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Leon Panetta: This is what courage looks like in the Middle East

Leon Panetta: This is what courage looks like in the Middle East
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David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first Prime Minister of Israel, had a particular definition of courage. “Courage,” he said, is “the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.” 

In signing historic peace agreements with Israel this week, the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are showing immense courage. Those leaders have long ago concluded that the Jewish State of Israel did not need to be feared in the Middle East, but that there were forces — extremist Shia elements and extremist Sunni elements — that ought to be feared and confronted.

The extremist Shia elements are fueled by the regime in Iran that supports Hezbollah, is attempting to dominate Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and continues to work on its missile and nuclear capability. The extremist Sunni elements are fueled by the radical ideology of ISIS, the remnants of al Qaeda, and other terrorist networks that want to see the U.S. and our partners driven from the Middle East and North Africa.

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Both of these elements resort to terrorism and violence to achieve their objectives. And both pose direct threats to U.S. forces, our allies such as Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as our key Gulf partners.

In short, the countries of the Gulf and Israel have a common set of fears and thus a common sense of courage that will allow them to reshape the modern Middle East. 

The UAE’s leadership is now saying publicly what we always heard privately on our visits to Abu Dhabi – namely that they want to look to the future, not the past, and be strong partners to the United States. They also believe that economic opportunities for their youth lie in greater regional integration, diversification of their economy away from fossil fuels, and in the development of a Western-style high-tech sector. The Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed is a farsighted Arab leader who rightly understands that normalization with Israel can strengthen his bonds with the U.S. and solidify the UAE’s regional leadership.

The UAE and Bahrain’s decisions are also making peace between Israel and the Palestinians more likely. In exchange for these normalization agreements, Israel agreed to stop its plans to annex (or apply Israeli sovereignty) to large parts of the West Bank. Annexation would have made a two-state solution almost impossible. The Palestinians should thank the governments in Abu Dhabi and Manama for preserving the possibility of two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. 

Since its founding in 1948, Israel has long sought peaceful coexistence with its Arab neighbors. Making peace with Egypt in the 1970s and Jordan in the 1990s proved to be critical pillars in defense of Israel. Now Israel is extending that paradigm beyond Israel’s border states to encompass the larger strategic radius of the region – which is important as Israel tries to expand its defense capabilities to deal with the missile threat from Iran.

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These agreements make Israel more likely to take risks for peace and make the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace more likely. 

Saudi Arabia has shown hints of a desire for normalization with Israel by allowing Israeli commercial aircraft to overfly Saudi territory. There is quiet cooperation on security issues, and like their Emirati and Bahraini brothers, the Saudis understand they have common strategic interests with Israel. 

For these agreements to remain strong and permanent, Saudi Arabia should also make peace with Israel. As the custodian of the Holy Places, Mecca and Medina, the Royal Family in Saudi Arabia carries the symbolism of the Islamic world. A Saudi-Israeli agreement would be the most significant milestone in the effort to end — once and for all — the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The United States needs to restore its diplomatic role as an honest broker between Israel and the Arab nations willing to work toward peace. Israel is already the beneficiary of significant military aid from the U.S. – that lifeline has allowed Israel to know that the U.S. always has Israel’s back. So too, the U.S. should look for ways to strengthen strategic ties with the UAE and Bahrain. Just as Egypt benefited from its peace treaty with Israel in the 1970s, so too the people of UAE and Bahrain should see that making peace will bring support for their security.

Arab-Israeli peacemaking has been on the agenda of every U.S. President since the 1940s, Democrat and Republican. On a bipartisan basis, we should all welcome these historic deals and determine tangible ways to support these courageous countries for living not in the past but the future.

Leon Panetta served as U.S. secretary of Defense, CIA director, White House chief of staff, and member of Congress. Jeremy Bash served as Secretary Panetta’s chief of staff at DoD and CIA.