In January 1919, Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel, signed an agreement with Emir Faisal, who would rule Syria and Iraq. Signed on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference at which the victors of World War I would determine how to administer the former colonies of the Ottoman Empire, the Weizmann-Faisal Agreement pledged Arab support for the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
As he signed the agreement, Faisal added a hand-written note making his support for a Jewish state conditional on the Arabs receiving the new states they had demanded across the region.
Faisal’s agreement with Weizmann remains significant for a number of reasons.
First, it is a crucial recognition by an Arab leader of the right of the Jewish people to an independent state in what had become Palestine. Faisal’s father, the Sharif of Mecca, had earlier referred to the Jews as the “original sons” of the land, claiming that their return would “materially and spiritually” aid their “Arab brethren.”
Second, it showed that Arab leaders were happy to concede Palestine if their greater territorial aspirations were met.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, the Weizmann-Faisal Agreement, and more precisely, Faisal’s hand-written afterthought, bound up the future of a Jewish state in Palestine in broader regional affairs. Whereas the original agreement dealt with Palestine as a discrete issue, the amendment explicitly connected the question of Palestine to what transpired elsewhere in the region.
This, in turn, enabled Palestinian-Arab leaders to frame the conflict with Israel not as a territorial dispute between rival claimants, but as a matter of pan-Arab pride and Islamic duty. This internationalized the conflict, resulting in an Arab boycott of companies that traded with Israel, three invasions of the Jewish state and the harnessing of collective Arab influence to seek Israel’s international isolation in multinational forums and civil society.
But while Israel emerged stronger through these travails, making it an increasingly desirable partner for peace and economic cooperation, the Arab world suffered in the name of Palestinian liberation and remained mired in sectarianism and stagnation.
Yet the idea that the Arab world would be at war with Israel until the Palestinians were satisfied, and that no separate peace agreements were possible, became so entrenched that to challenge it elicited immediate scorn from the foreign policy establishment.
Addressing the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism, Mara Rudman, a foreign policy advisor in the Clinton and Obama administrations, dismissed the Trump administration’s approach to regional peacemaking as “a textbook on how to fail on Middle East peace,” asserting that “the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis must be resolved to fully realize the cooperation possible between Israel and Arab states.”
President Obama’s former secretary of state, John Kerry, was even more explicit and cocksure that a wider Arab-Israeli peace was irrevocably bound up in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He told the Saban Forum in 2016:
“There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. I want to make that very clear to all of you. I’ve heard several prominent politicians in Israel sometimes saying, well, the Arab world is in a different place now, we just have to reach out to them and we can work some things with the Arab world and we’ll deal with the Palestinians. No, no, no and no. There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”
Kerry had hoped to reinforce a situation that he personally favoured through the sheer boldness of his assertions. The possibility that the Arab world might be fatigued with the Palestinian issue, and might seek to prioritize its own economic and security interests, was not one Kerry was willing to entertain. To do so would upend conventional wisdom in the Washington and European foreign policy establishments, which placed the Palestinian issue not only at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but, for decades, considered it to be a leading source of broader Islamic radicalization throughout the world. In November 2015, after the ISIS terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström even went so far as to attribute the attack to the plight of the Palestinians—which, she asserted, compels Muslim sympathizers to “resort to violence.”
Sudan’s most recent announcement of normalization with Israel is perhaps the most significant blow to the “Kerry Doctrine” of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking: dangling the carrot of Arab normalization, while prodding Israel with hostile actions like the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, and urging further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians in the hope of coaxing them back to the table.
Sudan has been a recent hostile participant in the conflict, as a partner in Iranian weapons smuggling operations into Gaza. Sudan is also replete with symbolism. It was in Khartoum in 1967 that the Arab League infamously adopted the gold standard of anti-normalization, at the behest of the Palestinians: the “Three No’s” of no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.
A senior Sudanese official captured the irritation and fatigue felt in capitals across the region, stemming from making economic progress and regional harmony subordinate to the Palestinian agenda. “The Palestinians are angry,” the official charged, “when any Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon is in better shape than Sudan? The days when the Palestinian problem was dumped on Sudan are over. We are working for the future of Sudan and our children and grandchildren.”
The signing of the Abraham Accords and the reframing of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a localized dispute between Israelis and Palestinians has shattered a policy paralysis and a cycle of failed mediation and negotiations that has lasted for a century. Faisal’s note had unwittingly bound the world into a hopeless paradigm that inflated the Palestinian issue by appending it to the fate of the Middle East as a whole. Now new Jewish-Arab agreements have finally corrected Faisal’s folly, detaching the Palestinian issue from wider regional interests and returning to the peace and cooperation that Faisal and Weizmann had originally intended.
Alex Ryvchin the author of “Zionism – The Concise History” and is the Co-Chief Executive Officer of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.