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HomeForeign PolicyDi Leo: Donald Trump and the Other Cold War

Di Leo: Donald Trump and the Other Cold War

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Abraham accords at balcony

By John F Di Leo –

Between August and October, 2020, President Donald Trump engineered the negotiation of three peace accords in the Middle East – between Israel and three former enemies, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and now even Sudan.
 
These agreements represent the first time in 26 years that an Arab country has formally agreed to peaceful relations with Israel… and President Trump says his team is seeing such progress with others, he expects several more in the coming months. 
 
Those of us who have spent our lives watching the Middle East know how significant this is… but for the many who are more casual observers of the world scene, this doesn’t sound exciting at all.  “There wasn’t a shooting war, after all, so what’s the big deal,” people might ask. 
 
Well, that question requires both some history and some geographical perspective. 
 

 
First, Some History 
 
The revival of Israel as a nation-state again, after two long millennia in diaspora, was not some sudden decision, a snap of the fingers at the United Nations, followed by nationhood by the next morning. 
 
No, it took a long and concerted effort over about three generations.  When the Zionist movement began in the late 1800s, the Holy Land was very sparsely populated.  There were bedouins there, traveling in and out, year by year, but relatively few permanent populations.  The one group there that had roots was the Jews; there had been a permanent population of Jews in the small towns of Israel for over 3000 years. 
 
So it was that in the late 1800s, along with political activism around the world, with Zionist Congresses and appeals to potentially friendly governments, there needed to be a steady emigration from all over the world into their ancestral home.  Over a period of decades, tens of thousands of people traveled from Eastern and Western Europe, North America and Africa, both places where Jews had been persecuted and places where they had not been – to make the permanent move to the home of their fathers. 
 
As activist Arabs around the area watched this migration, they took steps.  From infamous politicians like Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti in the 1920s to nameless anti-semites in the British Foreign office, an anti-Israel movement sprung into action. As soon as Lord Balfour issued a proclamation in support of a Jewish State, underlings immediately worked to undermine it.  As Jews moved into Israel from abroad, creating economic opportunity, muslims, Christians and others of the region followed them them.  As Israeli towns grew in anticipation of nationhood, non-Jewish immigrants ensured that when and if a new nation came to be, it would not be the 100% Jewish country that many had expected. 
 
The Arab League Boycott  
 
Neighboring Arab states began to informally boycott the region in the 1920s.  This opposition became formal in 1945, when the Arab League was born, making opposition to Jewish statehood one of its primary reasons for existence.  The Arab League immediately established an official boycott of the Jewish community in the Holy Land (then known as Yishuv, before statehood) and formalized it against the state of Israel when independence was finally declared in 1948. 
 
This Arab League Boycott – of Israel, Israelis, and their acquaintances – is so egregious, mere participation in it has been banned by US law for half a century now.  This complex three-part boycott (primary, secondary and tertiary) bans member states from doing business with Israel, bans people or businesses within them from trading with people or business in Israel… forbids businesses in member countries from buying from or selling to companies overseas who themselves have Jewish ownership or board members.  It bans its members from buying goods made abroad that include parts made by Israeli companies. It bans its members from doing business with distant companies that also have customers in Israel. Ships that call their ports – both tourist ships and cargo vessels – are banned from also calling Israeli ports. 
 
While enforcement of this outlandish ban has varied widely from year to year and from country to country, remember that it has been in place since 1948.  Some countries have officially dropped it, and some never really participated… but it set a repellant example that many other non-Arab countries then adopted as well, such as India and Indonesia.   
 
Every American company doing business with the region must carefully scan its contracts, purchase orders, and letters of credit, demand removal of boycott clauses, and report them to the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance in Washington, since the United States has long been the only country on earth fighting the immorality of this boycott. 
 
The Boycott in Practice 
 
What has this boycott meant, specifically, over the years? 
 
Tourism is more expensive and more complicated, as cruise ships have generally had to design itineraries where they either call Israeli ports or Arab ones; they could not call both in the same tour.  Business trips have been difficult because outside businessmen could not travel from country to country within the region. A business trip involving the UAE could not also involve Israel, for example, unless one flew out to Athens, or Rome, or some other European hub in between, adding to the general cost and time of doing business in the region. 
 
Even simple things like communication have been complex; telephone service was disabled from each other’s country codes, by law.  Not until the UAE and Bahrain signed their treaties with Israel last month could someone from their countries physically place a phone call to Israel or vice versa. 
 
But far and away, the worse problem is the most basic: throughout this period, Israel has been denied the ability to trade with her neighbors.  Look at the United States; despite our considerable trade with Europe and Asia, by far our biggest trading activity is here in North America.  We share borders with two countries, Mexico and Canada, so our greatest import and export volume by far has always been with those two neighbors. 
 
Israel has been denied such convenient trade throughout her entire existence as a nation.  It couldn’t buy and sell agricultural products, textiles, machinery, knick-knacks, anything at all, with the countries for which such trade would be most practical. Instead, Israel has had to deal with distant nations, relying on the slow transport of seafreight or the expensive transport of airfreight.  
 
The Forgotten Cold War 
 
The famous 45-year Cold War between the Western republics and the Soviet Union was rarely "hot." The various  “proxy” shooting wars like the Korea and Vietnam conflicts were only periodic eruptions in the 45 years in which Moscow and Washington faced each other as foes. 
 
Similarly, the war between the Arab League and Israel was rarely hot.  Brief wars erupted in 1948, 1967, and 1973; Israel won each one.  Israel participated in a couple of other third party wars, like the action against Egypt in 1956, but most of the time, Israel’s Arab foes worked against Israel indirectly, by supporting two local enemies: Lebanon and the so-called “palestinians.”  
 
Year after year, decade after decade, Israel has been attacked from within, first by the PLO, then its successors Hamas and Fatah… and from without by Lebanon’s Hezbollah… but all of these thorns were funded by allies all across the Arab League (with Sudan, and its recent dictator Omar al-Bashir, deposed last year, arguably the most vociferous of all).
 
Israel may not have looked like it was at war with the UAE, or Bahrain, or Sudan, but as long as these countries were part of the Arab League – supporting the more visible enemies of Israel who were doing all the shooting all those years – you could hardly say they were at peace. 
 
When today’s pundits and politicians dismiss the accomplishments of President Trump and his foreign policy team, they demonstrate their utter lack of understanding of the region, its history and its actors. 
 
By leading the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan out of the opposition and into the realm of cordial relations, the Trump administration has finally begun to cut off the sources – of funding and of arms – on which the “palestinian” insurgents and Hezbollah attackers have always depended. 
 
There is more yet to do, of course – and if President Trump’s optimism is well-founded, and more such deals are indeed on the horizon – then perhaps President Trump will indeed have done what has been thought to be impossible for generations.  The needless Arab-Israeli conflict has been the key barrier standing in the way of global unity against Iran and its client states.   
 
We can’t make substantial progress in the war on terror without this solution, and of all people, Donald Trump, the political outsider, appears to be the one who has found a path to doing it. 
 
Just as Ronald Reagan surprised everyone by ending the Cold war against Russia by taking a fresh and unimagined approach, so too has Donald Trump found a path that looks like it just might work in the Middle East. 
 
Copyright 2020 John F. Di Leo 
 
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance trainer and transportation professional. A former chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party and the Ethnic American Council, his weekly column has been found in Illinois Review since 2009.  
 
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