peace agreement?

A couple of months to figure it out and over a decade to work up the courage to let your citizens, and the world, know about it.

In 2009, the United Arab Emirates came to me with a problem. 

They had long struggled to be recognized as a modern progressive country, much in the mold of Western Europe. Trying to earn a seat at the table of influential countries, the Emirates sought to enhance its reputation by arranging to host one of the world’s major tennis tournaments. Wimbledon, England, Forest Hills, NY, Paris, and Melbourne would be joined by Dubai UAE. 

The world would be watching. It would be the country’s coming-out party.

But political realities had gotten in the way. Pursuant to the tennis circuit rules, top-ranked world players automatically qualified for the tournament. And within the rankings of top women was an Israeli named Shahar Pe’er. 

Faced with the reality that a Jewish woman in short sleeves and a shorter skirt would be running around center court in Dubai, the rulers of the Emirates feared the reaction of the culturally conservative, pro-Palestinian population and the possibility that ensuing outrage could force a change in power. Keeping the efforts to modernize the UAE likely would suffer a great setback.  

The UAE thus consulted with perhaps one of its then most meaningful and understanding allies: Israel. 

Unbeknownst to the public generally or to their own populations, Israel and the UAE by 2009 had become close colleagues, with their ambassadors to America speaking often to coordinate their intelligence about and efforts against Iran’s nuclear buildup and potential aggression against both countries.

Indeed, despite 5000 years of animosity, in the modern Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For its part, Israel too had much to lose from a change in power in the UAE toward more cultural conservativism. Israel long understood the importance and benefits of its burgeoning friendship with the UAE leadership.

The solution devised by the two allies was fairly simple. With Israel’s behind-the-scenes blessing, the UAE would bar Pe’er from participating, Israel would file a formal protest, and life would move on. Unrest could be avoided, and a missed tennis tournament was a small price to pay to protect a peace arrangement — even a well-hidden one — so long in the making.

With the rest of the tennis world and Jewish community not privy to Israel’s wink of its eye, global outrage followed. American top-ranked players, Andy Roddick and Venus Williams, announced that they would skip the tournament. The Tennis Channel refused to cover the tournament and The Wall Street Journal dropped its sponsorship. 

I wondered aloud whether the time had come for Israel and the Emirates simply to come clean — to tell the truth about the changing realities in the Middle East, about the evolution of their relationship, and about the joint decision-making in the case of Shahar Pe’er.

The pushback was immediate but well-meaning. The parties explained that none of the Sunni Arabs, the Israelis or the Palestinians were ready for the truth. Diplomacy often works best when not exposed to the light. Common sense often outruns emotional ties to history.

Any solution would have to occur among the American Jewish community, where it would not reach the ears of the populace in the UAE. 

Until last week. 

Israel and the UAE finally announced last week to the world what their diplomats had long known: They have far more in common than whatever is left that divides them. 

A few critics howled that the solution was long in existence. They “blamed” the timing of the announcement on the UAE-Israeli-American politics, in which all three sides of the triangle face adversity and favor the continuance of existing political power structures. 

Of course domestic and world politics played a role in the timing of the peace announcement.

But that is the point.

The 5,000 years of Middle East conflict has been styled at various times as being over land, religion, justice or freedom. But such factors remained basically unchanged both when Egypt and then Jordan reached their separate peace with Israel.  

Land can be compromised; religions can co-exist; notions of freedom and justice can be forward-looking. But no peace can be reached until and unless leaders see greater political benefit in their domestic circles by burying the hatchets and forging alliances than by perpetuating ancient hostilities.    

Henry Kissinger once noted that while most conflicts had participants searching for solutions, the Middle East had solutions searching for participants. The participants finally stepped up.  

What changed in the case of the UAE last week, as with Egypt and Jordan before it, was the political dynamic among Israel, the UAE, and the United States. Whether styled courageous or short-term politically expedient, whether seeking to change history or just upcoming elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and their ambassadors to America (Ronald Dermer and Yousef al Otaiba) found the political will to do what could not be done before. The world got a bit safer and a lot better. 

It is a formula worth noting at least by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and that bears repeating. 

And Pe’er got her visa in 2010. 

Howard Gutman is managing director of The Gutman Group, an international consulting and investment group. He served as the United States ambassador to Belgium from 2009-2013. 

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Diplomacy Israel Middle East Shahar Pe’er United Arab Emirates

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