President Trump’s top Mideast negotiator, Jared Kushner, and top Israeli and American officials are scheduled to board an El Al plane tomorrow to make the first direct commercial flight between Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. The historic trip will vindicate the outside-in approach to peacemaking, long championed by Mr. Kushner.
Monday’s two-and-a-half-hour flight comes after the United Arab Emirates announced earlier in August its intention to fully normalize relations with Israel. On board, in addition to Mr. Kushner, will be President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and an Israeli delegation headed by Mr. O’Brien’s counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Anticipating their arrival — and despite background noises about a possible deal-breaking dispute involving an American sale of F35 fighter planes to the Emirates — the UAE officially scrapped a 1972 law that banned doing business with Israeli firms.
In another historical feature of the flight, El Al 971 is scheduled to travel over Saudi air space. In the past Riyadh has allowed Air India flights between Tel Aviv and New Delhi to use its skies, but this marks the first time it will permit the Israeli flag carrier to do so.
Saudi Arabia is yet to openly embrace Mr. Kushner’s outside-in approach, which urges Arab states to normalize relations with Israel even before a Jerusalem-Ramallah pact. For years, professional peace processors argued that no Arab state would do so, though following Egypt, Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, during the heyday of the Oslo accords.
The received wisdom argued Arab regimes wouldn’t be able to sign peace with Israel before a Palestinian Arab state is established. That view was made official in a declaration known as the Arab Initiative. Endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 in Beirut, the sketchy plan offered Arab peace in exchange for, in addition to Palestinian statehood, an Israeli withdrawal from all territories it won in the 1967 war with Jordan, Egypt, and Syria.
The Arab initiative, led by Riyadh, was later anchored in several United Nations resolutions. It also became a cornerstone of the State Department’s Mideast peace efforts during the Bush II and Obama presidencies.
President Obama’s tilt toward Iran and away from Israel, however, had an unintended consequence. Sunni Arab countries, including most notably Iran’s Gulf neighbors, quickly realized that concerns over the “Shiite crescent,” Tehran’s ambition to dominate the Mideast, trump their old affinity to the Palestinians.
As clandestine relations between Israel and Gulf states tightened, Mr. Kushner, charged by his father in law to negotiate Arab-Israeli peace, concluded that the old approach was no longer the logical way to achieve peace. Instead, he told officials, reporters, and others in Israel, Arab capitals, and Washington, that it was time to turn peacemaking around: formal agreements between Israel and Sunni states could eventually lead the Palestinians to come to terms with Israel as well.
In 2019, Mr. Kushner organized a summit of Arab states in Manama, Bahrain, calling for up to $50 billion in American and Arab investment in the Palestinian economy. It was met with a chorus of boos by peace pros. The economy-based approach and the idea of replacing the old inside-out dogma with an outside-in approach was met with ridicule in the region and in Washington.
The Palestinian Authority’s relations with some Arab berthren, meanwhile, deteriorated. The PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, was elected in 2005 for a four year stint. He is now 84 and in poor health but he still holds power. A deal with Mr. Abbas has long seemed impossible, even as the path of succession became ever so murky. Who would be Mr. Abbas’s heir? That question may well be answered only after a violent internal struggle.
One such possible heir is Mohammed Dahlah, a former member of the PA’s inner circle who escaped Ramallah in 2007 after a dispute with Mr. Abbas led to threats on his life. Using connections he made as security chief in Gaza before Hamas took over, Mr. Dahlan moved to Abu Dhabi, where he quickly became a close adviser to the UAE’s acting leader, Mohammed bin Zaid, known as MBZ.
Now vilified in Ramallah as MBZ’s partner in what Mr. Abbas considers a treacherous deal with Israel, Mr. Dahlan — or someone like him — could eventually emerge as Palestinian leader who would replace Mr. Abbas. Such a leader may complete the “in” part of Mr. Kushner’s outside-in process.
Either way, the UAE deal suggests that at least some Arab leaders have moved beyond empowering a corrupt and unaccountable Ramallah leadership with a veto over their own relations with Israel. The outside-in approach begins to bear fruit, and several Arab countries — including, eventually, the Saudis — seem on the verge of joining in.