The comedian Gilbert Gottfried used to tell a joke about a guy who finds a bottle and rubs it, causing a genie to come out and grant him a wish. The guy takes out a map and tells the genie, “See this map? This is the Middle East. For thousands of years, there’s been nothing but war and conflict in this region. Can you bring peace to it?”
The genie replies, “I’m sorry, this is beyond even my powers. Do you have another request?”
In reply, the man explains that even though he’s been married for a long time, his wife has never, shall we say, been willing to engage in a certain type of intimacy with him. Could the genie, he asks, make that happen?
The genie’s response: “Could you give me another look at that map?”
Well, the way Gottfried told it, it was a funny joke, and everyone got it. Throughout our lives, ever since the founding of Israel, peace in the Middle East has been the ultimate desideratum and the ultimate impossibility. Over the decades there were meetings and summits and accords aplenty, lots of handshaking and headlines, but nothing ever really happened.
Well, not quite nothing. In 1979, under the aegis of President Carter, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. That happened because of the courage of one man, Anwar Sadat, who was soon assassinated for his trouble. In 1994, with Bill Clinton officiating, King Hussein of Jordan made peace with Israel.
Both of these peace deals have endured, after a fashion. But each has been described as a “cold peace,” a comity that exists at the highest level of government but that never quite trickled down to the level of the man and woman in the street. Egyptian media, for example, continue to vilify Jews. Jews living or studying in Jordan still feel compelled to lie about their religious affiliations.
In both countries, and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, the message was the same: there would never be any real peace unless Palestinians were granted a country of their own that stretched “from the river to the sea.” Which essentially meant diminishing or destroying Israel.
Peace in the Middle East was destined, then, to remain an oasis in the Sahara—a destination toward which we were constantly moving but that kept receding into the distance.
If the job of trying to make peace in the Middle East had stayed in the hands of people like John Kerry, so it would have remained. Kerry perfectly fit the mold of the modern State Department functionary. He looked the part. He dressed the part. And he viewed the job in the same way that other functionaries before him had viewed it: it was all about holding endless decorous meetings with one’s Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, having pretty much the same conversations with them that one’s predecessors had had, hosting dinners and receptions with these people at which the usual compliments were exchanged and the usual toasts made, and, finally, giving speeches in which one said the same old things in the same old way.
Kerry was great at this. He could gas on for hours without ever saying anything fresh or surprising or moving the ball so much as a centimeter.
On December 28, 2016, at the end of his term as secretary of state, he delivered his valedictory oration, a 9,700-word declamation about peace in the Middle East most of which was comfortingly familiar to old hands at this sort of thing. He talked about how the Palestinians needed to clean up their act but also deserved a better life in a country of their own; he talked about how America was Israel’s great friend but expected Israel to stop settlements in the occupied territories; he paid obeisance to the United Nations, which, of course, would play a crucial role in any solution to the Middle East conundrum.
The one twist in Kerry’s speech that day involved the then-recent and unprecedented decision by the Obama government not to block an anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council. Defending the vote, Kerry explained that a two-state solution was “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors.”
And then along came Donald Trump. Before his first term was over, he got the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to make peace with Israel.
And these aren’t just deals between governments that have promised not to make war on each other. They’re comprehensive agreements that will involve contact between all kinds of people at all levels of the societies involved. This is a far more remarkable achievement than just getting a few politicians and diplomats together to shake hands and smile for the cameras. No—it’s the kind of sweeping deal that is simply too big for the narrow imaginations of the typical professional diplomat or political hack, like John Kerry, to conceive.
But at the same time, it’s precisely the kind of deal that Donald Trump, a past master of the high-level business deal, excels in making. It’s the kind of achievement that could only be pulled off by someone who thinks outside the box.
That’s been the problem with much of American diplomacy for decades now: it’s been in the hands of mediocrities who graduated from the foreign-service schools of the most prestigious universities in the country. They all think very highly of themselves. They think of themselves as being nuanced thinkers. They definitely think they’re smarter than the likes of Donald Trump. They think that the world is lucky to be in the hands of people like themselves.
In fact, they’re arguably the very worst of the D.C. swamp—elitists through and through, for whom foreign relations are by definition about the connections between themselves and other smart, credentialed, well-dressed people from other countries they meet at cocktail parties and across conference tables. The people living in the modest houses and apartments that they drive past in their limos on the way to and from the airport hardly enter into their calculations. So the very idea of a peace deal that embraces all levels of society and consequently results in a real thaw and real ties between the ordinary people of the countries involved is a puzzlement to these blinkered snobs.
For years, the professional diplomats took it for granted that the Palestinians were the key to everything. Trump understood that the Palestinian issue was never as legitimate a stumbling block as the professionals believed. He knew that many Muslim countries had started cooling on the Palestinians a long time ago. And he knew that as countries like the UAE and Bahrain experienced extraordinary social and economic development and enjoyed increasingly Western-style prosperity and order on an increasingly broad scale, the self-destructive Palestinian obsession with Jew-hatred and terrorism began to lose its charm.
Atlanta used to call itself “the city too busy to hate.” Admittedly, there’s still plenty of hate in the UAE, Bahrain, and other Muslim countries, but when Iran is looking around the region hungrily, Islamic solidarity and Israel-hatred both seem rather foolish. At a time when millions of the Muslims in Western Europe and North America are rightly viewed as enemies within, out to bring down democracy and institute Sharia, it’s ironic that on its home turf, Islam, as such, is weakening, being tamed, with many members of a new generation plainly rejecting the Koran’s injunction to conquer the infidel.
Yet the diplomatic pros don’t get it. They definitely don’t like it. And neither do the media hacks who’ve also been pushing the same old formulas for years.
The other day, apropos of rumors that Saudi Arabia is also about to sign up to the Abraham Accords, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote that “Saudi normalization with Israel would be the ultimate Middle East disruption.” Not Middle East triumph, mind you, but Middle East disruption! This is right out of the old diplomatic playbook, according to which stability trumps everything—even if “stability” actually means preservation of a decades-long state of constant instability.
Cohen also complained that Trump’s accords slighted the Palestinians, who “were scarcely mentioned at the White House ceremony.” Trump has “treated the Palestinian national cause with contempt.”
Good. It may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the Palestinians. For decades, the Palestinians have been the Western world’s No. 1 charity. Billions of dollars have poured into that tiny sliver of land. Looking to Israel’s example, the Palestinians could have used that money to give their children real educations and to build a peaceful, prosperous society. Instead, they used it to buy weapons and build tunnels while teaching their children to hate and kill. Perhaps if the world stops giving them money, spreading their propaganda, excusing their terrorism, and encouraging their victim mentality, they’ll feel obliged to change their ways and join their neighbors in a new Middle Eastern order.
“We will only have peace with the Arabs,” Golda Meir once said, “when they start loving their children more than they hate us.” Well, the Palestinians haven’t gotten there yet, but more and more of the Emiratis and Bahrainis have. Trump saw it. He got it. And he acted upon it, to remarkable effect.
He’s the genie in the bottle. Heaven knows what other miracles he has yet to perform.