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Peace is great. Now, about that virus…

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Last Tuesday was a day of pomp and circumstance at the White House: Delegations from Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Trump administration principals and their honored guests for the historic signing of the first peace treaties between the Jewish state and its erstwhile Arab enemies since 1994. A-listers nibbled on fancy canapes. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered pita and circuses for everyone else.

The normalization of ties between Israel and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf is a milestone to be celebrated. Sour grapes whose enthusiasm for the breakthrough has been curbed by their animosity for any or all of the event’s sponsors should get over themselves. (The opposition camp — led by paragons of benevolence such as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah — is a decidedly unfriendly place.) Increased stability and a new spirit of cooperation will only enhance the prospects for the Middle East, transforming stunted relationships into catalysts for growth. With any luck, it may even re-energize a comatose Israeli-Palestinian track where all other attempts have fallen flat.

Most of the benefits will accrue, not surprisingly, to the actual signatories and to their presidential host. Formal acceptance of Israel by the U.A.E. and Bahrain will provide a huge economic boost from mutual commerce, tourism and investment; Israel’s chief economist and the UAE’s economy minister both estimate that bilateral trade between Israel and the Emirates alone could fall in the range of $500 million annually. More “dough” is being dangled in the form of emerging opportunities that might be derived from overflights of Saudi Arabia for Israeli carriers and from future peace accords between Israel and the likes of Oman, Morocco and Sudan. The United States will be rewarded for its troubles too. Emirati procurement requests for weapons systems including the F-35 stealth fighter and the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jet will inject billions of dollars into U.S. defense industries and — as Trump said on Aug. 18 — “They’ve definitely got the money to pay for it.”

As for the circus, the ceremony was heavy on sentimentality and symbolism as befitted the occasion. President Trump even aspires to pocket a Nobel Peace Prize for his supporting role in the drama. Netanyahu heralded the triumph of his “peace for peace” doctrine, breaking the traditional stranglehold of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world. And Abu Dhabi and Manama landed punches above their weight class, winning not only access to Israeli technology, but also shiny upgrades as America’s feted strategic partners in the Middle East, via the administration’s touted launch of a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” in conjunction with Israel, the Emirates and, presumably, Bahrain.

None of these payoffs were unexpected or even unacceptable as diplomacy goes. But as the Roman poet Juvenal explained over 1,900 years ago, the whole point of dishing out bread and circuses to the people is to distract their gaze from the more critical failures of their leaders.

Trump and Netanyahu are both engaged in the fights of their careers. The U.S. president, if the polls are to be trusted, faces a steep, uphill climb to re-election on Nov. 3. The Israeli prime minister is battling likewise for his political survival, atop a dysfunctional coalition government and amid reports that Israel’s fourth election in under two years may be imminent; the outcome of that ballot could be the only thing standing between him and prison. The low-hanging fruit of public reconciliation between Israel and the Gulf states — something which has existed for a long time already, but had been kept nominally quiet — is being served up now hastily by two politicians who hope desperately to divert the attention of their respective electorates from less favorable realities.

More than any incentives which Trump may have dropped to bring Israelis and Arabs together, it has been the evaporation of American cachet, the steady retreat of the United States from the Middle East, that has done the trick. The continued withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area and Trump’s backtracking on his earlier obsession with preserving access to the region’s oil delivered a clear message. Left to their own devices against an ascendant Iran, the local members of Pax Americana found each other and restructured their relations accordingly. Against a backdrop of disastrous interactions with friends like Europe, and foes like North Korea and Iran, Trump craved Tuesday’s spotlight of a rare foreign policy success to try and offset his lack of winning.

Netanyahu’s foreign policy performance has far bested Trump’s, but they share a dismal record on the imploding domestic front, where the tangible, human and economic toll of COVID-19 is devastating both Israel and the United States. Netanyahu put the fear of God into Israelis originally, Trump consciously played down the effects of the virus, but neither of them has mounted an effective response to the pandemic. More than 200,000 Americans have succumbed to the novel Coronavirus, with the second quarter of 2020 witnessing the contraction of the U.S. economy to Great Depression levels. Israel, under a full, three-week closure, is buckling under the brunt of world-leading infection rates. Protests against both governments disclose widespread dissatisfaction that will not disappear with the advent of a new Middle East.

Peace between Israel and all its neighbors is long overdue, but people won’t live to enjoy its fruits unless the COVID-19 genie is put back in its bottle. And it is the legacy of their uninspiring response to this emergency that will continue to haunt both Trump and Netanyahu now that the party’s over.

Shalom Lipner (@ShalomLipner) is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Tags Bahrain Bahrain–Israel normalization agreement Benjamin Netanyahu coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 death toll Donald Trump Donald Trump Israel Israel-UAE peace agreement Middle East peace UAE United Arab Emirates

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