I was set to vote for Biden. Then Trump made peace in the Middle East.
It was supposed to be a simple election. Deep into July, or “month four” on the new COVID-19 calendar, I thought the choice had become clear: This would be a referendum on President Trump’s atrocious handling of a devastating pandemic and a chance for Joe Biden to show that he can return the country to something resembling normal.
As a college senior at Yeshiva University, I’m not a typical Democratic voter, but I stood with the 70% of my fellow millennials who wanted Trump out. And Israel, where most of my extended family lives and where I spent my gap year in a hesder yeshiva, was not on my mind much at all. They seemed to be handling the pandemic better than we were, and there were simply too many other things to worry about, like buying a mask and keeping tabs on nationwide protests and not injecting myself with disinfectant, as the President suggested in April.
As often happens in politics, things quickly got more complicated.
On Tuesday, foreign ministers from Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates joined Israeli officials on the South Lawn of the White House to formally sign two historic deals spearheaded by the Trump administration between Israel and these countries, one a full peace treaty and the other a complete normalization of diplomatic relations.
With his poll numbers dropping and Joe Biden’s campaign maintaining a solid lead, Trump pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the Middle East hat, orchestrating two earth-shattering agreements that broke decades of diplomatic conventional wisdom and increased the number of Arab states that have an official relationship with Israel by 100%, from two — Egypt and Jordan — to four.
With two out of seven of the Gulf States on board for an opening with Israel, rumors are flying about who will be next to break the Arab world’s long-standing taboo against ties with the Jewish state. Will it be Oman, or perhaps even Saudi Arabia?
This is kind of a big deal, and it’s freaking me out.
Suddenly, election headlines are becoming about Israel, and I find myself increasingly unsure about whether that matters and, if so, how it should affect my vote.
To the skeptics, yes, the timing of these two agreements reveal them to be transparent election ploys. But their dramatic consequences for Middle East peace could be real and lasting nonetheless. Many of Trump’s previous Middle East policy shifts, like the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem or recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, were largely symbolic measures that didn’t clearly change the facts on the ground or alter the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
This time though, it’s different: These agreements aren’t just pieces of paper, but genuine pathways toward an emerging future of direct flights between Israel and the UAE, academic cooperation between Israeli and Arab institutes of higher education, and open security coordination that deters their mutual threats. Iran suddenly looks very weak, and the combined powerhouse of Gulf-Israeli trade and military strength now looks very promising. As Iran has projected its power throughout the region, Israel and the Sunni states have drawn closer, and with American help, are finally ready to take their relationship public.
As always, Trump has managed to change the conversation. An election that I thought was about COVID-19 and domestic issues like police brutality has suddenly and randomly become, at least partially for me, a vote about Middle East peace, and who I think is better positioned to continue bringing Israel and its neighbors together.
Some might say that this entire argument is a dangerous exercise, liable to the charge of “dual loyalties,” an antisemitic canard that accuses American Jews of putting Israel and its interests ahead of their own home country. In this case, I’m not persuaded by that criticism. Israeli-Gulf diplomatic relations are good for the region and good for the world, not to mention for the cause of peace itself. By putting Iran on the defensive and creating opportunities for the economic renewal of the Gulf, these agreements are a step towards a peaceful, prosperous Middle East for all, including Israel, which is of course also good for America.
And it’s just undeniable that in a clumsy bid to tighten a widening election, the Trump team has revolutionized the Middle East peace game, giving Arab states the political capital to publicly ally with Israel in ways previously unimaginable.
Can Joe Biden, still my clear candidate of choice, do the same and build on this preliminary success?
I’m not sure. The Obama administration signed a nuclear deal with Iran, and kept Saudi Arabia at arm’s length. By contrast, it was Trump’s tough talk on Iran and simultaneous embrace of Saudi Arabia and Israel that cemented the all-but-public rapprochement of these strange bedfellows.
If Biden takes us back to foreign policy circa 2013, where dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions was the top priority, I can’t see him finishing the job and brokering an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement. And with this tantalizing fantasy closer than it’s ever been before, I’m hesitant to pull the lever for Joe and give up on that dream.
I want to see real presidential leadership on COVID-19 and get a vaccine rolled out safely and responsibly, but I’d also love to see Israeli-Arab venture capital cooperation that can diversify the Gulf’s economy. I want to see renewed peace talks where Israel is respected as a good-faith partner, and maybe even visit Riyadh for Hanukkah.
Then again, four more years of Trump will damage Israel’s already-weakening standing among Democratic voters and turn the future of the Jewish state into a bitter partisan issue that polarizes us all and alienates potential liberal allies.
I still have a few weeks to figure this all out and make up my mind. Let’s hope nothing too crazy happens in the meantime.
Michael Weiner, a Straus Scholar and senior at Yeshiva University, studies Political Science and Jewish History and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Lehrhaus, and The Imaginative Conservative.